In size, the rally was in the same ballpark as two large demonstrations in December; the police said 36,000 came out, the organizers said 120,000.
More determined than they had been at those earlier rallies, which in some ways resembled street fairs, the marchers attacked Putin with gusto. “The longer we freeze here, the longer they’ll freeze in Siberia,” chanted one group as it surged up Bolshaya Yakimanka Street toward Bolotnaya Square, referring to the country’s leadership.
The protesters, from the entire width of the political spectrum, gathered in four columns, one after another. First came the “white-ribbon” group, the apoliticals; then, their order chosen by lot, came liberal democrats, nationalists with their Russian imperial flags, and Communists with their hammer-and-sickle banners.
The segregation seemed to energize each contingent, without engendering name-calling or hostility. “We need a big coalition against Putin,” said one nationalist, Alexander Razumov, 31. “We have no other choice.”
At the same time it emphasized their philosophical differences and raised questions about whether a single leader could emerge to unite them and challenge an entrenched Putin government.
“Power to the millions, not the millionaires,” said Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front. “We are the millions.”
“Away with the Chekists!” shouted a group of young men, using the name by which KGB officers, such as Putin, liked to call themselves.
Yet it was also clear that a great many protesters had shown up out of a realization that they enjoy the act, and the feelings of solidarity that come with it. That would not be good news to Putin, who has appeared to be holding back in hopes that the movement would run out of steam on its own accord before the March 4 presidential election.
On Saturday, government investigators hit back at the opposition, which has made clean elections one of its central demands. The Investigations Committee charged that most of the videos showing apparent election fraud in December were concocted in the United States and disseminated by a server in California, the Interfax news agency reported. It said the government was determined to discover who was responsible.
Blaming the United States for whatever annoys him in Russia has become a favorite Putin theme. Before the December elections he suggested the country’s only independent election monitor was in the pay of the United States. When the protests began, he accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of signaling the opposition to take to the streets. One protester Saturday carried a sign saying: “I came for free.”