MOSCOW - The drizzle had stopped by the time anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny bounded to the stage to cheers in a packed downtown Moscow square, where at least 20,000 anti-government protesters assembled to demand an end to prosecutions tied to earlier mass protests.
The overcast sky and unseasonably cold September weather didn’t deter the tens of thousands of protesters to assemble to voice their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to call for the release of 13 anti-government activists still being held in jail in Moscow. Four others have been freed but remain under investigation.
It was the first mass event Navalny has appeared since he was released last month from jail where he had been held for 30 days for organizing unauthorized public gatherings.
The chants of “Let Them Go” and “Putin is a Thief” were heard throughout an afternoon during which the police maintained a low presence for a protest that had had been granted a rare legal permit by Moscow city authorities. More than 1,000 people were detained in July and August during the largest demonstrations since Vladimir Putin’s re-election to the presidency in 2012. Those protests had not been sanctioned and at their height they saw as many as 60,000 turn out to brave harsh police crackdowns.
In 2012, the anti-Putin protests, sparked by allegations of electoral fraud and frustration over Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term, eventually fizzled out, with anti-government activists worn down by an uncompromising Kremlin. Protesters Sunday expressed some worry the same fate will befall the new wave of demonstrations.
But 36-year-old Lisa, a freelancer working in the education sector, said she isn’t allowing that to deter her from joining the protests now.
“There is no way of staying at home, no way of observing and not taking any action,” she told VOA. “It is too much. I have not been to any gatherings for years. But now I can’t stand just staying at home. I prefer not to think about 2102 but live in the here and now,” she added.
Police estimated the crowd at 20,000 — organizers put the figure higher at 25,000.
Political activist Navalny, widely seen as the key opposition figure in a protest movement that has brought together groups spread across the spectrum, from Communists and liberals to Russian nationalists and others of no fixed ideology, says now is not like 2012, when a Kremlin crackdown exhausted anti-government protesters.
Speaking to VOA and other reporters, he said: “The most important thing we saw today is that protests supporting political prisoners are not niche anymore. You remember such meetings in 2012-2014. They were small. And there were just a few of them. Now we see the defense of political prisoners is the main political subject. More and more people are getting involved, many of whom were never interested in politics before. It is very important and we’re at the beginning. What we see now is totally different, in terms of the size and duration. Previous protests rapidly faded. Now new people are getting involved.”
To the crowd, who chanted along with him, Navalny said: “We should be confident of our power.” He asked the crowd why they thought the Kremlin had released some activists. “Because they have a conscience? Because they are ashamed? Because they have children? No, because they're afraid that their popularity ratings were dropping,” he answered.
Earlier, Ilya Azar, a journalist and activist, told the flag and placard-waving crowd: “Looking back to the protest in 2011-2012 there was no such solidarity of civil society as we can see now. This is fantastic.” She said the strength of the movement had intimidated the authorities into releasing jailed activists.
One of those freed, Alexey Minyaylo, who released from custody after prosecutors dropped rioting charges against him, told VOA he believed civil society has matured since 2012-2014. “In 2012 there were very high expectations but we were not ready for a real fight and when we were hit, we just stood back and did nothing. Now we can take hits and still act.”
Tatiana Lazareva, an activist and onetime TV host who lost her job after participating in anti-Putin protests, says the issues now and in 2012 are the same — honest elections and honest trials. But “people are starting to realize that they’re living worse. The important thing is that people are starting to understand there’s no sense just to blame Putin, they have to do something themselves.”
Lazareva acknowledges there’s a disconnect between Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the protest movements are stronger, and the countryside. She argues the protest movement has to do more to reach out. “Big cities attract brave people who come to achieve something. People here are different. People who afraid of something or afraid to overcome something stay in their hometowns,’ she says.