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Opposition Rally Draws Tens of Thousands in Moscow

  • James Brooke

MOSCOW - Braving thunderstorms over Moscow and police raids on opposition offices, tens of thousands of people turned out Tuesday, filling the capital's leafy boulevard ring road with a long river of protesters.

Earlier, President Putin tried to cut the turnout by dramatically raising penalties for unauthorized protests and by ordering police raids on top opposition leaders. On protest day, many top leaders missed the rally because they were undergoing police interrogations.

But the crackdown may have backfired, as the protesters appeared to have a new energy.

Elizabeth, a 15-year-old student, walked with her mother and carried a sign reading, "Back to Future 2012 = 1937"

The year 1937 was the year when Stalinist repression sharpened. Elizabeth complained that she was among the more than 400 protesters detained at the protest on the day before Mr. Putin's May 7 inauguration.


Nearby, Kirill, a 22-year-old student, said he came because he believes Russia's ruling elite is getting rich off the nation's oil and natural resources. He said he hope his generation will see a Russia where the rule of law is respected.

Many marchers were young people. Some analysts say the new crackdown echoes themes in Russian literature in which an older generation seeks to prolong its control over the younger generation.

Analyst Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the first month of the new Putin presidency has shown a clear trend toward a political crackdown. "The searches, the raids, the new law, the ordinary protesters being arrested, which is especially alarming because people identify every easily with a person who is just a Muscovite, just a young person, just a businessman. The problem is that when you step on this path, it is very difficult to stop," she said.

Nearby, Alexander Shvedov, a 53-year-old engineer, held a Biblical banner and said his Christian opposition group is deliberately leaderless. He said Monday's raids on opposition leaders justified his group's decision to exist largely on the Internet.

Torrential rainstorms opened and closed the four-hour march and rally. In between, the outdoor event took on the air of a political fair.

Dressed in black, a squad of anarchists waved red and black flags. They chanted, "It is forbidden to forbid."

Communists waved red banners and broke into old Soviet songs. Russian nationalists waved their gold, white and black czarist banners. They chanted, "Moscow is a Russian city."

Marina, a writer, walked rapidly, to stay well ahead of the nationalists. She complained they were "strange". She fears the nationalists, communists, and anarchists are better organized than liberals who advocate, what she calls, "normal human values."

Tuesday is a national holiday, Russia Day.

President Putin took advantage of the day to appeal for national unity. Speaking on state-run television, he said, "Only together will we go forward."

But as he spoke, political repression continued. Police searched the apartment of one opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, and the office of another, Alexei Navalny.

A third leader, Ilya Yashin, emerged from a police interrogation to tell reporters he believes all three leaders will face charges stemming from the capital's last big protest, on May 6, the day before Mr. Putin's inauguration for a third term.

At the Tuesday rally, a police helicopter flew constantly overhead, filming the protesters.

Here the rotors almost drown out chants of, "Russia without Putin."

Hidden on side streets stood lines of muscular riot police, known here as 'cosmonauts' for their bubble helmets.

Protesters were friendly with city police. Walking past one Moscow police detachment, protesters broke into a chant. They chanted, "Police with the people. Do not serve the fools."

At the end of the day, no arrests were reported at protests here or in St. Petersburg, or in Novosibirsk - Russia's three most-populous cities.

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