A protester in downtown Moscow on Saturday holds a placard with an image… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
MOSCOW — The opposition had trumpeted the protest Saturday as the "March of Millions," and the authorities were ready, deploying thousands of riot police in full gear all around the center of Moscow, blocking key streets with heavy trucks and sending police helicopters hovering back and forth.
But as night fell, only 20,000 people at most had shown up for a litany of somewhat listless chants, speeches and songs against President Vladimir Putin, before going home past endless lines of riot police visibly bored for lack of action.
After a long summer break from massive protests that had galvanized the opposition, the anti-Putin movement was eager to demonstrate a powerful comeback in the eyes of the Kremlin and the nation. Just a day before the rally, a key member of the opposition had been stripped of his post in the parliament, and leaders were hoping that protesters would be fired up over that move to choke off dissent and the imprisoning of more than a dozen activists.
Instead, a smallish crowd marched a few miles across downtown Moscow displaying the requisite white flags of the liberals, the yellow-white-and-black flags of the nationalists and the red banners of the communists under gray skies.
"It is the same old tune and the same old song, which changes nothing, but the crowd grows thinner and thinner," said Tatiana Smirnova, a 47-year-old homemaker who has been a regular attendee since last winter's protests, which drew more than 100,000 people infuriated about alleged cheating in December parliamentary polls.
"I didn't hear any new slogans or ideas today," she said, "and I don't see much point in coming here again unless they find a way to change something."
Smirnova recalled coming to one of the rallies in the same spot last year when the whole stretch of the wide avenue was thick with people.
"Today you can see that it is only about a quarter full," she said with a disappointed sigh as a cold wind started to blow the yellow and brown foliage underfoot and she turned to go home.
Opposition leaders refused to concede the striking shortfall of protesting masses, but some acknowledged the obvious lack of drive.
"There are more and more of us here, or at least not less," Alexei Navalny, a charismatic opposition leader and a popular blogger who is facing an embezzlement investigation, said in his speech. But he went on to say, "We are lacking personal fury in this struggle!"
Navalny said that he wanted everyone present to look into the mirror in the morning and ask what he or she was ready to do for freedom and the protection of dignity. Then, looking up at a helicopter flying low overhead, he said, "You can do a lot; for example shoot down this helicopter…" The crowd chuckled, but he quickly corrected himself: "It was a joke!"
His colleague Boris Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, was more to the point, but his speech was not exactly an eye-opener either.
Nemtsov suggested that the current parliament "should be thrown away to a dump." He also demanded that political prisoners be immediately freed.
When asked later about the low turnout, he wouldn't acknowledge the fact but said patience was needed.
"Everything will change in our favor, but I don't know when," Nemtsov said in an interview. "We are not in a blitzkrieg here, you know."
Gennady Gudkov, the lawmaker who had been stripped of his post the day before on a flimsy pretext that he had allegedly run a business while in parliament, also acknowledged that the protest tactics needed some changes.
"These rallies are our main weapon, but if people get disappointed in our peaceful rallies it will be even worse for the authorities because then they will turn to radical resistance," he said.
At least one pro-Kremlin observer hurried to proclaim what he termed "a bitter defeat for the opposition."
"The opposition's sails lost their wind, and the Kremlin should celebrate its victory," Sergei Markov, a Putin advisor, said in an interview. "We can talk today about a serious crisis in the opposition that still lacks a coherent program and still fails to formulate new political demands."
When the crowd was dispersing at the end of the day, a pro-Kremlin youth stood on the sidewalk with a mocking placard that read: "You are millions, but we are a countless multitude."