MOSCOW — Thousands of ebullient Russians stood in a nearly continuous 10-mile chain circling the center of Moscow on Sunday, warning Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that his years of undisputed rule are over even as he prepares to take the presidency in an avalanche of votes next week.
Putin has been Russia’s unchallenged master for 12 years, and the demonstrators who have been rallying persistently since December understand that there is virtually no possibility he will depart anytime soon. Winning the March 4 election will put him in office for six more years. But the demonstrators have him on notice that they are grooming themselves as involved citizens and will be heard.
And so they stood, in freezing puddles and falling snow, shoulder to shoulder along most of Moscow’s Garden Ring Road — double rows here, a sparse stretch there. With the color white as the symbol of their desire for clean elections and a clean government, they wore white ribbons, flew white balloons, brandished white scarves, and waved white roses or chrysanthemum bouquets.
The plan was to stand in silence, but cars filled with supporters cheered them on, cruising slowly before the demonstrators, saluting them, waving their own ribbons and flowers, honking their horns with exuberance.
“People are happy,” said Andrei Filozov, planted on a corner near a sea of muddy water. “They feel free.”
After years of acquiescence, they had given themselves the freedom to act. “We’re standing here, showing the changes that have gone on inside ourselves,” said Filozov, 43, a philosopher. “It’s very mystical.”
The latest poll by the independent Levada Center suggests that Putin will win 63 to 66 percent of the vote in the contest. That is no surprise, Filozov said, given the vast government resources at his disposal and the average person’s political inexperience. People need time to nurture their political awareness, and realistically their goals must be long-term, he said. But they will not turn back to the years of indifference that allowed Putin to grow so powerful.
“He will not occupy too many pages in our history books,” Filozov said. “It will be a short history, sad and dark.”
Alexander Sotin, 40, a historian, said the Muscovites standing in the cold were trying to remember what it was like to be a citizen and not a subject.
“Today this great city is like a small village as we make a community of ourselves,” he said. “I hope that year by year our Russian people will make themselves masters of their own fate.”
Police estimated that 11,000 people took part Sunday, although a rough estimate made during a trolley ride of the circuit suggested twice that number — not counting the people in the many cars that honked in solidarity.
The sentiment was against Putin and for honest elections, rather than a rally in favor of an opposition candidate. One car carried a sign in favor of honest amphorae, an allusion to a dive Putin made in the Black Sea last year, when he came to the surface clutching two obviously planted ancient Greek urns.
The exuberant drivers lifted the spirits of Maria Kokovkina, 32, a psychologist. “On my way here, I wasn’t feeling very cheerful,” she said, “but now I feel great.”
She knows the euphoria won’t last, but people have awakened from their acceptance of the status quo, and for now that is accomplishment enough, she said.
“Stability is the biggest myth of the Putin Age,” said Danik Lalin, who works in information technology. “There’s a slow but steady rotting. If you call that stability, then the best stability is in the morgue.”
Along the sidewalks, gaggles of girlfriends snapped cellphone photos, couples walked arm in arm, parents brought children.
Irina Andreyeva, 84, came to Moscow from Archangel, near the Arctic Circle. Barely 5 feet tall, she waved her white ribbon energetically at the passing cars. “I feel young and full of life here,” she said. “I feel as I did in 1991.” That was the year she demonstrated for freedom, democracy and Boris Yeltsin — and celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union.
Alexei Bolshakov, 59, came to Moscow from Almetyevsk, 660 miles to the east, because he was angry that government employees had been sent to populate a huge pro-Putin rally Thursday, and he was irritated that Putin had accused the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of stirring up the opposition and financing it.
“I paid my own way,” he said. “Mrs. Clinton is not paying me.”
Late in the afternoon, several hundred activists gathered in Revolution Square, met by a large contingent of riot police as well as men dressed as Cossacks with whips and scowling young men in civilian clothes who the protesters believed to be provocateurs. One activist was attacked by a young man with a beer bottle; a fight ensued and a few arrests were made.
Overall, the day went peacefully, with demonstrators reflecting on a future without Putin in charge — a future they would like to see begin March 5, the day after the election.
Researcher Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya contributed to this report.