Thousands gathered in central Moscow on Sunday to mark the fourth anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder. Russian laws passed since President Vladimir Putin's 2012 return to the power have dramatically strengthened Kremlin control over the flow of information online and off, according to a new study by a London-based rights group. The report, issued by PEN International's Moscow and St. Petersburg offices, outlines restrictions on free expression since the beginning of Putin's third term.
Although the events were approved by Moscow authorities, police limited access to the northern edge of the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge just outside the Kremlin, where for years a makeshift memorial comprising plaques, photos, flowers and candles has marked the spot of the 55-year-old's assassination by gunshot.
It was on the evening of February 27, 2015, when Nemtsov was walking across the bridge when a car stopped alongside him. A gunman emerged from the vehicle and fired multiple shots from a range of several feet, striking Nemtsov in the head, heart, liver and stomach, killing him instantly.
Russian laws passed since President Vladimir Putin's 2012 return to the power have dramatically strengthened Kremlin control over the flow of information online and off, according to a new study by a London-based rights group.
The report, issued by PEN International's Moscow and St. Petersburg offices, outlines restrictions on free expression since the beginning of Putin's third term.
The attack come just hours after the activist had publicly called for a rally to protest Russia's war in Ukraine. In the days leading up to his assassination, he had said he was preparing to release a damning report entitled "Putin. War" that would undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin's denial that the Kremlin had troops on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
In the center of Moscow, as in other cities across Russia, thousands took to the streets with placards in Russian and English with statements such as "Killed for freedom," "Are you going to kill us too?" and "Putin is a liar." Although five men were convicted of Nemtsov's killing, supporters say those who commissioned the hit have evaded justice.
According to Evan Gershkovich of The Moscow Times, many placards visible at the rally touched on a litany of grievances frequently invoked by the Russia's anti-Kremlin community—from a 2018 movie theater blaze that killed scores of Siberian children to arrests over political commentary on social media threads.
"For many demonstrators, the rally ... was ultimately less about [Nemtsov's] death as much as it was about keeping his spirit of opposition alive," he wrote.
"This is a march in opposition to Vladimir Putin," one of the event's organizers, politician Ilya Yashin, said in a video prior to the march. "This is a march for a free and democratic Russia."
According to "White counter," an independent group that specializes in assessing rally turnout, the Moscow event drew and estimated 10,600 people.
Moscow police reported about 6,000 participants.
The march route, which was coordinated with city officials, didn't include a stop at Nemtsov's memorial, but participants planned on walking there to deposit flowers after the rally concluded. They were met by steel slat barriers and police officers, some donning riot gear, who said access to the bridge was restricted.
A month ahead of presidential elections, thousands of Russians rallied in the capital city of Moscow Sunday in honor of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered on this day three years ago.
In a rare sanctioned opposition gathering in Russia's capital, many carried flags, portraits of Nemtsov, placards and flowers in frigid temperatures as low as minus 14 degrees Celsius.
Moscow police, who are often accused of underestimating opposition crowd sizes, said that 4,500 people attended the rally.
Attempting to approach the bridge from Red Square, one VOA reporter was told access to the bridge was closed. When asked why the bridge was blocked, the officer gestured to step back. "Be on your way," he said, pointing away from the bridge.
Riot control vehicles were visible in an area alongside the bridge.
"For some reason, they decided to make access to the bridge as difficult as possible," said one protester named Vladimir, who has attended a number of annual Nemtsov memorial rallies. "Maybe they did it hoping that people won't reach the place. But [whomever] wants to come will come. The state, apparently, has decided people will suffer before coming and pay their respect to Boris Nemtsov."
"At first, we tried to reach the bridge from one entrance. It was closed. Then we tried to go through another one," added Vladimir, who withheld his last name. "It's not the first year they are doing this. It's been expected, there's nothing new."
Andrew, who hadn't planned on attempting to reach the site of the memorial in order to lay flowers there, made a last-minute effort—and with success.
"[Police] a little bit fenced the place around, and I asked, 'can I pass?', and they said 'yes, you can.' And then the next behind me tried to pass through, too, but they said, "the passageway is closed.'
"It's somehow a bit incomprehensible," Andrew added. "A week ago, I was here, and I could pass. They don't want people to come here. They're ruining the memorial here every time flowers are laid. They are afraid."
Later in the afternoon, police opened one point of access to the memorial—this time from Red Square, where marchers could walk through a gangway cordoned by crowd-control fencing with officers regulating pedestrian access in a seemingly arbitrary way.
Russian officials will be able to fine protest organizers if young people take part in their demonstrations, under a bill signed off by lawmakers in parliament's lower house on Tuesday.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose anti-corruption activism has attracted a youthful following, said on Twitter the law was proposed "specifically for me".
Several prominent opposition politicians, including Alexei Navalny, attended the march.
Reports on Ekho Moskvy radio said similar rallies were being held in at least 20 Russian cities. In St. Petersburg, radio reports said, municipal officials denied permits for several memorial events.
Pete Cobus contributed reporting from Moscow. Some information from Reuters.