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Protests Or Concerts? On Russia Day, Muscovites Get To Choose

Opposition activists rally in Moscow.
Opposition activists rally in Moscow.
MOSCOW -- With the opposition and the Kremlin vying for their attention, Muscovites were spoilt for choices this year over how to celebrate June 12, Russia's national holiday.

Opposition forces on June 12 held a march in downtown Moscow, the first mass protest since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin last month for a third presidential term.

Tens of thousands joined the march despite rainy skies and fears of a police crackdown. The rally came one day after the homes of key opposition figures were raided and just over a month after riot police violently disbanded a similar protest in the Russian capital.

While the march has proceeded peacefully so far, authorities appeared intent on disrupting it.

In Pictures: March Of Millions In Moscow

They summoned opposition leaders for interrogation, forcing them to miss much of the rally, and organized an unprecedented host of events that critics say were designed to draw people away from the protest.

More than 20 events were on offer across Moscow, including a string of concerts and exhibitions, theater shows, and a festival of Russian arts and crafts. The festivities even featured a giant apple-and-cherry pie.

The hugely popular Moscow planetarium, which opened last year after a 17-year overhaul and is known for its steep entrance fees, was also open to visitors all day free of charge.


While some of the events failed to pull crowds, stampedes and heated arguments erupted outside the planetarium as hundreds of people massed outside the building to claim free tickets.

Most of those in the queue said they had more interest in space than in their country's politics.

"I'm sick of politics, it's useless, trying to prove things to people. I came here because I wanted to get into [the planetarium], to have a look around, especially since it recently opened after renovations," one man said.

The state-sponsored festivities culminate in the evening with a five-hour concert on Red Square followed by fireworks.

Entertainments aside, another major deterrent for would-be opposition demonstrators is a new law passed last week that dramatically raises fines on protesters deemed to breach Russia's stringent legislation on public gatherings.

Reports that extra military vehicles were being dispatched to Moscow, combined with the June 11 raids of the opposition leaders' homes and their questioning, have contributed to fuel tensions ahead of the protest.

The top Twitter hashtag in Russia on June 11 was "privet37god" or "Welcome to the Year '37," a reference to the deadly purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

But in the end, those attending Moscow's opposition rally appeared determined to have just as much fun as the others.

Aleksandr, a 35-year old IT specialist who attended the protest with his two-year-old son, told RFE/RL: "It's just as good here, just have a look around! There are great, interesting, beautiful, intelligent people here. Why not come here for a chat? In a way, it's like a festival."

Tom Balmforth reported from Moscow. Claire Bigg reported and wrote from Prague. Lilya Palveleva of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed from Moscow.