At a courthouse nearby, a judge was sending the country’s most prominent blogger to jail for 15 days for his role in a demonstration the night before against election fraud and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Alexei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist, had helped galvanize 5,000 demonstrators, the largest opposition rally in many years.
By packing him off to jail, on a charge of disobeying police, the government may have elevated him to new heights of stardom in the eyes of his Web followers — and to new visibility for everyone else in the country.
Russia’s leaders have been accused of making many mistakes in the past weeks. This one, said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the relatively independent radio station Echo Moskvy, was their worst.
The opposition has many earnest leaders, but none who unites and inspires the new Russia standing on one side of the square Tuesday. Now the government may have given them one: Navalny, a 35-year-old self-described “nationalist democrat.”
The opposition, characterized more than anything by a lack of agreement among its members, is made up of longtime human rights activists, liberal politicians mostly shut out of the political process and an array of activists associated with causes, such as the environment and the rights of automobile owners. Philosophically, the disaffected middle class drifts toward them, but they are not allied in one strong political movement.
With its once-deep support falling away because of a poor economy and an atmosphere of stagnation, United Russia has come to rely on those dependent on the government for jobs or access.
Those shouting for Russia in the square, although young, were part of the old Russia represented by United Russia, from youth groups carefully nurtured by the Kremlin or those dependent on local authorities. Most refused to talk, saying they were not allowed to say a word. “We were brought from Samara,” said one young man, describing a 450-mile trip that took 15 hours. “We didn’t expect this. I hope they’ll let us go soon.”
Navalny famously dubbed United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves,” a name that stuck so firmly that even the Communist Party throws about the term. Though he is well known, he has not strayed into politics. Now supportive messages for him flow like a waterfall on Twitter.