Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow on Saturday to protest against the alleged rigging of parliamentary polls, in a new challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority.
Clutching white balloons and banners with the slogan "For Free Elections", the protesters thronged Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, symbolically named after the Nobel-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov who for years defied the USSR.
The police said 29,000 people had turned up for the Moscow rally but organisers said 1.2 lakh people had entirely filled to bursting point the Sakharov Avenue, which was closed off to traffic for the protest.
The protest increases the pressure on Putin to implement radical changes in Russia's tightly-controlled political system as he plans to return to the presidency in March elections after his four-year stint as prime minister.
Some protesters held up pictures of Putin with a giant condom draped over his head in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh, in reference to his sneering dismissal of the rallies as resembling an anti-AIDS campaign.
In a hugely provocative speech, blogger Alexei Navalny who has emerged as one of the protest leaders, vowed that one million people would attend the next rally to demand new parliamentary elections.
“I see enough people here to take the White House (the seat of the Russian government) right now. But we are peaceful people and we will not do that — for the moment,” he said.
The protesters were heartened by the Kremlin’s human rights council saying a new election should be held, although it is only an advisory body whose recommendations are regularly ignored by Russia's leaders.