12/15/2012 12:16 pm ET

Russian Opposition Protest: Thousands Gather At Unsanctioned Meeting Against Putin

MOSCOW -- Thousands of people challenged the administration of President Vladimir Putin in a defiant, unsanctioned gathering amid temperatures that hovered around minus 17 C.

“Respected citizens, this event is against Moscow laws, please walk to the Metro in order not to be detained,” repeated policemen -- who numbered in the hundreds -- over a megaphone throughout the meeting.

The crowd did not heed the call.

The gathering took place on Lubyanka Square, across the street from the headquarters of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB. Protesters laid white flowers -- the color of the opposition -- on the Solovetsky stone, a memorial to victims of the Gulag, erected after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Police and special forces presence was significant, and officers numbered in the hundreds. Buses lined surrounding streets with buses waiting to be used for detained protesters,and a helicopter hovered low, apparently in an attempt to drown out noise from protesters.

Neither heavy security nor freezing cold temperatures deterred protesters, about 2,000 to 3,000, including families with children, and teenagers with iPads tweeting to pensioners. By attending an unsanctioned gathering, all of them were risking fines up to about $9,000, -- or $18,000 for organizers -- as the result of a law signed by Putin in June.

“I am not afraid to be here -- Putin should be afraid of us,” said Lilia Sokolova of Moscow, who said that she had protested since the 1960s in the Soviet Union.

“This is the warmest place in Moscow!” quipped longtime opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, who was deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin.

Protesters did not only include liberal figures such as Nemtsov; nationalists, libertarians and gay rights activists also came to Lubyanka. (Communists, however, held their own sanctioned rally earlier Saturday in another part of Moscow where protests frequently occur.) The disparate groups share a deep desire to see Putin leave office after almost 13 years in power.

“I don’t want our freedom to depend on one person,” said Alexander Bolgov, a protester from Moscow. “That is stupidity.”

“The fish rots from the head,” said Valentina Ostak-Pengur of Moscow, who rejected that the so-called war on corruption waged by Putin -- mostly involving sacking key officials such as Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov -- was anything significant.

The most famous anti-corruption leader inside and outside of Russia -- lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny -- came to the rally and was immediately swarmed by reporters, photographers and fans. He stood in a scrum and greeted the crowd before being detained by police. Russian investigators accused him and his brother, Oleg, of fraud and money laundering on Friday -- charges that he rejects as politically motivated.

Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov was detained much more quickly, as was Ksenia Sobchak, who is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, the former St. Petersburg mayor and the mentor to both Putin and Dimitry Medvedev. All three of them were released later Saturday.

The rally was nowhere near the size of other protests that began after the Duma elections Dec. 4, 2011, tainted by widespread fraud. But unlike some of those protests, authorities did not approve the rally after negotiations broke down earlier this week.

“I am furious that our protest demonstration was not officially sanctioned despite the fact that we had applied for the permission to hold a rally in time. We have never been violent. So, they have no right to deny us permission,” said pensioner Tamara Kozhevnikova.

The police, after about an hour and a half of allowing the protesters to mill about, began to detain people, dragging them out the square. People chanted, “Shame! Shame!” and “Russia Without Putin!” But the protest only ended when officers, with their arms locked to form a chain, pushed the crowd out of the square and into the cold Moscow evening.