Defying predictions that Russia's protest movement had run out of steam, or that bone-chilling winter cold would keep them away, tens of thousands of people converged on downtown Moscow Saturday to demand fair elections and an end to political corruption.
Estimates of the pro-democracy crowd ranged from a police tally of 35,000 up to a claim of 120,000 by organizers, but it was big enough to put to rest any doubts that the surging mood of protest, which erupted after allegedly fixed December parliamentary elections, is still running strong.
The thermometer showed -20 degrees C. (-4 F), cold enough to freeze unprotected fingers in less than 5 minutes, but marchers seemed in high spirits, waving signs that said, "We won't freeze and we won't forgive," "Down with autocracy," and "Not a single vote to (Vladimir) Putin."
Many marchers singled out Mr. Putin, the prime minister and former president who is running for a third term in presidential elections that are exactly one month off. Some said their main fear is that the man who engineered a decade of "managed democracy," which ensured Kremlin-dictated electoral outcomes, will block any hope for democratic reforms and economic accountability for another dozen years.
"How about some justice and honesty for a change, and an end to all these lies," said Dmitry Danilov, a school teacher. "There is no choice for us anymore; even the children I teach feel that. How can I teach children to be honest, when our whole life is saturated with deceit?"
Dmitry Yurlov, a middle-aged scientific researcher, said, "I want to see honest elections. Our authorities tell us we are enjoying success and stabilization, but when you look around you just don't see it. It's all empty rhetoric and lies. I'd like to see a Russia that's healthy and normal, and that means we have to put an end to the lies."
For the first time, organizers divided the march into sections according to political party. The biggest contingent was that of unaffiliated people, mostly cheerful youth, who led the march from Moscow's central October Square to Bolotnaya Square just across the frozen Moscow River from the Kremlin.
Other big groups included the Left Front, a broad left-wing coalition that now includes Russia's powerful Communist Party, which is led by charismatic street activist Sergei Udaltsov. Supporters of Yabloko, the liberal party whose leader Grigory Yavlinsky was banned last week from participating in the presidential election, were prominent behind a huge banner demanding new elections.
Also visible were backers of PARNAS, a banned liberal party co-chaired by former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, as well as groups of nationalists, and supporters of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny.
"It may be cold, but people came anyway," Mr. Navalny told journalists. "This proves that it wasn't just some fashionable protest (in December) but a real thing. People come without being brought here in buses, they come because we called a meeting and they wanted to be here."
Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team who's running for president as the only avowed liberal on the ballot, headed his own group of well-organized and vocal supporters.
"This is the most massive protest action in over the last years," Mr. Prokhovov said. "People came here in high spirits and with a strong wish to change things.... I am pleased to be marching here with my supporters. This is real civil society in action.... Our leaders have been in power too long. Our political system is stagnant. The state should be for people, not vice versa. People are more important."
About three miles away, at the Poklonaya Gora war memorial park in Moscow, another animated crowd, estimated at about 20,000 by journalists and 140,000 by police, gathered to express support for Putin.
Critics say many participants in the pro-Putin rally were government workers who'd been compelled to come, but Svetlana Safranova, a middle-aged teacher, said she was there voluntarily.
"When you look at all these people protesting and demanding a change in government, you don't see a single one that could be called a real leader," she said. "Russia has only one really worthy leader, and that's Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin). So, we should defend him."