MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered at a Moscow square to protest last week's legislative elections, which gave a slim majority to the ruling United Russia party.
Police have estimated that 25,000 people assembled at Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, while other estimates say this figure was as high as 70,000. Moscow authorities earlier gave permission for up to 30,000 people to participate.
One rally participant, who gave her name as Lidia and identified herself as a 29-year-old civil engineer, told RFE/RL she came to protest the "fraudulent, falsified election":
"We feel that this is an historic event happening here," she said. "We have never seen so many people out on the street, standing united against barefaced, shameless lies."
Speakers at the rally have called for the dismissal of Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov and for new elections. So far, activist Yevgenia Chirikova, Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov, from A Just Russia, Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin, and Anastasia Udaltsova, wife of jailed Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasanyov have addressed the rally.
"We must demand the annulment of the elections," Kasyanov said. "If the authorities do not overturn these elections before the end of the year, then we know what we must do on March 4 [the date of the presidential election in 2012]. We will not allow Putin into the Kremlin. Everything is in our hands."
Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent "The New Times,"
urged the crowd to keep up its demands.
"We need to collect signatures -- millions of signatures, tens of millions of signatures -- for the annulment of the election results," she said. "We need to collect signatures for the resignation of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and [President Dmitry] Medvedev."
Similar demonstrations are being held in cities across Russia. Authorities in St. Petersburg denied permission for a demonstration, but an unsanctioned protest has been called and there is a heavy police presence on the streets, Russian agencies are reporting.
Appearing the night before the demonstration on St. Petersburg state television, newly appointed Governmor Georgy Poltavchenko said: "I think that every citizen, group of people, or political movement has the right to express its opinion on one matter or another -- but within the framework of existing legislation. What is happening now in Petersburg is a provocation that has been carefully planned from abroad. The servers that are flooding the Internet with calls for Petersburgers to join protests are all located far beyond the borders of our fatherland."
Little State Media Coverage
Russian state television broadcast a short report on the demonstration, but generally the state media have ignored the events.
Oleg, a 35-year-old IT engineer, told RFE/RL that he is particularly disturbed by the state media's failure to cover the demonstration of the last few days:
"We would like these events to be given objective coverage on television, because rallies have been taking place for a few days now and central television is reporting absolutely nothing," he said.
Similar demonstrations are being held in cities across Russia. AFP reported that some 10,000 people have gathered at a demonstration in St. Petersburg, the home town of both Medvedev and Putin.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Oleg Kupchinsky was at a demonstration in the Siberian city of Barnaul earlier on December 10.
"The police had called [on the public] to stay away from the rally and not to break the law," he said. "However, about 1,300 people came to the rally. At first, it unfolded under a more peaceful scenario. There were calls for a new election, appeals to [Duma] deputies to give up their mandates, leaflets were handed out warning about provocations.
"Then, unexpectedly, some suggested speaking to local government officials and a large crowd advanced to the entrance of the administration building. More police then showed up and now the police chief is speaking to the crowd, calling on them to disperse."
'Citizens Are Finally Waking Up
Chirikova, an environmentalist and key civil society leader, spoke to RFE/RL’s Russian Service ahead of the protests.
“Thousands of people will come out onto the squares, not only in Moscow but in 80 cities in Russia," she said.
"This is [happening] for the first time in the history of the Russian Federation.
"There’s never been anything like this before. Citizens are finally waking up and becoming citizens.”
The opposition protest movement, mobilized via social networks, is demanding new parliamentary elections and the release of those jailed after this week' rallies where more than 1,000 were dragged away to trucks and detained by riot police.
WATCH: Protests in Moscow and Novosibirsk against alleged violations in Russia's recent parliamentary elections
On December 9, authorities in Moscow announced that high school students would be required to attend school on the day of the demonstrations. And chief health inspector Gennady Onishchenko warned Russians not to attend demonstrations in order to avoid spreading the flu.
IIn Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow, between 500 and 1,000 have already taken to the streets, while in the Far East's Khabarovsk more than 100 have been arrested. About 1,000 people participated in the demonstration in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.
Aleksandr Bobkov participated in the demonstration in Vladivostok and expressed his frustration with the ruling party.
"Everyone is sick of living under a regime that bans its citizens from expressing their will freely," he said. "We are against falsification; we are against the fact that we have to choose from the rotten ingredients of this soup and the bankrupt politicians. And I am talking not just about United Russia but also about the opposition."
In Moscow, the authorities have beefed up security. Helicopters are circling over the city -- a rare sight and almost certainly due to the planned protests.
Deep Public Misgivings
Thousands of Interior Ministry troops were deployed to the capital earlier this week. And dozens of riot police trucks were already stationed near Revolution Square early on the morning of December 10 as light snow fell and temperatures hovered around zero.
Some 36,000 Russians indicated on Facebook that they woulddemonstrate in Moscow, while 21,000 signed up on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
The opposition is trying to ride the momentum of this week’s protests, which were triggered by State Duma polls widely seen as marred by violations handing the ruling United Russia party victory and 50 percent of the vote.
Nonetheless, many believe the protests point to deeper public misgivings about pervasive corruption and Putin’s 12-year rule. Now prime minister, Putin is preparing to return to the presidency after March 4 elections.
The authorities have appeared increasingly edgy over the rallies which saw celebrity blogger and de facto opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and Ilya Yashin, a leading figure in the Solidarity movement, jailed for 15 days for “disobeying police instructions.”
The Interfax news agency quoted Timur Prokopenko, head of the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party, as saying his organization is prepared to organize a demonstration of up to 170,000 people in support of the official results of the December 4 elections. He said the country cannot be bound by the opinions of "minorities and politically marginalized people who act with the support of the West."
Written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Tom Balmforth in Moscow as well as information from RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents and agency reports.