Thousands of Russians streamed through metal detectors for hours, past camouflaged trucks and under the whirring blades of a helicopter, to join a mass protest against Vladimir Putin‘s official return to the Kremlin.
They were furious and frustrated. Gone were the lighthearted slogans and costumes that had thus far marked the protests that exploded in Moscow in December and carried through Russia‘s presidential vote on Sunday.
A few held white flowers, a symbol of the peaceful movement. Their white ribbons, until now emblazoned with words like “For a Putin-less Russia”, hung bare.
Many protesters had hoped to force Putin into a second round, proving that Russia’s longtime leader had indeed lost the support of the heartland.
Instead they were met with an official result of nearly 64% for Putin, buoyed, election monitors say, by massive fraud. Russia’s elections chief, Vladimir Churov, called the vote the “most honest in the world”.
“It’s not just about falsifications,” said Ivan, 65, an office manager, explaining why he turned out on a workday to stand for two hours in wet, windy snow. “I want our country to be democratic. I want to be led not by crooks and thieves, but by normal people. I want society to democratise, to allow different parties to take part in elections, to allow different people into the presidential election. I want them to stop robbing the country.”
To the 20,000 people who turned out for the protest, Putin wasn’t a president, but a tsar. “These weren’t presidential elections – it was a succession to the throne,” read one large sign held high above protesters’ heads.
Opposition leaders, taking to a stage constructed in the shadow of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most revered poet, refused, one by one, to recognise a president they denounced as “illegitimate”.
“I’ve heard that a lot of people are disappointed,” opposition leader Alexey Navalny shouted from the stage. “Did you expect something different from these crooks and thieves? They robbed us.”
“We don’t say we have a monopoly, but we are the people – we have a voice. We are the power here!” he shouted, launching a refrain repeated dozens of times over by the thousands of angry people in the crowd.
He promised that the protests would continue. But he also conceded, in the face of a crowd some five times smaller than those that had gathered before the presidential vote, that change would not come quickly.
“Everyone asks, will we be victorious? When will this happen and what should we do? I have two words that answer all these questions: truth and belief,” he said.
“We overestimated our numbers a bit. We thought that the rest of the country knows everything that we do.” That was a recognition of the split result – if Putin won 64% of votes around the country, he failed to break the 50% barrier in the capital.
“They fucked us again,” read one massive placard, a succinct summation of what protesters said they felt.
Alissa, 21, flew to Moscow early on Monday with her boyfriend in order to attend the protest. They bought their tickets for the two-hour flight from the Urals city of Orenburg after Putin’s militant victory speech, which he made before less than 30% of votes were counted on Sunday evening. “I do not agree with yesterday’s election,” Alissa said. “We need a new government. We need changes.”
Olga, 17, was just five years old when Putin first came to power, anointed by former president Boris Yeltsin in 1999. She stood beside her father and pushed her fashionably-cut blonde fringe out of her eyes, as she said: “There are injustices in our government and in our country. If the people who are against that unite, maybe we can change something.” If Putin serves his full six-year term, she will be a college graduate by then. If he serves a second term, as allowed by the constitution, she will be nearly 30.
Her father, Fyodor, said: “I don’t understand how the people of our country, with peace in their souls, can elect a person who didn’t just renounce his KGB past, but on the contrary, promotes the system’s continuation.” Peering over the overwhelmingly young crowd, he said he didn’t know what would come next.
“No one came here to fight with anyone, or to die for anyone,” he said. “Of course it’s scary. But if the worst happens, it won’t be because of us, but because of what the government does.”
The Kremlin has so far taken the approach of allowing protesters to gather, provided they obtained the appropriate permission from city authorities. Their bet, analysts believe, is that the protest movement will run out of steam.
The protesters indicated that would not be the case. As the thousands of peaceful attendees began to flood out of the square, into adjacent streets and metro entrances guarded by thousands of riot police, around 1,000 protesters refused to go.
Among them were Navalny and the leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, who moved towards a fountain in the middle of the square, surrounded by supporters locked arm in arm.
Riot police, wearing camouflage and black helmets, moved in to encircle them, launching an hour-long standoff before they finally rushed in, roughly dragging the protesters away to waiting vans. Police said some 250 had been carted off in total. Hundreds more were briefly detained and immediately let go. Navalny was released around four hours later.
The riot police rush blew the lid off the anger inside the square. Protesters shouting “Russia without Putin!” flooded on to Tverskaya Street, the Moscow thoroughfare that leads straight to the Kremlin. They were chased by columns of riot police, blocking traffic in a chaotic scene. Two hours later, riot police locked arm in arm continued to sweep down Tverskaya, chasing the remaining activists away. One woman in her 40s, wearing a white ribbon, burst into tears. “Who are you protecting? This isn’t Chechnya, it’s Moscow”
Earlier, 50 people were detained during an unsanctioned rally of around 3,000 people in St Petersburg and 50 more at a separate, unsanctioned protest in Moscow.
Some opposition leaders had threatened an escalation in protest methods, but did not put the move to the larger crowd that had gathered earlier.
Many protesters said they were ready to march on the Kremlin if opposition leaders called for it.
“We are ready to be surrounded, thrown into an arrest van and beaten,” Arnold, 20, who attended the protest with two teenage friends, told the Guardian. He was adorned with badges reading “Putin go fuck yourself” written backwards.
Some observers believe a change in tactics by the opposition was inevitable given that the presidential election is over and activists may have difficulty sustaining regular peaceful demonstrations.
Speaking on stage ahead of his arrest, Navalny denied that the demonstrators would grow weary. “We will not get tired of coming out into the streets. We will not go away,” he said.
Ahead of the election and the planned protest, the government had poured thousands of extra police and interior ministry troops into the capital, backed by army trucks and at least one helicopter.
Putin’s decision to return to the presidency has led to an unprecedented movement against his rule. His militant victory speech, in which he described his election win as an “open and honest battle”, only fuelled protester anger. Several demonstrators carried signs citing a Soviet-era film, “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”, mocking his show of emotion at the Sunday night victory rally.
“We need to do this – of course something will change,” said Alexey, 38. “Pinochet also didn’t listen to his people. But when enough got together and forced him into a referendum, he left.”
It was clear that other protesters sought to take a different turn. Upon his release around 1am local time, Navalny said the attempt to occupy the square was an “experiment” launched by Udaltsov. The events of Monday night, he said, “showed that there are already hundreds of people ready to remain until the end.”