Mass protests in Russia call for election rerun

Tens of thousands march through Moscow in a major anti-Putin demo.


The crowds stretched along the long, narrow expanse of Bolotnaya Square as far as the eye could see. They spilled out on to side roads, and, at one point, so many had squeezed on to a bridge that a police boat had to warn them to move or risk the bridge collapsing. The authorities said there were 30,000 people, the organisers said it was 100,000.

The exact figure was irrelevant. In a country where an "opposition protest" means a couple of hundred hardcore dissenters, many of whom would be manhandled and detained by riot police, tens of thousands of people had come out on to the streets, demanding new elections following allegations of widespread fraud in Sunday's polls. The demonstrations in Moscow and across Russia yesterday were the biggest for many years.

The kaleidoscope of coloured flags visible across Bolotnaya Square was testament to the huge variety of opposition groups represented. There was the orange of the Solidarity liberal grouping, the white, black and yellow tricolour of the sinister neo-fascist Russian nationalists, and of course the bright red of the Communists and radical pseudo-communist factions. But the majority had not come to support any particular political party. This was about something more fundamental. Yesterday was the day when a whole generation of young, intelligent Russians felt as if they regained a voice. Or, at the very least, they felt as if the time had come for them to demand a voice.

"I've never been political, but enough is enough," said 28-year-old Tatyana, who voted for the first time in the parliamentary elections. "I've started reading the news online, and comparing it to the nonsense on television. It has never seemed like protesting would have any effect before, but then I realised if you don't at least try to change things, you can't complain." Another protester, 38-year-old Sergei Shipov, said it was the first time he had protested since 1993. "I'm sick of Putin, sick of the sight of his face every day on my television, in my newspapers. It's time for something new," he said.

Mainly, the call was for new elections. There were also shouts of "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief!" But when a small group of people started shouting "Revolution!" the majority booed and tutted. Russians know better than anyone how painful revolutions can be, and Bolotnaya Square yesterday was not Russia's version of Tahrir Square. But at the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that Russia will never be the same again after such an extraordinary week of events that no one, least of all Vladimir Putin, saw coming.

Last Sunday's parliamentary elections, meant to smooth the way for Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin in a March presidential vote, saw his United Russia party get 49 per cent of the vote, down from 64 per cent. But despite the drop, people felt that even this number was inflated, and pointed to thousands of allegations of voting fraud, some of them captured on video and uploaded online.

Around 8,000 people came to protest the day after the elections, when only a few hundred of the usual hardcore oppositionists were expected. The charismatic anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as the new leader of the anti-Putin movement, was jailed for 15 days, while another 200 people were detained. The next day, thousands of pro-Kremlin youth were dispatched to the location of a planned protest to disrupt it, and riot police arrested more than 500 just for turning up. State TV ignored the protests completely, and instead broadcast pictures of gurning teenagers bussed in to Moscow to rallies in celebration of United Russia's victory. Mr Putin, in his first reference on Thursday to the protests, insisted they were coordinated from Washington, after the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had "given a signal" to the Russian opposition.

But growing numbers of Russians get their news from the internet, and to the Kremlin's horror, none of the usual tactics of intimidation and blaming the West seemed to work, as 35,000 Russians signed up to a Facebook group promoting yesterday's rally.

In sharp contrast to the herd-like waving of identical flags, and chanting of "Putin! Russia" and "Medvedev! Victory!" at the pro-Kremlin rallies last week, it was clear this was largely a spontaneous gathering where people designed their own banners and placards. Some of them read simply "Putin must go", but in one of the most heartening aspects of the day, there was a sign that intelligent debate and wit had returned to Russian political discourse. Ever since Russia's version of Spitting Image was kicked off the airwaves shortly after Mr Putin entered the Kremlin, laughing at top officials has been taboo except online. Until yesterday.

Particularly targeted was the central election committee chief, Vladimir Churov, a pompous technocrat who for many has become the face of electoral fraud. One poster read: "146 per cent of Muscovites want fair elections!", referring to a southern Russian district where state TV reported voter turnout at 146 per cent. Perhaps the best placard of the day read: "I didn't vote for these bastards! I voted for other bastards! I demand a recount!"

For many, the day began at Revolution Square, the symbolic central location where protests are banned. But the Moscow authorities made a compromise. They agreed that people could gather at Revolution Square and make the half-hour walk to Bolotnaya Square. So a crowd of several thousand people began an extraordinary march past some of the most symbolic buildings in Moscow: the Lubyanka, former headquarters of the KGB that now houses its successor, the FSB. They filed past the Presidential Administration Building, St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin walls, and over the Moscow River, in scenes that a week ago were unthinkable. Riot police lined the streets along the entire route.

There were even signs that, just perhaps, the notoriously fractious democratic opposition might be able to focus on March's presidential elections. If Mr Navalny puts his candidacy forward, the Kremlin will not find it as easy to bar him from standing as it has done kicking marginal liberals off the ballot in the past. Mr Navalny, still serving his 15-day sentence, was not at the rally, but a message from him was read to the crowds.

"The clique in power ... continue to tell us that falsifying votes in favour of their Party of Crooks and Thieves is a necessary condition to ensure we have hot water and cheap mortgages," read Mr Navalny's address. "We have been fed this for 12 years, and are sick of it. It's time to come out of our coma. We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice, and we have the strength to make it heard."

For the first time in years, politics in Russia has become unpredictable.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst- (Customer Support) - £29,000

£29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst- (Customer Suppor...

Recruitment Genius: Laser Games Supervisor

£14500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PPC Executive / Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A PPC Executive/Manager is requ...

Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager - Retail / FMCG / WMS Operations

£55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager - Retail / FMCG / WM...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness