Minutes before the appointed hour, it seemed as if Sunday's anti-Putin protests could prove a dud. In central Moscow, the biggest spectacle was a man dressed up as Joseph Stalin. In polar Murmansk, just a handful of people milled about under a giant New Year’s tree while children played nearby. 

But in the ensuing minutes, as the crowds swelled, Washington Post reporters in the capital and above the Arctic Circle witnessed what makes opposition politician Alexei Navalny a force in modern Russia: his ability to mobilize thousands of people across the country into risking arrest to oppose President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny’s opposition movement, which grew out of his Internet-driven anti-corruption campaign, may still be far too weak to pose a real threat to the Putin government. But it’s virtually the only one that can turn out street protests, not just in Moscow but in remote reaches of Russia’s 11 time zones.

As the crowd grew in Moscow, walking out of the subway stop where the protests were held meant walking into a mass of bodies at the top step.

Perhaps emboldened by the numbers, some people climbed up lampposts to help organize chants.

As a police announcement intoned that walkways had to be kept clear, protesters shouted, “Putin’s War,” “Protest” and “Boycott.” They called for Navalny to be freed after his detention earlier in the day.

The crowd was mostly a young one. People seemed resigned that this one protest probably wouldn’t lead to any immediate change, but some voiced optimism that a series of protests might.

In Murmansk, a port city more than 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, more than 100 people protested despite repeated obstacles: The authorities had refused to permit their protest in the city center, seized a delivery of fliers from Moscow and detained the two top local Navalny staffers earlier Sunday.

Police initially tried to talk protesters into leaving the area, even attempting to convince a group of schoolchildren that Navalny was up to no good. Then a white bus pulled up, and police started walking or dragging the protesters into it, one by one.

Violetta Grudina, 28, the local Navalny chapter head, said police had tackled her while she was walking along the street earlier in the day, keeping her from attending the protest. By the end of the day, she said, 25 people had been detained in Murmansk, although all were later released.

“We want a revolution in people’s minds,” Grudina said after she was released, adding that she plans to train election observers for the March 18 presidential vote. “We expect that the election will be declared illegal and that there will be a new election in which our candidate, Alexei Navalny, will be able to stand.”

The Murmansk protest reflected Navalny’s ability to attract a broad following, even from among people who don’t always agree with his populist rhetoric. Several protesters said they were there first and foremost to oppose the government rather than to support Navalny.

“It’s not so much that I’m for Navalny — it’s that I want to have real elections,” 19-year-old Dmitry said.