Moscow – Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since first became president 12 years ago.
The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. “We exist!” they chanted. “We exist!”
The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced. The leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.
Saturday’s rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Mr. Putin And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.
The protests were prompted by last week’s parliamentary elections and complicate Mr. Putin’s own campaign to return to the presidency. He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.
In Moscow, the police estimated the crowd at 25,000, though organizers said there were more than twice that many. The government calculated that it had no choice but to allow the events to unfold and granted a license. There was a large police presence, including helicopters, troop carriers, dump trucks and bulldozers, but remarkably when the crowd dispersed four hours later, no detentions were reported at the scene.
Older participants were reminded of the oceans of demonstrators who marched on the Kremlin in the early 1990s, heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Younger protesters — so digitally connected that they broadcast the event live by holding iPads over their heads — said this was a day when a group that had been silent made itself heard.
“People are just tired, they have already crossed all the boundaries,” said Yana Larionova, 26, a real estate agent. “You see all these people who are well dressed and earn a good salary, going out onto the streets on Saturday and saying, ‘No more.’ That’s when you know you need a change.”
Calls for protest have been mounting since the parliamentary elections last Sunday, which domestic and international observers said were tainted by ballot-stuffing and fraud on behalf of Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia. But an equally crucial event, many said, was Mr. Putin’s announcement in September that he would run for the presidency in March.
Mr. Putin is almost certain to win a six-year term, meaning he will have been Russia’s paramount leader for 18 years. He is currently prime minister.
Yevgeniya Albats, editor of the New Times, a magazine often critical of the government, said that the gathering was the most striking display of grass-roots democracy that she had seen in Russia, and that the involvement of young people was a game-changer. When Mr. Putin revealed his decision to return to the presidency, six months before the election, she said, “this really, really humiliated the country.”
“Today we just proved that civil society does exist in Russia, that the middle class does exist and that this country is not lost,” Ms. Albats said.
The authorities had been trying to discourage attendance, saying that widespread protests could prove as destabilizing as the Soviet collapse, which occurred 20 years ago this month. Officials have portrayed the demonstrators as revolutionaries dedicated to a violent, Libya-style overthrow. Mr. Putin last week said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had set off the wave of activism by publicly criticizing the conduct of the parliamentary elections.
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin said. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Protesters laughed at this notion. One speaker asked the crowd, “Are we here because Hillary Clinton texted us?”
Sergei Y. Zhidkov, 50, who identified himself as a Russian nationalist, gave an expectant smile in a conversation with an American. “I’d like to know when we are going to get your money,” he said brightly.
There were notes of humor, some of it barbed, about vote tampering, like a sign that said “146 percent of Muscovites are for free elections!” Some protesters carried badminton rackets, a sly reference to a pastime of Mr. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev. At metal detectors near one entrance was a pile of chocolate bars brought by protesters for the police on duty. A photographer circulated photographs of a riot police officer holding a white flower, a symbol of the protest, behind his back.
The protest’s organizers have made several demands: the immediate release of prisoners arrested last week in connection with the protests; the scheduling of new parliamentary elections; the ouster of Vladimir Y. Churov, who runs the Central Election Commission; an investigation of election violations; and the registration of so-called nonsystem opposition parties, ones that have been unable to win seats in Parliament or put forward presidential candidates.
It seems unlikely that the authorities will accede to the protesters’ demands. A deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission told the Interfax news service that the final report on the election results was signed Friday, and that he saw no reason to annul them.
“The elections are declared valid, and there is no reason for any other assessment,” said the official, Stanislav Vavilov. “There is no reason to revise the results of the elections.”
Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has helped mobilize young Russians over the past year, sent an address from the prison where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting the police. Mr. Navalny was arrested Monday night after the first of three demonstrations.
“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need — dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” said the address, which was read by a journalist, Oleg Kashin. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth.”
“We are not cattle or slaves,” he said. “We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”
The blogosphere has played a central role in mobilizing young Russians. During the parliamentary campaign, Russians using smartphones filmed authority figures cajoling or offering money to subordinates to get out the vote for United Russia. More video went online after Election Day, when many Russians in their 20s camped out in polling stations as amateur observers.
“We have a lot of evidence,” said Leonid Gigen, 26. “A lot was shot on video. And then Medvedev says these videos are fake. But people saw it themselves, because they voted.”
The ruling party, United Russia, lost ground in last Sunday’s election, securing 238 seats in the next Duma, compared with the 315, or 70 percent, that it holds now. The Communist Party won 92 seats; Just Russia won 64 seats; and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party won 56 seats.
One of the few official commentaries on the gathering came from Andrei Isayev, the deputy secretary of the presidium of the general council of United Russia, who warned demonstrators not to “allow yourself to become a pawn in the hands of those who want to destroy our country.”
There seemed little concern about that in the huge, swirling crowd, where university students chanted alongside elegantly dressed pensioners. Galina Bogunets, 74, a retired factory worker, said she wanted fair elections and was willing to accept any result that was honest.
“The one who is elected by the people should be in power, and it does not matter who is elected — Zyuganov who I am against, if he is elected by the majority he should be in power,” Ms. Bogunets said, referring to Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader. She acknowledged that her life was good and that her family was healthy and prosperous. But she said political freedom had evaporated.
“I have always lived well,” she said. “We are not starving, of course, but we were turned into cattle.”
This story, “Rally Defying Putin’s Party Draws Tens of Thousands,” originally appeared at The New York Times.