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Russia's "day of wrath"

Thousands protest across Russia in largest show of discontent since Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago.

Opposition supporters shout slogans during a protest rally in St. Petersburg, March 20, 2010. Thousands of Russians rallied against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government in a string of protests fueled by sharp falls in living standards since the economic crisis hit. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

KALININGRAD, Russia — They gathered under rainy gray skies — men and women, young and old — demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a man long seen as untouchable in Russia’s tightly controlled political scene.

Cries of “Freedom!” and “Putin resign!” filled Kaliningrad’s dilapidated main square, as up to 5,000 people gathered to take part in a nationwide “Day of Wrath.” From Vladivostok in the far east to this, Russia’s westernmost region, dozens of protests were held today in the largest show of discontent since Putin came to power more than a decade ago.

What began as distinct protests against specific economic policies — a rise in utilities prices, an increased tax on imported cars, environmental concerns — have now been united by a growing concensus on who is to blame, said Vladimir Milov, a former energy minister under Putin and current co-leader of Solidarity, an umbrella opposition movement.

“People are clearly moving from specific economic and social demands to general political demands, from the resignation of local governors to the resignation of Putin’s government,” he said, sitting in a Kaliningrad cafe after flying in from Moscow to observe the day’s events.

“There’s a recognition that political factors, and the government, are to blame,” he said.

As yet, it’s unclear how true that is. Putin’s popularity rating remains high and many of today's protests garnered just 150 to 500 participants. In Irkutsk, where locals voted in a Communist mayor in local elections last week, dealing a heavy blow to the ruling United Russia party, just 500 people turned out (versus the 2,000 who attended a pre-election protest earlier this month).

In Kaliningrad, the population is certainly calling for political change. Today, protesters wore pins disparaging United Russia and called for the ouster of the Moscow-appointed governor, Georgy Boos. The smell of tangerines filled the air as they held aloft the fruit that has become the symbol of the unpopular leader. “It’s because he used to be fat,” said one protester (failing to mention that his face carries the distinct orange glow of a badly done fake tan).

Kaliningrad has held the largest anti-Putin protest to date, with 12,000 taking to the streets on Jan. 30.

Yet ask anyone here, and they will tell you Kaliningrad is different. Nestled between European Union members Poland and Lithuania, and separated from the Russian mainland, it is unlikely to be the launching pad for a wave of large-scale protests — all the more so since television in Russia remains largely state-controlled, and coverage of events here has been nonexistent.

“Our population is different from Russia,” said Konstantin Polyakov, a regional Duma deputy from United Russia. (Nevermind that Kaliningrad is, actually, Russia.)