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Putin takes a rock-star approach to campaigning

Moscow rally proves presidential hopeful never does things by halves. Shaun Walker reports

They came from Moscow, from towns nearby and from as far away as the Ural Mountains. Tens of thousands of them marched in the snow to show support for Russia's "national leader" yesterday morning and later over 100,000 gathered to hear him speak.

In a robust show of strength that was designed to prove that it is not just the newly-formed opposition that can rally the masses, Vladimir Putin addressed his supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium, 10 days before presidential elections.

Most of the 80,000 seats were full and thousands swarmed on the pitch. After some warm-up acts, the man himself appeared.

In a beige sweater and black overcoat, Mr Putin bounded along the blue-carpeted walkway like a fighter coming out to the ring. Arriving at a podium somewhere around the centre circle, he launched into a passionate, 10-minute speech in which all the major themes of his political agenda were crystallised.

"We're here to say that we love Russia and say it so that the whole country hears us!" As snow fell from a slate-grey sky Mr Putin, who has been prime minister for the past four years, but now wants to return to the presidency, insisted that he was the only man who could guarantee Russia stability and see off threats from nefarious foreign powers.

It was no coincidence that yesterday was the date chosen for the rally. Formerly Red Army Day, 23 February is now called Defender of the Fatherland Day. There was no question who was meant to be the Defender-in-Chief, as everywhere, the attempt to fuse the concept of Russian statehood and national pride with the figure of Mr Putin was visible. On one side of the Luzhniki's exterior, a vast banner hung that proclaimed: "Our vote is for Putin!" Alongside it were two flags – the Russian tricolour, and the black-orange ribbon that is used to commemorate Russia's war dead.

Many people at the rally were genuine supporters of Mr Putin, but the majority offered lukewarm backing, with many having been bussed in from the regions. Several thousand had arrived on special trains from the Urals. Others from Moscow said they had been "invited" by their bosses to attend and the majority of the crowd was made up of public servants. Most of them were mildly supportive of Mr Putin and said they feared other candidates would destabilise the country.

"Putin is a real man. He brought the oligarchs into line and made the world respect Russia again," said 29-year-old Mikhail, from Serpukhov. "Anyone else could bring chaos."

Many people carried placards and banners: "Putin is our leader!", "We are for stable development!" and "The people want Putin!" But in sharp contrast to opposition rallies, which have produced an array of satirical slogans and home-made banners, most of the banners were mass produced and tossed aside when the rally was over. After Mr Putin had bounded off the stage, the compere attempted to excite the crowds with a rock band that were due to play, but within a couple of minutes, the stadium was half empty.

"It was cool to see Putin live," said Dmitry Pelevin, 34. He said he had not decided yet whether he will vote.

However, despite a rising protest movement in recent months, Mr Putin is expected to win with between 50 and 60 per cent of the vote.