Russians are to vote for president next Sunday in a contest Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters linked hands in a 16-kilometer human chain around the Kremlin one week before Russians vote for president. Nicknamed the Great White Ring for the white ribbons worn by protesters, the large turnout was a sign that Russia's middle-class opposition movement is alive and well.
As passing drivers honked horns in support, 32-year-old computer programmer Nikolai Shapelov waved a white ribbon printed "Russia Without Putin."
"We want fair elections," he said. And elections are not fair. You see on TV, you only see Putin, and it is not fair."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win the election next Sunday and return to the presidency, which he held from 2000 to 2008.
It took one hour to drive around Moscow's Garden Ring Road at the peak of the demonstration because of traffic jams caused by drivers cruising slowly and honking horns in solidarity with happily waving protesters. This human chain went entirely around the city core, stretching over bridges crossing the Moscow River, and breaking only at intersections to allow traffic to flow.
Alexander, a 37-year-old caterer, was standing by a curb, waving to passing cars
He said he does not like the corruption of the Putin government and is happy to see a lot of other Russians share his view.
Longing for freedom
On the sidewalk, Vadim Roshin, a 50-year-old researcher, carried his 18-month-old daughter Katia on his shoulders. He worried that Putin is polarizing Russians:
"I prefer to live in [a] country where many different points of view live together," he said. "And I think that many people are ready for this."
Nearby, 55-year-old architect and restorer Alexei Denisov said he and his wife Tatyana came out because they oppose governmental corruption and the destruction of historic buildings in Moscow.
He said people are united because things cannot continue as they are. And if they do, Russia has very poor prospects.
All polls indicate Putin has enough support across the nation to give him a first-round victory of more than 50 percent. But it is unclear if he will win majorities in Russia's biggest cities.
Last peaceful protest
Popular writer and protest organizer Boris Akunin, told Moscow's Rain TV the human chain could be the opposition's last peaceful protest.
On the White Ring, 50-year-old TV producer Yury Bershidsky agreed, saying he feared a government crackdown after a Putin win next Sunday.
"But when Moscow and St. Petersburg and the big cities are against them, we do not really know what can happen," said Bershidsky. "I am afraid of some violent decisions of them."
The White Ring lasted about 90 minutes, then broke up under lightly falling snow. Some protesters then converged on Revolution Square, where riot police corralled them between a Karl Marx statue and the red brick walls of the Kremlin.
They chanted angrily: "Putin thief, Putin thief."
Ilya Ponomarev, a parliamentary deputy from the Fair Russia party, said next Sunday citizen election observers will try to prevent a repeat of the massive fraud he said took place in parliamentary elections last December.
He told VOA that if large scale fraud takes place in the presidential elections, the opposition movement will consider Putin a usurper and will do more to restore constitutional power in Russia.
Many people said this Sunday was festive, but predicted next Sunday will be tense.