MOSCOW - Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities across Russia on Saturday to demand an end to Vladimir Putin's rule and complain about alleged election fraud in the biggest show of defiance since he took power more than a decade ago.
Rallies were expected in dozens of cities, from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Kaliningrad nearly 7,400 km (4,600 miles) away in the west, mounting the biggest opposition protests since Putin came to power in 2000.
In Vladivostok, a large port city where Putin's United Russia party was defeated by communists in last Sunday's parliamentary election, protesters held banners saying: "We are against mass falsifications!" and "The rats should go!"
Organisers said about 1,000 people defied wintry weather to protest, but police put the number much lower. About 20 were detained in Khabarovsk, a city of almost 580,000 people about 30 km (19 miles) from the border with China, RIA news agency said.
At least 15,000 people protested at Bolotnya Square, a large open space across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, and up to 1,500 gathered near a statue to Communist ideologist Karl Marx at Revolution Square, a few steps from the red walls of Russia's centre of power, witness said.
Protesters in Moscow waved pictures of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev declaring: "Guys, it's time to go."
The rallies are a test of the opposition's ability to turn outrage over the Dec. 4 election, which it says was slanted in United Russia's favour, into a national protest movement that can undermine Putin's plan to return to the presidency in 2012.
"This is history in the making for Russia. The people are coming out to demand justice for the first time in two decades, justice in the elections," a 41-year-old employee in the financial services sector, who gave his name only as Anton, said at Revolution Square.
Like other protesters, he wore a white ribbon which he said symbolised the dissent of the people. At Bolotnaya Square people of all ages gathered, many carrying white carnations which they said was the symbol of their protest.
CALLS FOR NEW ELECTIONS
"I want new elections, not a revolution," said Ernst Kryavitsky, 75, a retired electrician dressed in a long brown coat and hat against the falling snow who was protesting even though he did not expect Putin to be ousted.
"Putin will not leave power, and there won't be any major changes in the country but the authorities need to know how angry we are," he said.
Around Bolotnaya Square policeman stood every 50 metres (yards) with dogs. Banners declared: "Putin Kaput" and "Big brother is watching you" with a picture of Putin.
About 50 trucks of riot police were parked near Revolution Square and police were out in force in the capital. There were no immediate reports of clashes or detentions.
There were also reports of protests in other big cities including Arkhangelsk in the Arctic north and in the Siberian cities of Barnaul, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk.
ANGER OVER ELECTION
The protesters were angered by the parliamentary election in which Putin's United Russia party won only a slim majority in the State Duma lower house, widely seen as a growing sign of discontent with the former KGB spy's rule.
Protesters, who this week staged the biggest opposition rally in Moscow for years, say only widespread falsifications prevented the result for United Russia being much worse.
The ruling party's leaders have denied cheating and Putin, who is now prime minister after serving eight years as president until 2008, has accused the United States of encouraging and financing the protesters.
Putin and Medvedev have both said that Russians have a right to protest but only within the bounds of permission granted by local authorities who normally allow demonstations only at specific locations and limit turnout.
Putin, 59, remains Russia's most popular leader in opinion polls, but his ratings have been falling.
Many Russians felt disenfranchised when he and Medvedev announced plans to swap jobs after next year's presidential election and said they had taken the decision years ago.
The protests have also shown the power of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, through which most of the protests have been organised.
Putin may hope to show his government will tolerate peaceful protests within the limits it sets -- by allowing certain rallied to take place but perventing others -- but will crack down on anyone who ventures outside those boundaries. (Writing by Gleb Bryanski, edifing by Timothy Heritage)
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.