The response from the crowd was muted. Thousands had streamed out before he arrived, complaining of the cold and, in many cases, declaring that they had fulfilled their obligation to a boss or teacher and now just wanted to go home. They may not have known he would speak — whether he would or not was not clear until he entered the stadium. But many thousands more had stayed. One or two applause lines went by in silence — but when Putin finished, the stadium erupted into cheers.
Putin evoked a Russia under siege, recalling that this year marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the Battle of Borodino.
“The fight for Russia continues,” he said. “We will win.”
He alluded to a poem about Borodino written by Mikhail Lermontov. “I cannot help recalling Lermontov and his wonderful warriors, who swore loyalty to the fatherland before the battle and dreamt of dying for it,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to impose his will on us because we have our own will, which has helped us win at all times.”
That was just what Mikhail Sorokin, a 45-year-old computer programmer, had come to hear. He’s sick of Russians who don’t have Russia’s interest at heart. “Our opposition doesn’t serve our people; it serves a global empire called the U.S.A,” he said.
That opposition wasn’t much in evidence at the stadium. About 10 activists who tried to distribute anti-Putin information to the marchers were taken away by police.
Elsewhere in Moscow, the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democrats staged their own small election rallies.
But they were no match for the Putin political machine, which brought in participants from as far away as Kalmykia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and Yakutia, in eastern Siberia.
“People got together because they want to defend our country, they want to defend our future, they want to defend our families,” said Vasily Pugachev, a member of a district council in Moscow. “One man cannot defend the motherland by himself.”
He acknowledged that schools, among other organizations, were told to turn out for the rally. The pitch, he said, went like this: “We have to support Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. It’s important. If you want, you can come.”
Naturally, he said, people were free to do as they pleased.
Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya contributed to this report.