Undeterred by a sudden escalation in the Kremlin's crackdown on the opposition, tens of thousands of Russians flooded Moscow's tree-lined boulevards today in the first mass protest against President Vladimir Putin since his inauguration in May.
Opposition leaders put the number of protesters at 120,000, while
police estimated that about 20,000 showed up. The crowd appeared to be
smaller than at the anti-Putin
demonstrations ahead of the March presidential election, which drew as
many as 100,000 people, but the turnout was still impressive in a
country where such political protests had brought out no more than a few
hundred people only several months ago.
After tolerating the protests through the winter, Putin has taken a tougher stance since embarking on his third presidential term, including signing a repressive new bill last week that stiffens penalties for taking part in unauthorised rallies.
Police yesterday searched opposition leaders' apartments, carting away computers, mobile phones and other personal items. They also demanded that opposition leaders come in for questioning today, a national holiday. They were ordered to appear just an hour before the rally began, in what was widely seen as a crude attempt to scare away the protesters.
Leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov snubbed the summons, saying he considered it his duty to lead the protest as one of its organisers. He spoke at the rally and then appeared for questioning after it was over.
Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, liberal activist Ilya Yashin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak showed up for questioning in the morning. Yashin made it to the rally in time to speak at the end, but Navalny's interrogation lasted more than six hours and then investigators drove him to his office to conduct another search.
"It's horrible to sit here while you are having fun," Navalny tweeted from the Investigative Committee headquarters.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said police had found more than one million euros and $480,000 in cash at Sobchak's apartment and investigators were looking into whether she had paid her taxes.
Sobchak, a glamorous 30-year-old socialite described by some as Russia's equivalent of Paris Hilton, insisted that she had done nothing wrong and was keeping her savings at home because she doesn't trust banks. The authorities are likely to use the piles of cash to paint the opposition as a bunch of spoiled rich kids at odds with the majority of Russia's population.
Sobchak, the only daughter of St. Petersburg's late mayor, a man who was Putin's mentor, had been spared reprisals until yesterday's raid. ''I never thought that we would slide back to such repressions," she tweeted.
Braving a brief thunderstorm, protesters showed up on the central Pushkin Square ahead of the planned march and their numbers grew as they began marching down boulevards to a broad downtown avenue where the rally was held.
Police, who had clashed with protesters at the last mass anti-Putin protest, stood guard but took no action. The demonstration ended peacefully six hours after it had begun.