Protesters encircle Moscow city centre in anti-Putin rally


Tens of thousands of Muscovites formed a human chain and encircled the centre of their city yesterday, in the latest protest against Vladimir Putin.

A week before elections that are set to return the Prime Minister to the Kremlin for a six-year term as President, protesters lined pavements for 10 miles along the entirety of the Garden Ring, the multi-lane highway that circles central Moscow.

After the demonstrations that followed the victory of Mr Putin's United Russia party in last December's parliamentary elections, there was a feeling the mood of protest may have been on the wane. But yesterday's turnout suggests that the movement, mainly made up of liberal, middle-class Russians but also joined by assorted nationalists and radicals, is growing rather than fading.

The number of people was difficult to gauge, but opposition leaders claimed 100,000 people had come out, most of whom wore white ribbons, the symbol of the protest movement, and carried anti-Putin slogans in the swirling snow.

Police put the number at 11,000. However, before the demonstration it had been estimated that 34,000 people would be needed to fully line the ring road, and in many places, the crowds were several people thick.

Hundreds of cars joined in the protest by beeping their horns in solidarity with those on the pavement. Some had attached banners and posters to their vehicles, while others seemed to be joining the protest spontaneously, grabbing whatever they had at hand that was white – a scarf, tissue, plastic bag, or in one case a white-haired pet dog – and waving it from the car windows.

"I want our country to develop more," said Margarita, a 66-year-old former teacher who was attending her first protest since those in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. "There should be less corruption and better people in power."

The contrast between the atmosphere at yesterday's protest, and the feeling at the Luzhniki Stadium last Thursday, when Mr Putin addressed 100,000 of his own supporters, could not have been more different. There, the majority had been bussed in, banners were mass-produced and handed out beforehand. Yesterday, banners were home-made and, although the protest was supposed to last for an hour, two hours later the pavements were still packed. It passed off largely peacefully, with minimal police intervention.

"Everyone is very happy, look at the smiles on people's faces," said Yevgenia Chirikova, one of the demonstration's informal leaders. "This is exactly the sort of protest we need. We don't need a revolution, we can overcome evil with good. There's still every chance that Putin won't win the election."

The polls suggest she is wrong, however, with one last week claiming that 44 per cent of Russians would vote for Mr Putin. Among those who are definitely planning to vote on Sunday, the figure rises to 66 per cent.