Hundreds of Russians gathered on Moscow's central Pushkin Square Thursday evening to demand freedom for Sergei Udaltsov and other "political prisoners" being held by authorities for protesting against allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections.
They managed to avoid a crackdown by ranks of heavily-armored riot police by keeping the event within the confines of a permitted "meeting with Duma deputies" and eschewing the open slogans and banners that would make it a forbidden "protest rally."
The main reason for the meeting was the continuous detention of Mr. Udaltsov, a left-wing street organizer who has been re-arrested three times since being picked up for "jaywalking" in Moscow on election day almost a month ago.
Over 2,000 people signed a Facebook pledge to attend the meeting but only a few hundred braved the freezing temperatures, massed police, and an explicit warning from Moscow authorities that the rally had been banned.
"We do not want to commit any illegal actions, but authorities didn't allow us to discuss this issue in public, either in the form of a rally or in the form of a picket," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy with the left-wing A Just Russia party and one of the organizers. "So we have chosen to go with the format of public meeting with Duma deputies, because under the law this format doesn't require explicit permission from the authorities."
Mr. Ponomaryov and Communist Party deputies Alexander Yuschchenko and Oleg Smolin presided over the tense gathering, under the stares of massed police. They eventually opened the floor to other participants to address the crowd. Some say they fear for the life of Udaltsov, who staged a hunger strike to protest his pre-emptive arrest and has been hospitalized under heavy police guard for much of the past three weeks.
On Tuesday a Moscow judge postponed his appeal on a previous arrest, and ordered him to remain in custody for at least another 10 days.
"Udaltsov's case has nothing to do with the law. I am here to protest against this situation," says protester Natalya Chernysheva. "I feel as if the same thing could happen to any of us. We need to come to such meetings as long as it is still possible, in the hope that maybe things will change."
The meeting broke up peacefully after a couple of hours. Some said the fact that police did not move in to make arrests, as they often do, was a hopeful sign for the future.
"I feel that it's everyone's duty to support political prisoners," says Yana Chabovskaya, a teacher. "I don't share Udaltsov's political views, but I support his right to have them. We have to go on fighting for those rights, and if we come out in large enough numbers it will make it much more difficult for them to arrest us."