MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting "Putin is a thief" and "Russia without Putin," forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir Putin first became president 12 years ago.

The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. "We exist!" they chanted. "We exist!" Opposition leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.

Saturday's rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Putin. And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia's nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.

The protests certainly complicate Putin's own campaign to return to the presidency. He is by far the country's most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.


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In Moscow, the police estimated the crowd at 25,000, though organizers said there were more than twice that many. The government calculated that it had no choice but to allow the events to unfold and granted a license. There was a large police presence, including helicopters, troop carriers, dump trucks and bulldozers, but remarkably when the crowd dispersed four hours later, no detentions were reported at the scene.

Older participants were reminded of the oceans of demonstrators who marched on the Kremlin in the early 1990s, heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union. Younger protesters -- so digitally connected that they broadcast the event live by holding iPads over their heads -- said this was a day when a group that had been silent made itself heard.

"People are just tired, they have already crossed all the boundaries," said Yana Larionova, 26, a real estate agent. "You see all these people who are well dressed and earn a good salary, going out onto the streets on Saturday and saying, 'No more.' That's when you know you need a change."

Calls for protest have been mounting since parliamentary elections last Sunday, which domestic and international observers said were tainted by ballot-stuffing and fraud on behalf of Putin's party, United Russia.