MOSCOW (AP) — Tens of thousands of Russians flooded downtown Moscow on Saturday to demand an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule, casting a strong challenge to his bid to reclaim the presidency in March.
Protesters wearing white ribbons and holding placards reading "Russia Without Putin!" and "For Free Elections" are marching to a square across the river from the Kremlin where a rally will be held.
Saturday's crowd appeared to be even bigger than two similar rallies held in December, despite temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit).
The previous rallies — the second of which drew 120,000 people, according to organizers — were the biggest in Russia since the protests 20 years ago that paved the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The authorities have sanctioned Saturday's march, even though they had rejected the organizers' earlier request to gather just outside the Kremlin.
"So many of us have come that they can's arrest all of us," said 56-year old protester Alexander Zelensky.
He and his wife, Alyona Karimova, said they had begun preparations to emigrate to Canada in the fall, but then changed their minds and decided to stay in the hope that the nation 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," Karimova said.
Protesters, many bundled in fur coats against the cold, chanted "Putin, go away!" and "Russia without Putin!" Communists and nationalists also joined the protest, waving big flags.
The protests in December were triggered by evidence of fraud in favor of Putin's party in December's parliamentary election. Putin has ignored the demands for a repeat election, but he has sought to assuage the mostly urban middle class protesters' anger by making vague promises of liberalization.
Putin also has sought to consolidate his core support group of blue-collar workers, farmers, public servants and the elderly with frequent meetings with pre-selected groups of people, which received lavish prime-time coverage on state-controlled nationwide television stations.
On Saturday, Putin's backers gathered across town in an apparent attempt to demonstrate a massive public support for his course, but the rally only drew about 15,000.
Municipal workers, union activists and teachers who showed up there said they came of their own will, but some admitted they had been asked by authorities to attend.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.