But bribery and extortion here are thought to have mushroomed under Putin, and Navalny’s attacks on the system have made him a hero. His stands against corruption and authoritarianism, and in defense of ethnic Russians, tap a deeply popular root here among people who are mistrustful of the Western-oriented liberal old guard.
“This is our enemy, and we hate him!” he told the crowd of several thousand demonstrators Monday night. “We should remember that they are nobody. And we are the power. We do not need thieves and crooks! We want another president and not a thief and crook!”
The crowd began chanting, “Putin is a thief!”
Shortly after, Navalny and about 300 others were detained. Most were soon released.
On Tuesday, pro-Kremlin youth groups had promised that thousands upon thousands would fill Moscow in support of United Russia, Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The numbers fell far short. Only several hundred young people gathered for a concert, outnumbered by rings of police, near the Kremlin and Revolution Square. Mostly, police officers stared impassively, a few smoking, others harshly pushing along reporters who blocked the sidewalk. And they were rough with those they detained.
A 20-year-old student named Natasha, who came from near Smolensk 230 miles away, said the buses had been organized by the local administration, and students were told to get on them. “Shhhhh,” her friend told her. “We’re not supposed to say that.”
At Triumfalnaya square, a 27-year-old named Denis said he had voted for a liberal party and wanted to ask the pro-Kremlin demonstrators about their views. None would talk to him.
As Denis was talking, Boris Nemtsov, a political leader of the 1990s and now a Putin opponent, was arrested as he approached the square, just yards from where he was detained on New Year’s Eve in a rally in support of the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution. In December, he got 15 days. On Tuesday, he was soon freed.
At one point, the Associated Press reported, two firecrackers were thrown into the crowd, but it was not clear by whom.
Some knots of the opposition, perhaps unrecognized by police, started to gather without hindrance, but when they identified themselves by shouting “Putin’s a thief,” they were arrested, too.
“What I saw was an absolute discrimination,” Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights association, told the Interfax news agency. “At the center of the square were youth activists standing under police protection, beating drums and chanting slogans. All others who were shouting something else are being taken and dragged and beaten.”
Eventually, everyone went home Tuesday. About two dozen pro-Kremlin youths were spotted in the subway, lined up two-by-two, as if returning home from a school field trip. Many of the detained were slowly being released.
And no one knew whether the young generation had taken a breath of fresh air and returned to their laptops, or whether something had changed forever.