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Thousands in Russia demand new elections, release of prisoners

This post has been corrected. See bottom for details.

MOSCOW — In the biggest show of opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin since last May, thousands of demonstrators gathered Monday near the Kremlin to demand an immediate release of all political prisoners and new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The protesters filled Bolotnaya Square, not far from the site of a mass protest march exactly one year earlier. That demonstration, on the eve of Putin’s third presidential inauguration, ended violently, in clashes with police.

“We have spent a year in deep defense,” opposition leader Ilya Yashin told the crowd Monday. “It is high time we shift to a counter-offensive, and we will win back Moscow and then the entire country!”

This time, the rally ended peacefully, if ominously. With police helicopters hovering low under leaden skies, protesters scattered to find thousands of riot police and Interior Ministry troops lining every adjacent street and surrounding Red Square and the Kremlin.

In the year between the two gatherings, the Kremlin has been steadily cracking down on the opposition. Twenty-seven political activists, twelve of them in jail, are under investigation for allegedly organizing riots funded from abroad.

In addition, prosecutors have brought embezzlement charges against the most popular and charismatic of the opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny, who nonetheless appeared at the rally, arriving to massive cheers and applause as he climbed onstage with his wife, Yulia. In a fiery speech, Navalny gave the crowd a new rallying cry by calling Putin “a thieving, corrupt hypocrite” — a phrase that was immediately taken up and chanted.

If found guilty on charges of embezzling about $500,000 from an obscure regional timber company, Navalny could go to prison for up to 10 years and would become Russia’s second-most famous political prisoner after the former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Navalny has called the charges against him politically motivated and false.

“A year ago when I was here at the rally, not a single criminal case had been launched against me, but ... now there are either four or six — I have lost count myself,” he said. “I stand to lose a lot, but I understand what I am fighting for: a brighter future for my country, for my family and my children.”

The day began badly. A few hours before the rally, a large loudspeaker fell on a young technician setting up audio equipment, killing him. Stunned organizers considered canceling the event but ultimately decided to press forward. The rally started with a minute of silence for the dead worker.

With talk of a crisis in the opposition movement, expectations for turnout at the event were low. However, demonstrators filled the square. Police estimated the crowd at less than 10,000. Organizers said it was more than 30,000.

The speakers’ tone was not as victorious as in December 2011, when more than 100,000 people turned out to protest alleged ballot swindles during the parliamentary elections. That turned out to be a high-water mark for the movement.

Opposition activist and popular humorist author Viktor Shenderovich conceded that the opposition was living through hard times.

“It was a difficult year for us as our euphoria changed to apathy,” he told the crowd. “It will be difficult for us not to be scared of riot police and court trials designed to instill fear in us as the authorities have succeeded in replacing our joy with pessimism.”

His political comrade-in-arms, poet Dmitry Bykov, called the Kremlin’s repressions a blessing in disguise.

“The reactionary times are wonderful in the sense that they are forging the best people amid our ranks,” he said. The Kremlin “is terrified of us as we go on living!”

For the record, 10:35 p.m., May 6: A previous version of this post gave an incorrect first name for Ilya Yashin.

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