Moscow – Tens of thousands of protesters gathered here on Saturday afternoon for a second large antigovernment demonstration, as a wave of new activists struggle to convert an inchoate burst of energy into a durable political force.
Organizers hope to build on the success of the Dec. 10 protests, which mobilized a broad collection of previously apolitical middle-class Russians angry over parliamentary elections earlier this month that many rejected as fraudulent and slanted in favor of the ruling party, United Russia. If the movement can sustain its intensity, it could alter the course of presidential elections in March, when Vladimir V. Putin plans to extend his status as the country’s dominant figure to 18 years.
The crowd began forming more than an hour before the beginning of the protest, for which city authorities granted a permit for up to 50,000 people. Organizers estimated the crowd at 120,000; the police offered a lower estimate of about 29,000.
Pavel Morozov, 23, said he had come as an act of penitence: two years ago, he had stuffed a ballot box to bolster the results of United Russia, while working at a polling station. Mr. Morozov said that he realized his quality of life would suffer if Mr. Putin was dislodged, but that he was prepared for that.
“I can say for sure life will be worse for those of us who are now well off, but we need some kind of change, because what we have now is stagnation,” he said. “Anyone now but Putin. It will at least be different and for the youth, this is better than stagnation.”
The holiday atmosphere of the first gathering has hardened into something more urgent in the two-week lull. The crime novelist Boris Akunin, who returned to Moscow this month from his home in France to participate in the demonstrations, told the crowd to gird itself for a long haul.
“We will have a difficult year,” Mr. Akunin said. “But it will be an interesting year. It will be our year.”
The protests have shaken the Kremlin, which has not encountered widespread public resistance since Mr. Putin became president in 1999. Mr. Putin initially sneered at the protesters, saying that the white ribbons they have adopted as a symbol resembled limp condoms, and that they only participated because they were paid by foreign agents seeking to undermine Russia.
But it has become clear that the Kremlin is taking the protesters’ complaints as a warning signal, and is willing to make concessions to head off a more dangerous confrontation. President Dmitri A. Medvedev on Thursday proposed a package of deep political reforms, and high-level Kremlin-connected figures on Saturday aligned themselves with the demonstrators for the first time.
Shortly before the event began, the former finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin — a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle for more than two decades — announced that he would address the demonstrators. In a letter published in the daily newspaper Kommersant on Saturday, Mr. Kudrin noted that employees of “numerous state companies and establishments” had participated in the previous demonstration.
“It seems to me they wanted to say the following: ‘Respected leaders! Many of us have come here for the first time, fully consciously and entirely independently. We have something to lose, and we are for stability,’ ” Mr. Kudrin wrote. “But the violation of your own rules — and this is the way we take the information about mass falsifications and violations of statistical patterns — this is too much.”
Mr. Kudrin, who was fired by Mr. Medvedev in September, said this month that he was preparing to start a party that would serve the interests of disgruntled middle-class voters. In his letter, he said there were “prospects for a calm, non-violent transformation of our political system and the entire state.”
“Dynamically, but without revolution,” he wrote. “Where quality supersedes haste.”
Liberal commentators have been skeptical of overtures from Kremlin-linked figures to capitalize on this month’s burst of activism, and some began grumbling when Mr. Kudrin’s participation was announced.
“Sorry, what relationship does Kudrin have to democratic movements?” wrote Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at the Ekho Moskvy radio station, via Twitter. “He’s a bureaucrat who has faithfully served the regime for 10 years.”
For organizers, the immediate challenge has been to keep the movement alive. The protesters are working people, many of whom will leave the city for three soporific weeks in January. Their commitment to opposition politics is new and remains mysterious. Some in the crowd said they were willing to demonstrate for years; others said they might lose interest if a leader did not emerge offering concrete proposals.
At a final planning meeting last week, held at a trendy bar normally reserved for rock bands, a journalist, Masha Gessen, said it was imperative that this week’s crowd exceed the one on Dec. 10.
“Anything more than 100,000 would be gravy, anything less is potentially problematic,” Ms. Gessen said. “It just needs to feel like it’s growing.”
She said there was a real risk that, returning to the city in the gloom of mid-January, the neophyte protesters would have lost the feeling of excitement that buzzed through social networks in December. Organizers are counting on the presidential election campaign, which will reach its final stages in February, to reinvigorate the crowds. But there are few experienced leaders involved, she said.
“There has been no political organizing in the last 10 years,” she said.
Saturday’s crowd, like the one that preceded it on Dec. 10, included anarchists, incrementalists, and middle-aged voters driven by pocketbook issues.
Marina Shkuduk, 58, an economist, said she was motivated by bread-and-butter issues, like housing and utility costs, and was less concerned about the upcoming presidential elections.
“My family thinks that grandma has gone crazy,” she said.
This article, “Tens of Thousands Gather in Moscow to Protest,” originally appeared at The New York Times News Service.