Sea of people fills Moscow in search of 'free Russia'
Clutching white balloons and banners calling for "Free Elections", a sea of Russian protestors against Vladimir Putin on Saturday thronged a Moscow avenue named after dissident Andrei Sakharov.
The rally to oppose Putin's tight grip on Russia's political system passed amid a festive atmosphere, with guest appearances by a famous socialite, a former chess champion and even Father Christmas.
But there was no doubting the seriousness of the huge crowd, who called for the annulment of parliamentary elections held this month and proclaimed on banners that "We awoke and this is only the beginning".
The mass of people extended all the way down Moscow's Sakharov Avenue -- named after the Soviet nuclear physicist turned dissident -- and for hours they peacefully listened to an unexpectedly diverse range of speakers.
Addressing them from a giant stage were former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, glamorous socialite Xenia Sobchak, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny and novelist Boris Akunin.
At the end, a speaker dressed as Father Christmas, known to Russians as Grandfather Frost, appeared, rousing the crowds with slogans such as "Russia without Putin" and declaring that next year there would be a "Free Russia".
Despite the winter chill, the crowd was energised.
"We have understood that we can mobilise. It is impossible to stop a crowd like this," said Andrei Luzhin, 32, one of the protestors.
Some people climbed on trees, lamp posts and even on top of traffic patrol booths to see better, the elderly passing around flasks with steaming tea and the younger generation dancing in step to keep warm in the winter wind.
Two weeks earlier, the opposition had succeeded in holding their first mass protest at a location close to the Kremlin in the biggest show of public discontent in Russia since the turbulent 1990s.
"People were scared before the first big demonstration on December 10. Now they no longer have fear," Luzhin added.
Provocatively, some protestors held up pictures of Putin with a giant condom draped over his head in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh, in reference to his sneering dismissal of the rallies as resembling an anti-AIDS campaign.
Others walked around with signs reading "I was not paid by the State Department" -- a reference to Putin's angry charge that the opposition was being funded by the West.
"Putin resign! Russia without Putin," the crowds chanted using slogans that would have been impossible without fear of arrest just weeks before.
"In our country people are scared of saying what they think," said another protestor, Olga Dolgacheva, 32. "But the future belongs to those who get up early. That is why I am here."
Akunin -- a novelist prominent abroad for his 19th century historical detective novels -- asked the rally: "Do you want Vladimir Putin to become president once again?"
"No," the protesters roared backed.
"Mr. Putin, the entire Russia will be crying this out to you tomorrow," said Akunin, author of works including the "Winter Queen".
Chess master Kasparov, one of Putin's most virulent critics in recent years, said that the presidential elections of March 4, where Putin intends to stand, would mark a "turning point" in Russian history.
"The authorities are scared because we are no longer scared," he said.
"Today, we see like never before -- we are many and they are few."
Police boasted that they had ensured security and said there were no arrests -- a stark contrast to the crackdowns against almost every single opposition demonstration in Moscow until this month.
"I am shocked. I was so nervous before coming here that the people would not show up," said former television host Olga Romanova, who helped stage the event.
"But I am so happy that we are all here -- that we have all made it," she said softly as the crowd roared. "Now, things simply have to change."
© 2011 AFP