The political opposition opened a new rally season in Moscow on Saturday with the third installment of its “March of Millions,” which showed the core of the protests was not dwindling despite a lack of apparent success in its standoff with the Kremlin.
In the now traditional battle of crowd estimates, police said 14,000 were in attendance, while protest leaders claimed upwards of 100,000. The police figure made the crowd laugh when voiced from the stage. No independent estimates were available.
The protesters marched a distance of some three kilometers across downtown boulevards to the stage set up at Prospekt Akademika Sakharova, which greeted them with lounge music that was replaced by Russian rock tunes as the protesters approached.
The protesters were meant to walk in two big columns, with liberals and nationalists on one side of the boulevard and leftist activists followed by the “education industry column” on the other. However, the two merged as they approached the stage, with white and red flags waving in the air side by side.
The demonstrators were peaceful and in good spirits, sporting placards denouncing the Kremlin and poking fun at the country leadership.
"I just came this time to see these nice faces and get a positive charge from them. Politics take the backseat," said Daria Kulikova, 26, a website usability specialist.
Among the more popular topics for ridicule were President Vladimir Putin's recent stunt in which led a flock of Siberian cranes to their migration point while piloting a hang glider, as well as the two-year sentence handed down last month to three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot for their raucous performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February.
"I'm here to protest the Pussy Riot jailing first of all. It's just too much," said computer programmer Andrei, 52, who refused to give his last name, saying publicity could land him in trouble because his firm works with the security services.
The protest movement's trademark white ribbons and balloons were also on full display, as were the traditional chants, "Putin is a thief!" and "We are the power!"
But heavy police presence could be noted on the streets surrounding the rally site, including 10 full police trucks with license plates from the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia. Columns of Interior Troops in khaki helmets and bulletproof vests flanked the column’s passage.
Reports about possible provocations aimed to trigger anti-police riots proved unfounded, though radical leftist firebrand Sergei Udaltsov urged protesters from the stage to stay in the streets as long as possible, ignoring police's demands to disperse.
"I'm fed up of being good!" shouted Udaltsov, who has a record of more than 100 short-term arrests for unsanctioned public activism.
Front rows of the merged column included anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, chess champion-cum-politician Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
Also attending was former opposition lawmaker Gennady Gudkov, who was dismissed from the State Duma on Friday over his alleged business activities.
Speaking to journalists ahead of the event Gudkov repeated his claim that his ouster was the Kremlin’s revenge for his active participation in recent opposition rallies.
"There is no more constitution, law or parliament worthy of the name in our country anymore," Gudkov said later, taking the stage. He warned that the authorities "must compromise or we will overthrow them."
Half a dozen rallies held in Moscow between December and June attracted tens of thousands each. They prompted the Kremlin to liberalize party and electoral legislation, but also to radically tighten screws on public politics and launch a crackdown on opposition leaders, several of whom had their houses searched or found themselves facing criminal cases.
The Kremlin’s harsh reaction prompted some political pundits to predict a drop in turnout, but attendance at the Saturday rally was comparable to previous opposition events in Moscow, though the public started trickling away as soon as the march reached the stage.
“They pay no attention when we come out in the streets. But who promised it will be easy?” Kasparov said from the stage.
Previous rallies focused on politics, but the Saturday event added social demands for the first time, including slashing utilities tariffs and spending more on education.
“I’m here because there’s no way not to be here. We’ve got to keep pressuring the authorities, maybe this’ll change something,” said Mikhail Mandrazhitsky, 32, an engineer.
He added he did not care much for social demands, his own objective being the dismantlement of the Kremlin’s “political monopoly,” but admitted such slogans could attract the apolitical masses.
The next rally will take place on October 20, a day ahead of the elections of the opposition's Coordination Council, which is meant to unite protesters of all stripes, Udaltsov said.
Similar rallies took place on Saturday across several other Russian cities, including Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg, Belgorod and Chita. Turnout at most events stood in the dozens, though some 800, according to city police, came to the protest in St. Petersburg.
Some 500 rallied in Nizhny Novgorod, where city authorities refused to sanction the rally. About 20 protesters were arrested, and organizer Yekaterina Zaitseva required medical help after a blow to the head with a truncheon from police, Rosbalt.ru regional news website reported.