But Saturday’s protest was far smaller than earlier marches that had tens of thousands turning out onto the streets of Moscow, and its top leaders were arrested long before they had any chance to energize the crowd.
The opposition movement has faced deep difficulties in sustaining its energy since Putin prevailed in March elections and took quick action to crack down on dissent in the country.
For protesters such as Ekaterina Korobtsova, the past year has been radicalizing but also edged with disappointment. Saturday was no exception.
“I expected there’d be more people,” she said as she walked into the square Saturday afternoon, bundled under heavy layers to defend against biting winds, past rows and rows of heavily armored police officers whom she derided as “cosmonauts” for their spacemanlike helmets.
Before what many charged were fraudulent parliamentary elections in December of last year, Korobtsova, 45, didn’t go to protests, she said. But like many others of her prosperous generation, she grew fed up with the corruption that touches so many aspects of life in her country of 143 million.
So Korobtsova, a freelance translator and former investment adviser, started heading out into the streets to fight Putin’s 12-year rule, along with tens of thousands of her peers. The first time, at Bolotnaya Square, where high turnout shocked organizers and the government alike, was unsettling, she said, because she didn’t know what to expect. But soon protest became normal, even fun. The mother of a 9-year-old boy, she was able to recite the proper procedure for helping a person escape from riot police as though she had known it since childhood.
Even “if they start using tanks, I think people will still come,” she said the day before Saturday’s protest at a fashionable coffee shop owned by a socialite who is one of the opposition movement’s unlikely leaders. “They can’t scare us,” Korobtsova said.
‘What has changed?’
In the first heady months after December, the sense of mass mobilization gave the opposition movement an unusual potency as the white ribbons that are their symbol were displayed on lapels in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But they were never able to offer a convincing alternative to Putin, and no one disputes that he was the clear winner of a March election that officially gave him 64 percent of the vote. Now, with Putin settling in to another six-year term, harsh new laws passed against protest and criminal charges filed against many opposition leaders, the future appears far less hopeful.