MOSCOW — Undeterred by a sudden escalation in the Kremlin's crackdown on the opposition, tens of thousands thronged Moscow's tree-lined boulevards Tuesday in the first mass protest against Vladimir Putin since he returned to the presidency in May.
The crowd was even larger than at a demonstration on the eve of Putin's inauguration, which disintegrated into violent clashes and ushered in the crackdown. Tuesday's rally ended peacefully, as both protesters and riot police took pains to prevent a confrontation because tensions were already running high.
Putin himself spoke of the need "to strive for mutual understanding and to find compromise," although in his address on Russia Day, a national holiday, he also warned of the dangers posed by attempts to split society.
Putin has taken a tougher stance on the opposition since beginning his third term May 7, but in recent days the pressure has risen markedly. Some of the most charismatic protest leaders were called in for questioning Tuesday, a day after investigators raided their apartments, carting away computers, cellphones and in at least one case envelopes stuffed with cash. The interrogations are to continue throughout the week. Fines for in unauthorized rallies were stiffened under a new repressive law hastily passed by parliament last week and signed by Putin on Friday.
The Kremlin appeared to be betting that the tougher measures would frighten away the well-educated, citified protesters, many of them young, white-collar professionals. But those who came out on Tuesday said they were determined to make their voices heard.