Russian police officers arrest an activist on December 15, 2012 in Moscow.
Russian police officers arrest an activist on December 15, 2012 in Moscow.

Story highlights

Demonstrators mark anniversary of anti-Putin movement at an unsanctioned protest

Turnout was significantly lower than last winter's rallies, which attracted more than 100,000

Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite turned opposition leader, and her boyfriend among those detained

(CNN) —  

A few thousand Muscovites braved police and subzero temperatures to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s anti-Putin movement at an unsanctioned protest in central Moscow.

While turnout was significantly lower than last winter’s rallies, which at one point attracted more than 100,000 people, those that came faced more serious consequences, including jail and fines of more than $9,500 – nearly the average monthly Russian salary.

Hundreds of riot police cordoned off protesters who gathered next to the headquarters of the Russia’s FSB security service and the former home of the KGB during the Soviet Union.

Alexei Navalny, the popular anti-corruption blogger, and Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist activist, were detained by police immediately upon arriving, as were Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite turned opposition leader, and her boyfriend the activist Ilya Yashin.

All four were taken to a police station in the south of Moscow but released within hours.

Police initially allowed the crowd gather peacefully, but after an hour began closing in on specific protesters who they arrested in often brutal scenes. An estimated 40 people were detained.

The rally was the first major protest to not receive approval from Moscow authorities, a sign of hardening relations between the city government and opposition leaders who refused to hold the rally at alternative locations suggested by the state.

The demonstration is unlikely to breathe new life into the opposition, which has struggled to find direction since Vladimir Putin’s re-election in March. Yet the turnout was arguably higher than expected given the threat of violence and fines.

In the days before the rally, the state appeared to issue a warning to the demonstrators, announcing that a criminal investigation had been opened into Mr Navalny and his brother, and raiding the home of an associate of Mr Udaltsov.

“It was very scary for me to come. I cried this morning,” said Tatiana, 52, who did not want to give her last name for fear of getting in trouble with her employer.

She said once she had arrived at the rally she had become more confident, and had dared to affix to her coat lapel a pin that read “We were at Bolotnya . . . Arrest me!” – a reference to the first major protest last year.

“They say that there we don’t exist, but today we showed them that we do. Their laws created by an illegitimate regime an illegitimate president are not an order for us. We are in charge here . . . We will come out on to the streets again,” she said.

With no speeches or performances, the protest lacked the euphoria that coloured the demonstrations of a year ago. But those present insisted that were optimistic that change and reform would come, no matter how gradual.

“Over the past year, nothing particularly changed in politics. However, I think society has started thinking a bit about what needs to be done,” said Ivan Kosnisky, a designer.

“We need to change from within. I don’t know if there is a universal recipe. But we need to stop being indifferent and start thinking of things that are located outside our own apartments.”

He added: “I see the faces here I usually see at the Moscow Conservatory or the Tretyakovsky art gallery. It’s simply pleasant for me to chat here with these people who are clearly of the same mind.”