REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Russian authorities relented Sunday and let demonstrators wearing white ribbons take to the historic cobblestones of Moscow's Red Square, strolling unhindered past the Kremlin walls and Lenin mausoleum as they protested the rule of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, now president-elect.
The Kremlin’s peaceful reaction surprised the "Let’s Turn Red Square White" protesters after dozens of people were detained during a similar rally a week earlier. The authorities that day closed down the square in the face of demonstrations, angering and inconveniencing not only Muscovites but thousands of tourists.
“It is just one more of our victories, and we will build up pressure on Putin and his government,” said Pavel Shelkov, 47, a businessman. “I think they realized how absurd it is not to allow people to peacefully walk in Red Square with white ribbons.”
A week ago, Shelkov and his wife spent four hours in a police cell for trying to enter Red Square wearing white ribbons, which have become the symbol of peaceful resistance to the Putin regime.
Sergei Udaltsov, an opposition leader who spent the better part of last year behind the bars for protest activities, on Sunday was able for the first time to distribute opposition booklets in the square.
“The Kremlin is finally displaying some common sense,” Udaltsov said. “It is a good sign, which demonstrates that our efforts have not been in vain.”
The opposition has held a series of protests against Putin's rule since disputed parliamentary elections in December. In apparent response, current President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law last week significantly simplifying the registration of political parties. A draft bill for the return to direct elections of regional governors passed its first reading in parliament and is expected to soon become law.
On Sunday, publishing house editor Inna Karezina, her red hair adorned in white ribbons, pushed a friend across the square in a wheelchair as they distributed ribbons to passers-by.
“We have finally brought it home to the authorities that it is our city and we can walk everywhere wearing ribbons or any other symbols we may choose to express our civic position and political convictions,” Karezina said.
In response to the protest, pro-Putin youths dressed in World War II uniforms entered the square quoting poetry and singing songs. They said they were dressed to celebrate victory, but didn’t specify whose.
The youths loudly sang a popular wartime song with the lines: “Four corpses near a tank would complete a morning landscape.”
Police walked around looking bored. But they did step in to detain protesters who tried to set up a tent in the middle of the square, taking the would-be campers and their gear away in a police van.
The protesters left the square promising to organize a million-person anti-Putin rally for May 6, the eve of his inauguration to a third term as president. The planned mass action will be called “Look the Truth in the Eye.”
-- Sergei Loiko
Photo: Publishing house editor Inna Karezina, her red hair adorned in white ribbons, pushes a friend across Red Square in a wheelchair during Sunday's protest. Credit: Sergei Loiko / Los Angeles Times