Tens of thousands of Muscovites endured icy temperatures of around minus 20 degrees to attend a protest march against Vladimir Putin yesterday.
A month before the Russian Prime Minister stands for re-election as president to the Kremlin, the first major rally since the New Year showed that the anti-government protests which began after parliamentary elections in early December are not just going to go away.
After the march yesterday, a number of opposition leaders addressed the crowds from the stage. One ripped up a portrait of Mr Putin to loud cheers, while others demanded new, free elections. "Russia without Putin," the crowd chanted repeatedly. The organisers claimed 120,000 people had attended.
Across Moscow, another rally was held in support of Mr Putin. Police said more than 50,000 people turned up, but eyewitnesses put it much lower. There were widespread reports that civil servants and those working for state-affiliated companies had been told to attend, and that flags and placards were distributed among them.
The atmosphere at the anti-Putin rally was more spontaneous, and many of the protesters had designed their own banners and slogans. One of the more creative was an eight-metre condom, with "protection from Putin" written on it. Mr Putin, in a December televised phone-in, claimed he had mistaken the white ribbons that the protesters wear for used condoms. He also said that the protests were organised from abroad, and that people were paid to attend.
Mr Putin's current approval ratings have slipped to between 40 and 50 per cent. He does not face any serious challengers in the 4 March ballot, but will need to get at least 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a second-round runoff.