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 the man himself 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 yesterday at the Luzhniki Stadium, 10 days before presidential elections.
Most of the seats in the 80,000 capacity stadium were full, and thousands swarmed on the football pitch itself, which had been covered with plywood boards. After some warm-up acts – patriotic crooners, tough coal miners, and a war hero pilot – the man himself appeared. On Tuesday, Cristiano Ronaldo had taken to the pitch to play a Champions League tie for Real Madrid against CSKA Moscow. Mr Putin was not to be outdone. In a beige sweater and black overcoat, he bounded along the walkway like a fighter coming out to the ring, giving thumbs-up signs along the way and shaking hands with a few admirers. Arriving at a podium near the centre circle, he launched into a passionate 10-minute speech in which 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. "We ask everyone not to look abroad, not to run to the other side and not to betray your motherland," said Mr Putin. "We won't allow anyone to meddle in our affairs or impose their will upon us, because we have a will of our own."
"In the 20th-century, Russia lost more people and had more tragedy than any other nation," said Sergei Trofimov, a singer who was one of several supporters to address the crowds before Mr Putin appeared. "We have no right today to allow these people to have been victims for no reason."
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. Some said they had been offered a free trip to Moscow and days off in lieu of the time they took to attend the rally. 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 and those whose jobs depend on state funding.
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, a small town outside Moscow. "Anyone else could bring chaos." Sergei, a 41-year-old doctor from Moscow, said he had never voted for Mr Putin and would not do so next week – he was planning to vote for the nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky instead.
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, hurrying out of the stadium towards the metro station. "But I'm freezing now." 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.