This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Most of the usual elements of a protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin seemed to be in place on a sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Moscow: riot police blocking every approach to the rally site, police helicopters buzzing overhead, mass chants of "Russia without Putin," white balloons and ribbons.
What was sharply lacking were the numbers and the passion.
Less than a week after Putin was declared the overwhelming winner in Russia’s presidential election, about 10,000 people joined Saturday’s march, a shadow of the 100,000-strong marches in Moscow in the last three months in the wake of a disputed parliamentary vote.
The crowd seemed to be largely going through the motions, with none of the typical high-note ardor in echoing “yes” and “no” to the anti-Putin incantations coming from the speakers’ stage.
"I have a strong feeling that the movement which I have been enjoying so much is skidding," said Nikita Grishin, a curly-haired 18-year-old physics student at Moscow University. "I think people are simply in despair, as none of our demands have been met and Putin doesn’t seem to care about what we think and what we say here."
His friend, 20-year-old bartender Andrei Tokar, said that most of his friends and relatives are indifferent toward Russian politics.
"They don’t believe their participation can change anything," Tokar said. "My mother joined me at a protest rally last December, but this time she said, ‘It is all useless.’ People don’t have a real fighting spirit nowadays and they so easily lose hope."
On stage, speakers dutifully complained about election fraud and the authorities’ craftiness and cynicism, but the cutting edge was gone from their speeches, as if they wanted to be done with this protest as quickly as possible so they could go home and analyze their failure to contain Putin at the polls once again.
Their tales of run-ins with electoral fraud had the sense of punching the air with their fists after the fight was long over.
The ranks of the speakers also showed gaping holes, with no appearances by some of the popular showmen, writers and poets who added so much color to the previous opposition gatherings.
Two of the most eloquent and popular leaders, former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and charismatic blogger Alexei Navalny, didn’t address the thinning crowd with their fiery diatribes. Navalny was spotted yards away from the speakers’ platform rubbing shoulders with the ordinary crowd, and Nemtsov was nowhere to be seen.
Opposition leaders denied that the protests were fading, arguing that it was a temporary, and tactical, intermission.
"We need to get used to the idea that we are running a political marathon here," said Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader briefly detained by the authorities after a protest Monday. "We are just regrouping to keep ourselves in shape to last the entire distance."
[For the record, 11:38 a.m. March 10: A previous version of this post said speakers at the protest recounted clashes with police. They recounted tales of election fraud.]
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A protester holds a Putin cartoon at a rally in downtown Moscow on Saturday. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times