Russian officials claimed as many as 25,000 people turned out to back the ruling party and its leader Vladimir Putin during the December 12 protests on Moscow's Manezhnaya Square. Not as big as the 40,000-plus showing at the capital's antigovernment protests on December 10, but certainly respectable.
Photographs and eyewitness accounts, however, tell a different story. While aerial pictures (and no, that wasn't a UFO flying over Moscow) from the weekend demonstration on Bolotnaya Square show a crush of people spilling beyond the site to the streets beyond, photos from Manezhnaya show a crowd that appeared, at most, to number in the low thousands and lasted less than an hour.
Spirit also appeared to be in short supply at the Manezhnaya rally. All the trappings were there: Nashi youth, drums and flags, songster Iosef Kobzon, and the stirring rhetoric of Russia NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin -- who announced that Putin "is ready to stand up for Russia, and we are ready to stand up for him." But many in attendance hung passively on the sidelines. And few seemed able to offer a clear explanation for why they had come.
"We're here because we want to be active, socially relevant pensioners," one bright-eyed grandmother told RFE/RL's Russian Service videographer Dmitry Zykov. "We're here for United Russia," said another Russian woman, with a hint of aggression. "Because our bright future suits us." (see full video below)
Many at the rally appeared to be migrants from Russia's former republics -- a constituency that might not normally mix with Nashi members and other young nationalists who make up the bulk of United Russia's street-level supporters. One group of Central Asian women, who identified themselves as public-maintenance workers, told Zykov they had been sent by their bosses to attend the rally. Another man who worked as a groundskeeper said he, too, had been "sent" to attend the rally.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Yury Timofeyev and Irina Chevtayeva spoke to several protesters who claimed to have been paid for their time. One man, Aleksandr, said he had been brought on a bus from Zelenograd and promised 500 rubles ($16). "There's no such thing as too much money, so I don't care where they ask me to hang out."
A member of the United Russia Young Guard youth group told RFE/RL he had received a phone call three days before the Manezh rally asking him to deliver a hundred people to the site, and said each would receive 200 rubles if they arrived on time. "I started trying to gather people, but they almost all refused when they heard it was a United Russia meeting. Nothing other than money will persuade people to attend a rally like this. Only a few actually go for the idea of it."
When the protest broke up after a mere 40 minutes, one participant was overheard saying, "I traveled six hours for this?"
-- Daisy Sindelar