Tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Russia Will be Free” rallied in Moscow yesterday against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term despite a police crackdown on their leaders a day earlier.
Flag-waving crowds made their way down boulevards from central Pushkin Square as the march began, with police putting the numbers at about 18,000.
City authorities have greatly played down previous protest figures. Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov put the turnout at more than 100,000, although reporters on the ground said the figure was more in the tens of thousands.
Some shouted slogans such as “Russia Without Putin” and held up whimsical protest symbols that have defined the light-hearted mood of the historic protests that gripped Moscow last winter.
Almost all the main leaders of the social network-driven protest were absent as they were being questioned by investigators, who arrested them in an apparent bid to disrupt the march.
It was the first mass rally after the ruling party rammed through legislation raising penalties for offenses by protesters to 300,000 rubles (US$9,000) — about the same as a Russian’s average annual income.
The sanctioned march, to be followed by a rally, came a day after masked officers carried out early morning raids on the protest leaders’ apartments as part of a criminal probe into violence at an earlier protest.
They searched the homes of charismatic lawyer and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and television presenter Ksenia Sobchak, who played a major part in recent Occupy-style protests.
Others targeted included the moderate democracy campaigner Ilya Yashin, who was staying at Sobchak’s apartment, as well as Udaltsov.
Protesters yesterday responded to the heavy-handed tactics with posters saying “No to 1937,” referring to Stalin-era persecutions, and “Stop the repression, you are turning us into revolutionaries.”
Navalny, Yashin and Sobchak were all released after being questioned at the Investigative Committee yesterday morning and were expected to join the rally later in the day.
“Investigators intend to find out their role in organizing [the May 6] mass demonstration,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.
He later added that the protest leaders were questioned as witnesses rather than suspects in the unrest.
The investigation concerns bloody battles that broke out between riot police and the mostly young crowd during a Moscow event held on the eve of Putin’s inauguration on May 7, although Sobchak did not even attend.
Scenes of police clubs swinging against the backdrop of the Kremlin drew a sharp rebuke from Western governments and dealt a bruising political blow to Putin on the very first day of his return from a four-year stint as prime minister.
Udaltsov turned down a summons for questioning and attended the march, saying that he was obliged to as one of the organizers.
“I will attend voluntarily and will answer all the questions,” he said at the start of the march, wearing dark glasses and looking drawn after recent detentions.
“They wanted to behead the protest movement,” opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, one of the protest organizers, said at the march. “No one is afraid of arrests since we can’t live this way any longer.”
“We need to make the law the governing principle, that is what I hope these rallies accomplish,” said one of the protesters, art teacher Vera Fyodorova.