MOSCOW, Russia — Thousands of Russians braved the cold and throngs of riot police on March 10 to protest Vladimir Putin’s presidential victory and re-voice demands for fair elections and freedom for political prisoners.
"Let's remind those swindlers who sit in the Kremlin who is in charge here," said opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov from a makeshift stage at Moscow's central Novy Arbat. "We are in charge here."
A smattering of cheers sounded from the crowd, but soon died out.
"It was a good start, but we could have been louder," Udaltsov said. He went on to denounce the government and say the Kremlin needs to be cleaned out.
Other speakers condemned Putin’s presidential win, and urged the protesters to attend the March 11 morning trial of businessman Alexei Kozlov, who human rights groups say was arrested on trumped up charges.
But the rally seemed deflated. A fifth of the crowd present at mass demonstrations in December and February showed up — about 20,000 compared to the 100,000. The cheers and applause were sparse, less convincing.
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Two of the movement's celebrities, politician Boris Nemtsov and the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who is thought to be the opposition's most likely future leader, were absent from the speaker line-up, made up of a motley mix of opposition figures, journalists, election observers and newly elected Moscow district council members with anti-Kremlin views.
Moscow and other Russian cities were rocked by mass anti-government rallies, sparked by the alleged fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. The large turnout and the cheerful, creative mood of the demonstrations surprised and gave hope to many, at home and abroad.
The crowd still displayed homemade posters and creative banners. One protester brought a painting of a menacing czar.
But the euphoria and smiles of the recent protests gave way to anxiety over the movement’s future.
Vitaly Zalomov, 52, an unemployed veteran, came to Novy Arbat to show the government, in the only way he sees possible, that he wants to live in a country with honest politicians and less corruption. But it pained him to see such a small turnout.
“The future of the movement is a question that gnaws at me,” Zalomov said. “If it ends what do we have left?”
“We cannot let it die out,” he added. Zalomov said he will attend further rallies, but only if they are sanctioned. He is afraid of the police, who he said are not afraid to wield their power against the smallest of violations, referring to the violent clashes between opposition and police on the day after the presidential election.
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After the protest Udaltsov was arrested with two supporters, when he and about 60 others attempted to march to Pushkinskaya Square, chanting, “We are free to promenade anywhere we want.” Another Udaltsov ally was arrested at the square after he urged reporters to go and rally for Udaltsov outside of the police station where he was being held.
Eighty-five protesters were arrested at an unsanctioned demonstration in Nizhny Novgorod, a city 280 miles southeast of Moscow.
Police released Udaltsov a few hours later. Udaltsovhas, like many other Russian activists, has spent time in jail. He sees his prompt release as a big victory, and a result of the rallies. A few months ago he would have spent the night in prison, with a good possibility of a 15-day sentence, he said.
Udaltsov admitted the diminished volume of Saturday’s rally. It was small because many were demoralized by Putin’s victory, he said.
“This rally did not answer all our questions,” Udaltsov said, as he stood outside the police station where he was held, surrounded by supporters. “But it showed that there are still many of us who are willing to stand up to the government.”
Udaltsov announced plans for a million-large rally on May 1 and weekly demonstrations in Pushkinskaya Square, attended by State Duma deputies.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.