MOSCOW — Thousands of protesters crowded a square in central Moscow on Monday to demand political freedoms and an end to corruption, in an attempt to inject new life into Russia's flagging opposition movement.
The largely peaceful demonstration marked a year since Russian authorities cracked down on the opposition on the eve of Vladimir Putin's presidential inauguration. Since then, many opposition leaders have been prosecuted, and some ordinary protesters arrested then are still in jail. But many of the roughly 20,000 people who turned out on a brisk spring evening vowed that they would not stop agitating until Putin yielded to their demands.
"Our main task is to throw out those from our country who want to steal from us," said Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader and blogger who has declared his desire to run for president. Navalny is on trial on embezzlement charges that he says were filed at Putin's behest. "I will never surrender and I will never leave," said Navalny, who denies the charges.
Despite the defiant tone, many at the protest seemed far less optimistic than they did during the first protests in December 2011, when a previously politically apathetic generation turned out into the streets to object to parliamentary election results widely believed to be fraudulent. The demands swiftly expanded. Then, a year ago, authorities scared many people back into their homes by pursuing harsh sentences against protesters.
"We just don't like someone else making the decisions for us. Our patience is worn out completely," said Maria Smolentsev, 36, a stay-at-home mother who said that she was attending a protest for the first time.
She said the last straw was a ban in January on American adoptions of Russian children, the response to U.S. passage of a law that bans entrance into the United States and freezes U.S. assets of Russian officials tied to the death in police custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused officials of embezzlement.