MOSCOW – Their frozen breath rising in the brutally frigid air, tens of thousands of protesters marched through downtown Moscow on Saturday to keep up the pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin one month before a presidential election that could extend his rule for six more years.

The protesters have few illusions that they can drive Putin from power now, but for the first time in years Russians are challenging his control and demanding that their voices be heard.

Wrapped in furs or dressed for the ski slope, as many as 120,000 people turned out for the third and perhaps largest mass demonstration since Putin’s party won a parliamentary election Dec. 4 with the help of what appeared to be widespread fraud.

The election, following Putin’s presumptuous decision in September to reclaim the presidency, was the last straw for Russians increasingly unhappy with the creeping authoritarianism during his 12-year rule. Two protest rallies in December, which also drew tens of thousands, were the biggest in Russia since the demonstrations 20 years ago that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The deep freeze that has settled over the Russian capital threatened to keep many away on Saturday, when temperatures dropping to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Instead, they tied on the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement and chanting “Russia Without Putin” marched about a mile to a square across the river from the Kremlin. Thousands of police monitored the two-hour peaceful protest without intervening.

“There are now so many of us that they cannot arrest us all,” said 56-year-old protester Alexander Zelensky. In recent years, riot police have routinely broken up opposition protests and detained the participants.

He and his wife, Alyona Karimova, 50, said they had begun preparations last year to emigrate to Canada, but then changed their minds and decided to stay in the hope that Russia will eventually move toward democracy.

“This is going to be a gradual process, but we believe it will eventually lead to democracy and free elections,” said Karimova, who was wearing a long mink coat and a sign around her neck telling Putin to return to his native St. Petersburg.

An anti-Putin protest also took place in St. Petersburg on Saturday, drawing 5,000 people, and smaller rallies were held in several dozen other cities across Russia.

A separate rally in Moscow in support of Putin drew no more than 20,000 people. Most of them were teachers, municipal workers, employees of state-owned companies or trade union activists, who had come with co-workers on buses provided by their employers. Many clearly had been drinking.

“I can see how Russia started to change when Putin became president,” said Alexander Igolkin, a 51-year-old social worker. “I would already build a monument to him.”

 


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