MOSCOW — A march for peace in Ukraine drew tens of thousands to downtown Moscow Sunday in a show of protest against Russia’s involvement in the conflict.
The demonstration drew a mixed crowd of old and young, families and organized factions, who walked the route chanting songs and slogans — the most common being a simple, “No to war.”
“This march is to show the people that there’s quite a number of people who are against the war and don’t think that most Ukrainians are fascists,” said Mikhail Garder, 28. “The government knows that. The people don’t.”
Participants walked on either side of a divided boulevard under heavy police supervision, many carrying or dressed in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, while others brought handmade signs calling for an end to the bloodshed, the return of Crimea and the rejection of Russian President Vladimir Putin — sometimes depicted with a Hitler-style mustache. The event attracted a variety of subgroups as well, such as feminist activist groups and representatives of various opposition parties.
But the march — which took place on a sunny, warm afternoon — seemed to draw as many curious observers to walk the route as it did dedicated demonstrators.
People paused to take photographs and applaud those who stood along the route with signs bearing comical slogans — such as one man whose poster read, “Putin, our hemorrhoids,” a play in Russian on “Putin, our hero” — and lengthier demands, such as Yuri Smagurov’s plea to Putin to “stop the armed and political aggression” in Ukraine.
“A war with Ukraine, that’s the most ridiculous, the most idiotic thing that Putin could have come up with,” Smagurov said. “We have put ourselves in such a position that we’re against everybody — against Europe, against ourselves, against the United States, against normal life.”
The march is the second peace rally to be held this year but the first since open hostilities commenced in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists are operating under a tenuous, Kremlin-endorsed cease-fire that NATO officials have said is effective “in name only.” Western nations have accused Russia of fomenting the conflict by supporting the rebels and sending Russian tanks and troops over the border.
In Russia, officials have denied the accusations, and the mostly state-run media have portrayed a different picture of what is happening in Ukraine — one in which rebels are fighting to maintain minority rights against the alleged abuses of a purportedly fascist government. Polls have indicated that Kremlin policy toward Ukraine is overwhelmingly popular.
Counterprotesters bearing pro-separatist flags and a banner reading “March of Traitors” echoed those sentiments Sunday, but most of them were kept at bay outside the security barriers.
Yet the message still hit too close to home for many participants in Sunday’s march.
“I have a Russian passport, but I am Ukrainian,” said Irina Kiseleva, 34, who walked wrapped in a Ukrainian flag alongside her husband, Igor Kiselev, wrapped in a Russian flag. With tears in her eyes, she said that when she hears Ukrainians referred to as fascists, “that hurts me.”
Certain protesters sought to counter the Russian messaging with signs pleading: “Forgive us, Ukraine” and “Remember to turn off the television.”
But many worried that Sunday’s showing would not be effective.
Habitual protesters hoped that the crowd would at least rival the 50,000 who rallied for peace in March, just before Russia annexed Crimea. Though tens of thousands did participate in Sunday’s demonstration — the official police estimate of 5,000 seemed quite low — it fell short of the goal.
“Then, the war wasn’t active, at least, but now there’s an active war between our countries,” said Irina Ginesina, 37. “The people are total zombies as to what is happening.”
But others thought that the gathering, though perhaps not as large as past demonstrations, was a net positive for bringing people out to the street at a time when dissent is being stifled.
“There are many new faces — that’s really important,” said Olga Mazurova, 53. “The more people realize this isn’t right for our country, the better.”
“We must always show [Putin] that there are people who think differently,” said Tatyana Komendant, 62. “There is a lot of propaganda — but you write that we don’t all think that way.”