It was nothing like the sea of orange-clad protesters who brought a new government to Ukraine in 2004, but for Russia's locked-down political climate, the rally on Sunday, Oct. 31, in the center of Moscow was a landmark of public discontent. Over the past 18 months, members of the sidelined opposition had tried nine times to gather on Moscow's Triumphal Square to defend their constitutional right to assemble and to call for the ousting of Vladimir Putin's government, and nine times the protesters had been beaten up, shoved away or arrested by riot police. This time, the government, apparently fed up with the bad publicity involved in dragging elderly demonstrators into police vans, allowed an hour of public catharsis Sunday night. But as the demonstration showed, the kind of outrage that arises in Russia when the gag is loosened may be more than the authorities are ready to permit.
This was clear first of all in the size of Sunday's rally. The nine previous events, all of which were banned on various pretexts (such as a state-funded blood drive using the square that same day), had attracted a few hundred people at best. So the 800-person limit the government set for Sunday's event seemed reasonable; it even had a chance of embarrassing the opposition if it produced a meager turnout. But despite Russia's docile political culture, about 2,000 people showed up to listen to speeches from dissidents and chant slogans like "Russia without Putin." The sudden emotional release it provided seemed so exhilarating that hundreds of the demonstrators, mostly younger activists, refused to disperse when riot police warned over loudspeakers that the party was over.
This group then attempted to march toward the Kremlin, shouting far more vitriolic slogans, like "Death to that dog Putin." A column of about 100 helmeted riot police cut them off, and for the first time in memory, a group of at least 200 protesters rushed the barricade, shattering a glass advertisement and knocking at least one policeman to the ground. Many of the remaining cops looked terrified and screamed for backup. When it arrived, the crowd turned around and moved in the other direction, toward the White House, the seat of Putin's government. "Of course we expected this. It was bound to happen," says Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader who addressed the rally from the makeshift stage erected on the square on the back of a truck and then helped lead the unplanned march that followed. "We came here not just to hold a protest but to return our freedom. So that's what we're doing," Yashin tells TIME.
Despite Yashin's serious tone, the marchers were an impish bunch of freedom fighters, hugging and laughing as they blocked traffic on Moscow's four-lane Garden Ring, and their numbers were soon whittled down to about 60 by police vans that swooped in to nab as many people as they could. The few dozen who made it to the White House, chanting "Down with Putin's regime," were either tackled there by police or herded into patrol wagons waiting nearby. In the Russian press, the only report about the ragtag march was from the Interfax news agency, which cited a police spokesman as saying that nine people had been arrested for trying to "organize a provocation" at the White House. The evening news broadcasts on Russia's state-run television did not report on either the legal rally at Triumphal Square or the illegal march afterward.
The leaders of the opposition seemed to take an important lesson from the way the rally unfolded: once a crowd gets riled up, it can be encouraged to march anywhere it's told to. Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian governor turned opposition leader, said that after the next demonstration at Triumphal Square, which is planned for Dec. 31, the protesters will again try to march on the Kremlin. "We must demand that we are allowed on New Year's eve to march in that direction, where the Kremlin lies," Nemtsov said in his speech to the demonstrators. "We must do everything to oust this government of thieves that is headed by Putin."
In August, Putin seemed to predict this kind of escalation. "If the objective [of the opposition] is to force the authorities to make concessions, and if the authorities give in to that, then the provocations will not stop," he said in an interview with the daily Kommersant. He added gravely that if the opposition insists on holding unsanctioned protests and marches, "They will get it on the head with a truncheon."
So why did the government allow Sunday's rally to even take place? The main factor may be the liberal posturing of Dmitri Medvedev, whom Putin, upon taking over as Prime Minister, put forward as his successor as President in 2008. Since assuming office, Medvedev has taken a more obliging tone toward the opposition, and his deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, said last month that the official attitude toward protesters should change "in the spirit of the President's policies." The departure of Moscow's hard-line mayor, whom Medvedev fired in September, seemed to give the Kremlin an excuse to lighten up on rallies in the capital.
But because such protests have always been banned, the authorities do not have any experience in accurately gauging their potential scale. "This is the worrying factor the weak understanding of dissatisfaction with the government," says Nikolai Zlobin, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. "There are indications that the possibility for unrest has been underestimated, and it is unclear what could spark major protests. This is something the government would want to avoid at any cost."
So the experiment with a softer approach to dissent may prove fleeting after the government reassesses the risk of growing unrest vs. the bad publicity that results from beating up protesters. But having felt what's its like to shout for Putin's ouster on a public square and then march, however weakly, on the White House, the Russian opposition may be less willing to stand down. As Nemtsov put it to reporters after the rally: "We've had this one success. We cannot stop here."