MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of Russians walked purposefully to a square in the center of Moscow on Saturday, speaking up against their authoritarian government after years of silence and marking a dividing point in the rule of Vladimir Putin.
People raised their voices in cities and towns across the country, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 in Moscow, another 10,000 in St. Petersburg. In a buoyant mood, they celebrated a widespread feeling that something had changed as they gathered in the largest opposition protests Putin has ever encountered.
While no one was calling it a revolution — bloggers dubbed it The Great December Evolution — protesters demanded free elections and called for their leaders to listen to them. Organizers promised to hold an even bigger rally on Dec. 24.
Putin no doubt will win the presidency in March, putting him in position to rule for another 12 years. But by the end of the demonstration, change had already begun. Heavily armored police stood silently and respectfully and made no arrests here, unlike earlier in the week. Two government-owned television stations, Channel One and NTV, broadcast straightforward reports of the demonstration after ignoring the others over the last week. And in a message from his jail cell, blogger Alexei Navalny told Russians they had brought about the most important transformation simply by standing in the square.
“The most powerful weapon is self-esteem,” he wrote. “One for all and all for one.”
The entire political spectrum was represented — except the ruling United Russia party.
“We want free elections,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist, as she arrived to help lead the demonstration. “We want political prisoners freed.”
The protest was set off by widespread reports that the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections had been rigged, with ballot stuffing in favor of the ruling United Russia party, which supports Putin. Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 and has been prime minister since then, plans to run for president again in March. With presidential terms now six years, the protesters see no end to an authoritarian government.
Saturday, they wanted to show that they had had enough.
In a buoyant mood, they carried home-made signs calling for free elections and for the government to obey the law. “Another 12 years of Putin?” read one sign. “No thank you.”
They gathered on Bolotnaya Square, an island across the river from the Kremlin. The roadways were lined with police and riot troops in heavy gear. A light snow fell under deep gray skies, and everyone seemed to have a camera, recording their presence at what they expected would be remembered as a historic event. Many took pictures of the police, something rarely dared.
“I am very satisfied that so many people came,” said Roman Protasevich, a 31-year-old financial adviser. “I am not a member of any party. What matters is how many of us are here.”
Protasevich was representative of the crowd, which was youthful and part of the emerging middle class. They had a clear idea of what they want.
“I don’t want to hear any cries for revolution,” he said. “We should all obey the law, and insist the authorities obey it as well.”
He and others said they knew they had to act after Sept. 24, when President Dmitry Medvedev said he would not run for president again, in favor of Putin, who has no real opposition after many years of his control.
That provoked many citizens who had given silent assent until then to Putin’s control of the country. And Saturday they gathered in cities all over Russia to say they were ready to speak up.
The day began in Vladivostok, to the far east, where several hundred gathered on the water’s edge, and protests were held in Siberia, the Ural mountains and on to Moscow.
They chanted “Russia without Putin,” and for new elections. In Moscow, the crowd at Bolotnaya Square took over the chant that pro-Kremlin groups had used against them earlier in the week. “Russia, Russia, Russia,” they chanted.
The many thousands of people entered the square through metal detectors, but police skipped the usual search of purses so that the lines could move fairly quickly.
A Starlite Diner, which offers American food, stands at one side of the square. Toward the late afternoon, a long line was waiting to get in on one end of the diner while a large contingent of police waited for deployment at the other end. Protesters were amused that Putin had tried to blame their mobilization on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, and when they heard someone speaking English, two young Russians chortled that the American spies must finally have arrived.
Protasevich and a group around him were clear-eyed about their expectations. Putin is well in control, they said. The opposition is weak and disunited.
“I hope there will be change,” he said. “I don’t think it will happen quickly. But I think it will happen eventually.”