Between 25,000 and 40,000 people filled Bolotnaya Square across the river from the Kremlin in Moscow, chanting against the “party of crooks and thieves,” as they have come to call Putin’s United Russia. An additional 10,000 gathered in St. Petersburg, with towns from Siberia to the Urals reporting 500, 1,000, or even 3,000 each in the largest opposition protests Putin has ever encountered. The Moscow organizers promised an even bigger protest Dec. 24.
Heavily armored police stood impassively around the square in Moscow and along a march route from a gathering place near the Kremlin, while dozens of buses full of helmeted interior ministry troops waited nearby. But police reported that no one was detained — in marked contrast to the hundreds who were rounded up Monday and Tuesday in impromptu demonstrations.
Almost no one appeared to be seeking revolution — bloggers called it the Great December Evolution, a play on the Bolsheviks’ Great October Revolution of 1917.
“We don’t want blood,” said Dmitry Raev, who works for an international law firm. “We don’t want revolution. We earn enough money to live. But the authorities need to understand we are really fed up.”
Their specific demands — for good government, with new and honest elections, and the freeing of the nearly 1,000 protesters arrested last week — are unlikely to be met, at least right away. But protesters said they suspect that Saturday marked the beginning of an inevitable change in the political culture.
The Moscow crowd was full of people like Raev: young and educated, with good jobs, but willing to stand for four hours under a gray sky and lightly falling snow to make themselves heard.
Disgust has been building for years over both the extent of corruption and the state of politics, managed so adroitly by Putin that no real political opposition exists.
“Putin appointed himself the next president,” said Viktor Melchikov, referring to the way Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev announced in September that they will be swapping positions next year. “Why didn’t anyone ask us? We hope the forces arrayed against these thieves and crooks will consolidate today and find a way out of this mess. Putin is a thief. He should be in prison.”
Ilya Fainberg, a 27-year-old lawyer, has an 18-month-old daughter. “When she grows up,” he said, “I don’t want her to ask me, ‘Daddy, where were you when they decided we would live in a state like Syria instead of Europe?’ I don’t want to tell her I was too busy to do anything about it.”
Putin has stood by Sunday’s elections as fair despite the uproar that began when election observers began to report extensive violations Monday, accompanied by citizen videos on the Internet showing alleged ballot-stuffing and other misdeeds.