Video: 50,000 take to icy streets in Russia to protest poll
'Russia without Putin' roar marchers
IT was not a chant that many had ever expected to hear. But hear it they did as up to 50,000 Russians from all walks of life stood, the snow falling steadily upon them, a few hundred yards across the Moskva river from the Kremlin.
"Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!" they roared as they craned their necks to glimpse and hear the slightly-built internet blogger who had just taken to the open-air stage.
Only last year beaten to within an inch of his life for writing something the authorities did not like, Oleg Kashin appeared to be without fear as he addressed his audience at the biggest anti-government rally to be held in Russia for two decades. "The most powerful weapon we have," he declared, "is a sense of our own dignity. We must not take it on and off like we would a velvet jacket."
The crowd, who had come to protest against last weekend's allegedly rigged parliamentary election, filled a square directly opposite the citadel that houses Russia's authoritarian government.
"It is time to break the chains. We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice and we have the strength to get ourselves heard."
The crowd roared with approval. But the man who had penned the statement, Mr Kashin, was not there to enjoy the moment. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who is rapidly becoming a leading light in the opposition movement here, was languishing in a Moscow jail where he is serving a 15-day jail term for his part in an earlier protest.
Boris Nemtsov, another opposition leader, was there to rally the crowd, though, despite being detained last week. Following his lead, people began chanting "Putin out!" as a police helicopter hovered overhead and more than 50,000 interior ministry troops and riot police looked on.
Yulia, a 29-year-old marketing manager who was there with a group of friends, said she had never been to an opposition demonstration before. "I am just sick of the same old story," she said. "I want my country to change and I want to have a say in how it changes."
Police estimated that at least 25,000 people had turned up, while the protest's organisers claimed attendance was pushing 100,000. Independent observers put the figure at up to 50,000.
In the event, the protest was almost entirely peaceful with only a handful of arrests and, afterwards, many thanked the police for enabling it to take place. "Things have changed," said Yevgenia Chirikova, an opposition activist.
Russia, she predicted, was on the brink of a new post-Putin era that would sweep the former KGB agent and his associates from power. "A new Russia will begin," she said.
Officially, the United Russia party won just under 50 per cent of the vote, a result which would mean its support base had dropped by 15 per cent in the past four years. The real figure, experts and the opposition say, is sharply lower. "Take off 25 per cent and you will be getting near the truth," Leonid Kirichenko, an independent election expert, said.
Mr Kirichenko, who took part in big protests in the 1990s, predicted that the protests would not change anything, however. "It will fizzle out. All this will not lead to anything."
Protesters took a different view however, and endorsed a five-point programme demanding change. Top of their list was a new election.
Most analysts believe that Mr Putin, who has announced his intention to return to the presidency for a third term at the election in May, remains safe for now but that he may be forced to make concessions if he is to keep a lid on rising discontent.
Battling voter fatigue, stalled living standards, growing intolerance of official corruption and a re-energised opposition, he has his work cut out. The Kremlin clearly did not expect such a backlash and has blamed the US for stirring social unrest.
Andrei Isaev, a top official in Mr Putin's party, promised the protesters' voice would be heard but was conspicuously careful not to promise any specific changes.
The protesters said they would give the Kremlin two weeks to announce changes or be back on the streets as early as Christmas Eve.
Asked whether events here could become a new Arab Spring-style Russian revolution, Ilya Ponamaryov, an MP for the Fair Russia party and one of the protest's organisers, said: "We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction."