Few protesters said they held out hope for rapid changes, and they will have to find a way to channel their still-vague frustrations into a movement that can be sustained for the long haul. The demonstrators have ranged from stylish young clubgoers to diminutive pensioners, all of whose lives were fundamentally transformed 20 years ago Sunday when the Soviet Union came to an end.
Now they are seeking another shake-up, as the torrent of social, economic and political forces that came after the hammer and sickle was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time has left the country traveling a current that is frustrating to many.
“We want to live in a free country,” said Timur Khutseev, 23, a theater aide who shivered in the freezing Moscow weather. “Our parents grew up under [Leonid] Brezhnev,” whose 18-year reign over the Soviet Union became a synonym for stagnation and repression. Putin, too, is seeking to extend his era to 18 years in March presidential elections. “We don’t want that,” Khutseev said.
The rally exceeded the size of one held two weeks ago, whose scale surprised even the organizers. On Saturday, they estimated, 120,000 people protested in temperatures that were in the teens. The Interior Ministry put the number at 29,000.
The challenge for organizers will be keeping up the fight. The movement’s strengths and weaknesses were on display Saturday, as many of the young, middle-class people who have been the driving force behind the sudden show of discontent this month said they remained cautious about politics in general even as they thought the country needed to change.
The protest comes shortly before a 10-day national holiday that includes New Year’s Day and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, virtually shutting down the country. Organizers called for another protest in early February, and the March 4 presidential elections will help maintain focus, but if Putin is reelected and few changes follow, activists will need to find other ways to keep the crowds motivated.
“We don’t know who the leader might be, because there is no person who represents us,” Viktor Shenderovich, a popular writer, told the crowd. “But this is an expression of moral attitude. People don’t want to be stepped on.”
Two decades after he resigned from office, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, told Putin to follow his example. “I would advise Vladimir Vladimirovich to go right now,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio, citing his own resignation on peaceful terms. “That’s what he should do too.” But Gorbachev remains more influential outside Russia than at home, and his opinion was unlikely to sway minds here.