Huge anti-government protests in Russia

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across Russia on Saturday demanding the resignation of local and national leaders, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, over lingering economic woes.

A coalition of opposition groups, hoping to channel rising anxiety over unemployment and financial policy into anti-government activism, had called for nationwide protests under the slogan "Day of Wrath."

In Moscow, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's government had banned the demonstration, and rows of riot police lined the perimeter of a bustling square in the city's historic heart to prevent protesters from gathering.

Police pounced as demonstrators slipped from the crowds of bystanders to unfurl banners, light flares or erupt into slogans such as "Down with Putin." Grabbing at limbs and clothes, they seized the demonstrators and dragged them, kicking and hollering, into waiting paddy wagons.

"Shame! Shame!" yelled the crowd as the police shoved the protesters into the vans. "Fascists!"

The opposition had applied for a permit but shrugged off the city's denial. Because the Russian Constitution guarantees the right to assembly, they argued, they had no real obligation to ask the city's permission.

"The Luzhkov government should resign, the Putin government should resign," opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov told reporters. "We'll hold our gathering here no matter what."

A few minutes later, Udaltsov was shoved into a police vehicle.

There is little question that discontent is rising in Russia, pushed by lingering economic troubles. In a recent poll, the Public Opinion Foundation found that nearly a third of Russians said they were ready to protest against the government. They named their greatest sources of anger as financial problems, increases in prices, unemployment and poor performance by government housing and utilities services.

But Saturday's demonstrations seemed to highlight the disarray of the opposition and its multitude of ideas and causes; complaints about local government and the federal government mingled.

Here in the capital, a 74-year-old retiree named Pelageya Matveyeva wandered amid the crowd.

"We are sick and tired of this kind of life," she said. "Everybody's complaining about the government because there is so much unemployment. In Soviet times, we didn't have unemployment. We had our two hands, and we could work anywhere."

"For three pennies!" snapped a passing woman who swept along in a fur hat.

Matveyeva frowned.

A man with dark hair leaned out the door of the police wagon to shout down to the gathered crowd. "I came here, and I wanted to fulfill my civic duty!" he yelled. "And they told me. . . ." Somebody yanked him back into the shadows of the wagon and slammed the door shut.

megan.stack@latimes.com

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