Minutes before the appointed hour, it seemed as if the anti-Putin protests could prove a dud. In central Moscow, the biggest spectacle was a man dressed up as Josef Stalin. In polar Murmansk, just a handful of people milled about while children played nearby.
But in the ensuing minutes, as the crowds swelled, reporters in the capital and above the Arctic Circle witnessed what makes opposition politician Alexei Navalny a force in modern Russia: his ability to mobilise thousands of people across the country into risking arrest to oppose President Vladimir Putin. Navalny's opposition movement, which grew out of his internet-driven anti-corruption campaign, may still be far too weak to pose a real threat to the Putin Government. But it's virtually the only one that can turn out street protests, not just in Moscow but in remote reaches of Russia's 11 time zones.
As the crowd grew in Moscow, walking out of the subway stop where the protests were held meant walking into a mass of bodies at the top step.
Perhaps emboldened by the numbers, some people climbed up lampposts to help organise chants. As a police announcement intoned that walkways had to be kept clear, protesters shouted, "Putin's War," "Protest" and "Boycott". They called for Navalny to be freed after his detention earlier in the day.
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The crowd was mostly a young one. People seemed resigned that this one protest likely wouldn't lead to any immediate change, but some voiced optimism that a series of protests might.
In Murmansk, a port city 240km north of the Arctic Circle, more than 100 people protested despite repeated obstacles: The authorities had refused to permit their protest in the city centre, seized a delivery of flyers from Moscow and detained the two top local Navalny staffers.
Police initially tried to talk protesters into leaving the area, even attempting to convince a group of schoolchildren that Navalny was up to no good. Then a white bus pulled up, and police started walking or dragging the protesters into it, one by one.
Violetta Grudina, 28, the local Navalny chapter head, said police had tackled her while she was walking along the street earlier in the day, keeping her from attending the protest. By the end of the day, she said, 25 people had been detained in Murmansk, although all were later released.
"We want a revolution in people's minds," Grudina said, adding that she plans to train election observers for the March 18 presidential vote. "We expect that the election will be declared illegal and that there will be a new election in which our candidate, Alexei Navalny, will be able to stand."
Several protesters said they were there first and foremost to oppose the Government. "It's not so much that I'm for Navalny - it's that I want to have real elections," Dmitry, 19, said.