Thousands Defy Kremlin Intimidation and Rally in Moscow

PHOTO: Anti-Putin protestPlayMikhail Metzel/AP Photo
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A large passionate crowd turned out today, defiantly calling on President Vladimir Putin's government to step aside and for the release of 20 protestors who were arrested last year, an indication that the country's opposition movement hasn't been intimidated by Russian authorities.

The protest today in Bolotnaya Square was smaller than previous rallies -- the same square was packed last year but only half full tonight -- but those in attendance said they are more determined than ever to keep the pressure on the Kremlin.

"This time there are fewer people, but the mood is different," one woman named Tatiana said. "There's no hysteria like last time, but the main thing is people's minds are changing."

"It was euphoria," her brother Philipp agreed. "But now people know what they need to do and they do it. It's only the beginning because we understand what we are doing."

Philipp has become something of an icon at the protests because he always carries a flag with the Facebook logo on it, a nod to the movement's origins on social media. He predicts the protest movement will continue.

"There will be more and more people," he said. "The facts will become better known."

The last time protestors came to Bolotnaya Square, exactly one year ago, it was the eve of Putin's inauguration. The previous rally, held a few months earlier, just after Putin won a third term as president, had a defeated air about it. The Bolotnaya protest that May was organized amid doubts that the unprecedented protest movement would endure.

The crowd turned out to be massive and the day started out on a festive note. It began with a march, headed by opposition leaders striding behind a marching band.

Exactly what happened next -- and who was at fault -- remains in dispute. Clashes broke out with the rows of burly, armored riot police. In the end hundreds of protestors were detained and several riot helmets were bobbing in the Moscow River. Philipp's Facebook flag was ripped by police.

That day marked a clear change, an ominous sign that the Kremlin, which had tolerated the protests since they began months earlier over fraudulent Parliamentary elections, had run out of patience.

Over the next few months authorities detained nearly two dozen individuals they claimed had assaulted police officers during the rally. They are still awaiting trial. At the same time, the rubber stamp legislature passed new laws that dramatically increased fines for unsanctioned gatherings.

In August, a Russian court sentenced three members of the female punk group Pussy Riot to lengthy prison terms for an anti-Putin stunt they performed in a Moscow cathedral earlier in the year.

Authorities also began targeting protest leaders, including anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov. Both face jail time for what they insist are politically trumped up charges. Udaltsov has already been placed under house arrest. Other leaders had their homes searched. Some tried to organize an unsanctioned rally in December that attracted few people.

It was in this context that the protestors gathered again today. The usual cadre of leaders denounced the government in a series of now repetitive speeches from the stage, but if those in the crowd were tired of hearing them they didn't show it.

"I'm strongly opposed to what's happening in the country," one man named Andrei said. "Because we are suppressed in many ways of living and because we lack freedom in many ways."

Today's rally was different, in both energy and size.

While accurate crowd counts were elusive, organizers estimated more than 26,000 people had turned out. Police put the figure at only several thousand, a claim that was mocked by one of the speakers on the stage.

Many of the humorous signs that defined earlier protests were gone, replaced by the sober reality that change will not come easily. The chants, while still strident, were largely the same refrains as before. The crowd packed together and shifted their feet to fight the chill that blew in from the river.

Lubov Parango came to the rally in support of her friend Vladimir, who is among the 20 who were detained for their alleged role in last year's protest violence. The two met during an earlier protest. She dismissed the small crowd size, noting it was held on a Monday evening during a holiday period. She said change is afoot in Russia.

"People are awakening and gathering and maybe there aren't too many people here tonight, but the main thing is what is happening inside their heads," she said.

Others conceded things will not change overnight.

"There is no way out for the moment for the time being," Andrei said.

He also admitted the government's intimidation campaign has been effective in keeping some people home.

"There's less people because of fear of course," he said.

Philipp, the Facebook flag bearer (who has repaired his banner and waved it proudly), said the intimidation will only harden the opposition.

"It just motivates the opposition and people begin to think about it and media talks about it. It was not very popular, but now people understand this is the only way we can change things," he said.

If anything, the crowd seems to have gotten over the disappointment of Putin's victory last year and are girding themselves for a long fight. They believe the rest of the country will eventually be with them.

"It's like religion. It grows inside you," Tatiana said. "Everyone understands that to make real change we have to wait like 50 years, but we need to show what we are thinking."