MOSCOW — Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Moscow Saturday in the latest protest over upcoming municipal elections, but with a significant new demand: the release of those arrested in previous weeks, including prominent opposition leaders.
Until now, the protests, which began four weeks ago, have sought to add opposition candidates to the city’s ballot next month. The new push not only widens the scope of the protests, but redirects attention to the arrests ahead of the Sept. 8 election.
Even as the protest was underway came the news that Lyubov Sobol, who had been the most prominent opposition candidate still free, was detained by police at her election headquarters.
The summer of discontent has posed a challenge not only to city authorities but to President Vladimir Putin. A harsh police and prosecutorial crackdown the previous two weeks has failed to deter the protesters, and some have portrayed it as a sign of weakness on the part of the government.
An organization called White Counter put Saturday’s turnout at 47,000. Police reported 20,000. A chilly rain that fell all morning probably dissuading some potential demonstrators from showing up. The rain tapered off just at 2 p.m., as the protest got underway.
Unlike the two previous rallies, this one had a legal permit. Although the police presence was heavy, the protest proceeded peacefully. Police said they detained at least one organizer for urging participants to begin a march toward the center of the city.
Several hundred people later headed toward a neighborhood adjacent to Red Square and containing the offices of the presidential administration. They were met by police who began taking some into custody.
The permitted gathering filled a wide, curving street named after Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and dissident. People waved signs and banners, socialist flags, communist flags, Russian imperial flags.
The crowd was in a generally good mood. At one point, as hundreds coming from the nearest subway station squeezed together under a narrow railroad bridge, a group of women to one side tried to hand out fliers denouncing the “betrayal” of Russia in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
This led to friendly arguments with the largely liberal protesters. When one of the women suggested that the demonstration had been whipped up by foreign powers, an argument the government has also made, a young man in the thick of the crush yelled back, jokingly, in Russian, “Yeah, we’re all Americans!”
Gatherings in solidarity with the Moscow protests were held in other cities. About 50 people were reported detained in St. Petersburg, and two in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
Though prosecutors have threatened to take from custody a child who was brought to an earlier protest, Tatiana Ostapovich came Saturday with her daughter and 5-year-old grandson, Platon, and said they were unafraid.
“We’re here to support those who’ve been arrested,” she said — a more pressing issue for her than the question of who gets on the ballot.
“I’m glad so many people came,” said a 42-year-old woman who gave her name only as Katya. “But I wish there had been more.”
Russia is undergoing a “crisis of authority,” she said. “It’s not just about the elections. The elections are a signal.”
She mentioned corruption, pension cutbacks and the inadequate response to forest fires in Siberia as all indicative of the problems facing Russians. She said she was determined to join the demonstrations but pessimistic that they will solve those issues.
But a friend and former schoolmate — also named Katya, also 42 — said she hopes there will be long-term positive results, “slowly, step by step.” Give it 10 years, she said, and maybe things will be better.