Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities in the largest protest to date against alleged fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections.
The demonstration in the capital, which drew significantly more people than a similar rally two weeks ago, signaled mounting discontent against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule.
Organizers say more than 100,000 flocked to Moscow's Sakharov Prospekt, a broad avenue about 2 1/2 kilometers from the Kremlin. Many chanted "Russia without Putin" and carried signs with slogans like "Russia will be free." The independent Internet television station Dozhd TV reported that 80,000 people passed through metal detectors. Police estimated a more modest 28,000 attended.
Anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who was released from jail this week after serving a 15-day sentence for participating in an earlier protest, praised the size of the crowd, which many observers said was the largest demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago
"I see enough people here to take the Kremlin and the government building right now. But we are a peaceful force. We will not do that. Not just yet. But if these swindlers and thieves continue to deceive us, tell us lies, and steal from us, we will take it ourselves," Navalny said.
In Pictures: The Best Russian Protest Signs
Demonstrators are demanding that the authorities annul the results of the December 4 parliamentary elections, in which Putin's ruling United Russia party barely maintained their majority in the State Duma amid widespread reports of voter fraud. They are also demanding that new elections be held with unregistered opposition parties allowed to participate as well as the resignations of top Central Election Commission officials.
In an attempt to assuage the mounting public discontent, President Dmitry Medvedev on December 22 proposed a series of reform measures, including the restoration of the direct election of regional governors and an easing of the rules for registering candidates and parties for elections.
Heavy Police Presence
Addressing the crowd, longtime opposition figure and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov mocked Medvedev and said he did not trust him to follow through on the measures.
"We don't believe [Medvedev's recent promises of political reforms]. We don't believe him. He already promised modernization, innovation, 'freedom is better than nonfreedom.' Of course, he's a well-known blogger, it's true, but he never became a president," Nemtsov said.
Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a close Putin ally who resigned in late September and has since expressed sympathy for the protesters, also addressed the crowd. "I'm here today because I'm for fair elections," he said. "I do not agree with the results of this election and I think everyone responsible must be brought to account, even prosecuted, and [Central Election Commission head Vladimir] Churov should be dismissed."
Heavy police cordons surrounded demonstrators, who had to pass through metal detectors to get to the rally site, which was surrounded by metal barriers. A police helicopter hovered overhead.
Nevertheless, the protests in the capital proceeded largely without incident and had a festive mood.
There were also references to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, a playwright, human rights advocate, and former anticommunist dissident who died on December 18. Neither Medvedev nor Putin offered condolences for Havel's death and Russia declined to send high-ranking officials to his funeral in Prague on December 23.
Journalist Olga Romanova said that unlike the authorities, the Russian people honor Havel's memory. There were reports of protesters carrying portraits of Havel with the slogan: "We Need such a President."
There were also numerous references to Putin's remark in his December 15 live call-in show that the white ribbons protesters wear resemble condoms. Journalist and music critic Atemy Troitsky addressed the crowd dressed as a condom and one protester held a placard showing Putin with a condom wrapped around his head.
In a wry reference to Putin's alleged estrangement from his wife, Lyudmila, Troitsky said, "What he doesn't do with his wife he does to the country."
Far Eastern Protests
The day's first rallies took place in Far East towns of Blagoveshensk, Khabarovsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and Vladivostok, where people braved freezing temperatures and snowstorms to take part in demonstrations organized by many different opposition groups. Some posters carried by demonstrators in Vladivostok called for Putin to be put on trial.
"The people can explode in a second," Stanislav Goryansky, a member of the opposition Yabloko party, told demonstrators in Blagoveshensk in the far-eastern Amur region.
There were few reports of arrests or violence at the protests, which largely proceeded peacefully.
RFE/RL's Russian Service reports that 20 people were detained during protests in Barnaul in the Siberian region of Altai. They were released after three hours and ordered to appear in court on December 26.
Human rights activist Pavel Chikov tweeted that police detained and later released 60 people in Nizhny Novgorod. They are also required to appear in court on December 26.
And in St. Petersburg, police briefly detained six leftist activists but later released them after an appeal from Sergei Mironov, leader of the party A Just Russia, according to a tweet by local journalist Arseny Smolyak.
Once hugely popular strongman Putin, who has led Russia for 12 years -- in two presidential terms and then as prime minister -- is poised to win his presidency back in March elections. He could stay in power until 2024.
His United Russia party, which held vast majority in the previous Duma, lost 77 seats in the December 4 elections, in a sign of people's frustration with Putin's dominance.
His opponents accused the authorities of election fraud and claimed the party's performance in reality was far worse than the 49 percent of the vote announced by the Central Election Commission.
An estimated 40,000 people protested in Moscow on December 10 to condemn what they called electoral fraud.
Prior to the demonstrations, the Kremlin's Council for Civil Society and Human Rights said "numerous reports" of mass violations in the elections discredited parliament and "create a real threat to the Russian state." It also called for Vladimir Churov, the head of the election commission, to resign.
"Numerous reports of ballot stuffing, rewriting of protocols of ballot results, an unjustified removal of observers and journalists [from polling stations], a ban on photography and video recording, and other violations of electoral rights...led to mass distrust of the poll results," the advisory panel said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, has urged Putin to follow his example and step down.
(WATCH: Protesters rally in Moscow.)
Speaking in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Gorbachev said if Putin heeded protest demands and stepped down now, he would be remembered for the positive things he did during his 12 years in power.