MOSCOW -- Thousands of Russians defied authorities and marched in central Moscow, ignoring officials' warnings and pressing demands to let independent candidates run in upcoming city council elections.
Police did not interfere with the August 31 protest, which was markedly smaller than previous ones.
However, camouflaged officers linked arms to keep marchers out of the road when demonstrators arrived at Pushkin Square -- a symbolically important public park closer to the Kremlin. A heavy presence of detention buses and water-cannon trucks were visible on nearby side streets.
Neither police nor independent watchdogs reported any arrests or detentions from the action -- in contrast to other recent protests in which thousands were detained, sometimes violently.
The August 31 action was the latest in a series of confrontations between liberal activists and Moscow city authorities -- and the Kremlin.
Demonstrators clapped and chanted "Russia Will Be Free!" and "Down With The Tsar!" as they walked along a leafy boulevard just a few kilometers north of the Kremlin.
A leading opposition figure and one of the organizers of the march, Lyubov Sobol, led people chanting "Freedom For Political Prisoners."
"People of different ages have come out because everyone wants justice. They want Russia to be free and happy and to not drown in lawlessness and mayhem. We demand this and we will not back down," she told reporters.
At Pushkin Square, the ending point for the march, participants milled around, occasionally yelling political chants. One group entered the crowd carrying a large banner citing the clause in the constitution that gives Russians the right to gather peacefully, and yelled "We Need Another Russia!"
Unofficial estimates put the crowd size in the low thousands.
Protesters also yelled "Let Them Through!" as they marched -- a reference to the City Duma elections scheduled for September 8.
The refusal by election officials to register some independent candidates has been the impetus for the protests that have been held weekly since mid-July.
However, they've also turned into a major challenge for the Kremlin and a reflection of growing impatience among Russians with President Vladimir Putin.
“I’m here because I am categorically against people being put in prison who haven’t done anything,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran politician who heads Yabloko, a liberal political party that has lost support in recent years. “Everything that is going on, it’s because the authorities are systematically falsifying the elections. It’s been going on for a long time, and systematically. And people are fed up.”
WATCH: Protesters March In Moscow
The weekly protests first erupted in July as election authorities blocked some independent candidates from registering to run on September 8.
The initial rallies drew tens of thousands of people in some of the largest political demonstrations seen in the country since 2012. Some, though not all, were authorized by officials ahead of time.
Police have violently dispersed several of the earlier demonstrations, some of which authorities described as "illegal mass gatherings." More than 2,000 people have been detained, some preemptively, drawing international condemnation.
Several opposition leaders were detained ahead of the August 31 event, including Ilya Yashin, who has struggled to register for the election. He was detained on August 28 immediately after he completed a fourth 10-day jail term on similar charges.
Sobol said that in their applications for a permit, activists had proposed three locations, but each request was turned down.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and city authorities didn't offer alternative locations, Sobol said, which violated local law. And she called on City Hall to "stop engaging in provocations and showing disrespect toward Muscovites, and ensure the right to assembly and freedom of expression."
“I’m here because there is no choice in Moscow,” one woman, who didn’t give her name, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “People understand perfectly that they’ve been abandoned by Sobyanin, by Putin, by all the bandits. That’s what they are: bandits who keep peaceful people from trying to express their opinion, to see their candidates make it onto the City Duma. You understand?
“We Muscovites have the right to see our people in the Duma, the right to see them heed our wishes, and we’re not an insignificant number,” she said.
The 45-seat City Duma, or city council, is dominated by the country’s ruling party, United Russia. Liberal activists, however, see their efforts to get candidates elected to the Duma as a litmus test for how flexible the Kremlin will be in allowing more competitive elections, in Moscow or elsewhere.
On the eve of the protest, the city Prosecutor-General's Office suggested that Sobol would be held responsible for any unsanctioned action.
The crowd at the August 31 event was markedly smaller than past events; on August 10, nearly 50,000 people turned out for the demonstration -- one of the largest political protests in years.
Other recent weekend events have also been less well-attended, leading to speculation that the opposition leaders were losing the interest of average Russians.