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Last updated: May 6, 2012 9:28 pm
Violent clashes broke out in Moscow on Sunday as tens of thousands of demonstrators poured on to the streets to protest at the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president on Monday.
At least 400 demonstrators were arrested and scores injured after fighting with riot police broke out – the first serious violence since the start of protests in December.
Hundreds of riot police had cordoned off part of Bolotnaya Square, where the protesters had been due to hold a sanctioned rally, as well as a bridge leading over the Moscow river to the Kremlin. Violence erupted as angry demonstrators tried to break through police lines. Protesters picked up sections of the metal cordon fence and started jabbing at police, who charged in response.
Gas filled their air and protesters threw rocks, flares and bottles at police, shouting “fascists” and “Russia without Putin”.
Opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Boris Nemtsov were carted off by police seconds after they began speaking on the stage set up for the rally. Alexei Navalny was arrested as he stood nearby.
Protest organisers put the figures anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 as the opposition movement that broke out this winter against the Kremlin again defied expectations it was ebbing away.
Though the protest did not attract the million people that organisers had hoped for, the tens of thousands of Muscovites and others that arrived from the regions said they were determined to disprove expectations that the protest movement would lose force after Mr Putin’s win in the March presidential election.
“They think they can close down the opposition with these police cordons. But this isn’t going to stop. People are going to come out and demonstrate until there are changes in Russia,” said Sergei, a computer programmer who was helping his wife put on a mask to protect against tear gas as protesters began throwing burning materials at police.
The relative bloodthirstiness on both sides was obvious as demonstrators managed to cut off and beat up several riot policemen, who escaped bleeding back to their lines, while demonstrators cheered as they scampered past. The demonstrators then flung captured riot helmets and body armour around like trophies
Police had to hire a boat to retrieve eight riot helmets floating in the Moscow river, thrown there by protesters. Police said 15 of their number were injured in the melee, while scores of protesters were probably injured as well.
At one point, protesters overturned portable toilets to form a barricade across the road and riot policemen dragged several protesters through the urine-soaked ground, cursing and beating them.
Anti-Kremlin protests had not been violent until today, and several demonstrators, expecting a pleasant afternoon of shouting slogans, had brought prams and children. Trapped between truncheon-wielding police and masked stone-throwing protesters, they tried to escape the violence, terrified and pleading with police to let them through.
"I came to a peaceful protest,” said Nataliya Igorivna, who said she was a 46-year-old housewife. "This was Putin, he set us up," she said.
Police, however, blamed the violence on anarchists who started the scuffles with the police. “They were provocateurs, and let me tell you, these people were not amateurs,” said a police general with four stars on his shoulder boards, wielding a megaphone.
Protesters said the authorities had made a mistake in not allowing them to move forward peacefully to the square to hold the sanctioned rally. As well as most of Bolotnaya Square being cordoned off, the adjacent bridge leading to the Kremlin was barricaded by hundreds of police apparently fearing that the marchers would try to continue to the Kremlin. The violent attempts to break through the police cordon were led by male youths, many of them from anarchist groups but many ordinary Russians were refusing to leave the site of the protest, too.
“None of this would have happened if they’d allowed us to hold this rally. This was a sanctioned rally. But Putin is a coward and look at these police. This is a just a sign of his paranoia,” said Galina, a teacher.
Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition leader and member of parliament, said the police had started the clashes. “The police started it. Bolotnaya square filled up and the police sealed it off. when they started to push demonstrators, and people reacted,” he said.
Protesters cited reports that many of those hoping to arrive from the regions to take part in the protest had been prevented from arriving, with the train station in Omsk, Siberia, closed down and five out of seven buses coming from St Petersburg prevented from leaving by police. These reports could not be immediately confirmed.
Independent online television channel TV Rain was taken off the air and prevented from broadcasting live footage from the protest after a hacking attack closed it down.
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