Thousands Defy Kremlin Intimidation and Rally in Moscow
(MOSCOW) -- A large passionate crowd turned out Monday, 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 Monday in Bolotnaya Square was smaller than previous rallies -- the same square was packed last year but only half-full Monday night -- 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 Monday. 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."
Monday'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.
"There is no way out for the moment for the time being," Andrei said.
He 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.
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