Thousands of Russians, wearing white ribbons as a mark of pro-democracy protest, formed a human chain around Moscow's Garden Ring Sunday in a final warning against electoral fraud in presidential polls that will take place in a week.
Protesters displayed their trademark white "Russian Winter" balloons, scarves and ribbons, and smiled and waved to passing drivers, many of whom honked in approval. But since authorities had granted no permit for the rally, people mostly remained silent and carried few of the sharply-worded political signs and banners that have been prominent in previous rallies.
The mood was upbeat, even though opinion polls appear to show that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks set to win a first-round victory in the March 4 voting.
Some protesters said they blame Mr. Putin personally for Russia's endemic corruption, lack of media openness, and the system of "managed democracy" that critics describe as electoral flim-flam. But many said their purpose in expressing themselves publicly was to pressure for long-term change rather than merely to defeat Putin.
"We want changes, at last," said Natalya Syomina, a former tour guide. "If not for us, then at least for our children. If people hadn't begun protesting in recent months, the situation in the country would be different. We are sick and tired of this political stagnation, and when we come out into the street like this, the authorities cannot fail to notice that people are angry."
It was difficult to estimate the numbers of protesters who lined the entire length of the 10-mile long road amid gusting snow, in the latest of a series of demonstrations that began after widespread allegations of vote-rigging in December parliamentary elections.
Police, who have habitually underestimated the size of opposition crowds, put the number at 11,000. But opposition leaders pointed out that it would take at least 34,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder to line the road, which girdles downtown Moscow. Similar disputes over numbers have attended three previous mass protests, including one that filled Moscow's vast Sakharov Avenue two months ago.
Sunday's event was organized almost spontaneously, flash-mob style, with people reserving their place in the chain over recent days on a special Facebook page devoted to the rally.
New election monitors
Up to 50,000 volunteer election monitors will blanket polling stations across the country next Sunday to watch for any signs of electoral cheating -- a totally new phenomenon for Russia that was inspired by the protest movement.
Many were repeat protesters, and some said the experience of taking peacefully to the streets has invigorated them, changed their attitude toward Russia, and made them much more hopeful that the country can evolve a better political system if people keep the pressure on.
"I'm just sick and tired of all the lies and corruption we have to live with," says Dmitry Levin, a self-described businessman. "The missing element, until now, has been public pressure on the authorities. It's the only way to make change. As a businessman, I see corruption every day. You never know who's going to try to take a bite out of your business next. It's got to end. Maybe we can't change things overnight, but we can't tolerate this any longer."
Putin faces four challengers from across the political spectrum in an election that appears to be a classic of the "managed democracy" system he designed. Most serious alternatives were weeded from the process long before ballots were printed, leaving a field comprised of familiar, lackluster also-rans, such as Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who are unlikely to win many votes beyond their well-established followings.
Protest candidate emerges
One exception is liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who can expect to gain little traction in Russia's vast, working class and conservative hinterland, but whom some of the mainly middle-class protesters in Moscow Sunday said they viewed as a viable protest candidate.
"I'm not going to stay at home on voting day, so I'll support Prokhorov," says Tatiana Bozhenova, who works in an optician's shop. "At least he's already rich. I don't want to see Putin come back. His insistence on returning to power did a lot to drive people into the streets to protest."
About 100,000 Muscovites rallied in support of Putin last Thursday, another sign that Russian political culture is changing, and becoming more publicly expressive, in ways that will be hard for any future authorities to reverse.
Viktoria Sergeyeva, a lawyer, said that she will continue protesting after the elections, no matter what the outcome.
"The next wave of protests, after the election, will be bigger that ever," she said. "They're already being planned."