Defying a warning from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that anybody trying to stage unsanctioned political rally would be "beaten on the head" by police, hundreds of mainly youthful protesters showed up Tuesday night at Moscow's fenced-off and police-barricaded Triumph Square to demand that Russian authorities honor their constitutional right of free assembly.
"If you get [permission], then go out and demonstrate," Mr. Putin said in a newspaper interview Monday. "If not, you do not have the right. If you go out without having the right – you are going to get beaten with a club. It’s as simple as that."
Nearly 1,000 riot police who were on hand mostly kept their truncheons sheathed. Wedges of armored-and-helmeted police charged repeatedly into the crowd, arresting at least 70 people, including top leaders of the "Strategy 31" movement, named after Article 31 of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which guarantees civic freedoms.
The official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Pyotr Biryukov, a spokesman for the Moscow police department, as saying the protesters numbered about 400 people, including 300 journalists. "About 70 opposition activists were detained," he added.
Organizers of the rally claim a protest turnout at up to 1,000 people. The number of journalists who were on the scene appeared to be no more than a few dozen.
In the past, Moscow police have usually been able to quickly sweep protesters from the area and whisk the leaders off to prison without much fuss, but they appeared far less successful Tuesday night.
The crowd was driven by police into the vast columned arcade of the Tchaikovsky Theater, which abuts Triumph Square, but stubbornly refused to disperse for almost two hours.
Broken up by police charges, protesters would re-form in another part of the arcade, chanting slogans calculated to infuriate Moscow authorities, such as "This is our City," "Down with the Police State," and "Putin out." Whenever police moved in to make an arrest, the shout would shift to "shame, shame."
"If you look at their faces, you can see the police don't like doing this. They're people just like us," said demonstrator Oleg Bolotkovich. "But the police are an instrument of power, and this is a police regime. They are trying to scare us, so we won't come again. But, see, it isn't working this time."
One new factor appears to be the large number of young people among the protesters, who visibly behave far more fearlessly than their Soviet-era elders -- despite the very real prospect of beatings and arrest.
"The young generation feels the absence of freedom. More and more, they're ready to fight Putinism, which is a system characterized by the absence of law and democracy," says Mr. Nemtsov. "The numbers of youth that turned out for this protest shows that they are growing very sensitive to things they are missing."
Nemtsov, co-author of a harsh assessment of Mr. Putin's record as president (English translation here), says that police accused him of "obstructing pedestrian traffic" by handing out copies of his pamphlet on the street just before the rally began. He was released without charge after three hours of detention, as were most of the others arrested.
He says it's possible that police were more restrained than on many other recent occasions due to the presence of four members of the European Parliament at the rally, along with many foreign journalists.
One of the European lawmakers, Dutch Socialist Thijs Berman, told journalists that he was shocked by the massive police deployment on Triumph Square and the rough tactics against peaceful protesters. "This is an amazing way of dealing with democracy, shocking," he said.
Kremlin power is not likely to be shaken anytime soon by demonstrations like this, though organizers insist they will continue holding them on the highly symbolic 31st day of each month.
And though numbers of protesters remain small, protest leaders are not ordinary rabble-rousers but mostly highly educated and successful people, such as chess champion Garry Kasparov, or former regional governor and deputy prime minister Nemtsov.
"There is a certain category of people who are very capable, talented, and active, but are unable to find any place in the Putin system of 'managed democracy,'" says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant newspaper. "They don't want to be controlled, so the system has no place for them. They are faced with the choice of leaving public life altogether – and some have – or taking action. The logic that Kasparov and Nemtsov are following, by taking to the streets like this, is to try to find the tipping point in the Russian system of power."
That may help to explain the massive – and, to Western eyes, utterly disproportionate – police crackdown on the "31" rallies which continued, if a bit more mildly than previously, on Tuesday night.
"The Kremlin is afraid of us, there's no doubt about that," says Nemtsov.