The tens of thousands of protesters who joined forces Saturday in the largest demonstration here since the collapse of theÂ Soviet UnionÂ were united in one chant: “Russia without Putin!”
Days earlier, parliamentary elections that saw Prime MinisterVladimir Putin‘s United Russia party garner nearly 50% of the vote were met with widespread allegations of vote-rigging. As the Obama administration joined the chorus of those questioning the poll’s credibility and the Kremlin deemed the elections fair, people who had never before been active in pro-democracy protests were galvanized into action.
Many of them following the call ofÂ FacebookÂ and other social networks, the mostly young protesters brought a touch of the “Arab Spring” to this Russian winter day as wet snow turned into a gray drizzle.
“I realized that I can’t keep silent anymore when out of about 70 of my friends and relatives, only two voted for United Russia, one of those two being a municipal employee and the other a daughter of [PresidentÂ Dmitry] Medvedev‘s driver,” Leila Arifulina, a 35-year-old fitness instructor, said as she protested in Bolotnaya Square. “And the next morning they tell me the Kremlin party won!
“I am tough and can put up with lots of things in this life, but they shouldn’t really have treated me as an idiot.”
On Thursday, Putin appeared to wash his hands of the compromised ruling party as he launched his campaign to return to the presidency in March announcing that he would build his campaign based on the United People’s Front, a recently created umbrella group.
But the mass protests Saturday demonstrated that Putin is a focus of many Russians’ anger, and he may face serious challenges in his campaign if the middle class increasingly turns away from him.
Authorities put the number of protesters Saturday at 20,000 to 25,000, but organizers claimed that at least 60,000 people had filled the square and the surrounding area. Thousands of others demonstrated in St. Petersburg and about 90 other cities and towns Saturday. Earlier in the week, protesters took to the streets and hundreds were arrested, many of them sentenced to up to 15 days imprisonment.
The Kremlin deployed its elite Dzerzhinsky Interior Ministry division in Moscow, and on Saturday morning the troops were around Bolotnaya Square, along with dozens of military trucks loaded with metal shields and other crowd-control gear. Prison vans were parked in preparation near the square.
But the crowd was not aggressive. There were no clenched fists, unlike previous gatherings of spoiling-for-a-fight nationalists, left-wing revolutionaries or rowdy soccer fans.
The participants in this rally were polite to strangers, though one could see all kinds of flags around, from the communist red to the nationalist black, white and gold.