MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of Russians turned out for protests across nine time zones Saturday, challenging Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a newfound sense of solidarity and marking a turning point in his rule.
After a decade of silence, ordinary citizens rallied to express their disgust with what they called a fixed election last Sunday.
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.
Thursday, Putin put the blame on the United States, accusing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of calling the elections unfair before the observers made their report and of sending a signal for this past week’s unsanctioned protests to begin.
Saturday night, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, made a conciliatory statement, describing the gathering as “a democratic protest by a section of the population who are displeased with the official results of last week’s elections,” and noting that other demonstrations had been held by those supporting the results.
“We respect the point of view of the protesters, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them,” he said.
The color of the moment is white. Protesters wore white ribbons and carried white balloons. A few dug out white winter coats, but in a slushy city where black outerwear is the preferred choice, they were few and far between.
White was also the color of the czarist forces in the Russian civil war, but Saturday’s protest brought together communists, nationalists, liberals — people from all stripes of the political spectrum except United Russia. Professors and administrators at the business school at Skolkovo, where Medvedev hopes to create a Russian Silicon Valley, skipped their end-of-year party and came to the protest instead.
Police expeditiously directed everyone through metal detectors at the entrance to the square. Throughout the damp, cold afternoon, a steady stream of demonstrators left even as others arrived. Shortly after 6 p.m., the stage was dismantled and the square emptied without incident.
The protests had gone unreported by most television stations here until Saturday, when state-controlled channels could no longer ignore it. The Internet, which helped bring out the crowd, amplified protesters’ unity Saturday. They rapidly published reports on blogs and on YouTube. In Novosibirsk, protesters held signs complaining of vote counts adding up to 146 percent. In Ufa, a man shouted for everyone to join together on the Internet. In Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s home town, people held little signs saying “I didn’t vote for United Russia.”
From his jail cell in Moscow, the influential blogger Alexei Navalny was able to smuggle out a written message, which was read to the Moscow crowd by Oleg Kashin, a journalist who was badly beaten a year ago. The protesters’ most powerful weapon, Navalny wrote, is self-respect.
Putin will run for president in March, and there is little expectation that he could be defeated. But the conduct of that election could be crucial, said Alexei Tsellarius, 60, a zoologist.
“Putin can’t turn back,” Tsellarius said. “He’s like a little frightened boy who got to the top. And now he’s too scared to give anything back.”
It must lead — somehow, at some point — to his downfall, Tsellarius said.
Demonstrator after demonstrator said the change would take years, not weeks or months. But they came to the square Saturday and presented themselves in numbers that could not be ignored.
“I love the way all these people have come out,” said Artyom Zhilin, 36, a psychotherapist. “There is hope, and that is great.”