Chanting in defiance, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in central Moscow as he and a companion walked in the shadow of the Kremlin shortly before midnight.
In a huge outpouring of support for the slain opposition leader - and display of anger at President Vladimir Putin - about 30,000 people marched through central Moscow chanting "Russia will be free" and "Russia without Putin."
Some carried defiant placards and brazen banners. "I am not afraid" one read; "Killed for the truth," read another. Still another banner, which showed the crosshairs of a sniper's gun, asked: "Who is next?"
Nemtsov was the latest, albeit most prominent, of a list of opposition leaders, journalists and critics gunned down or poisoned during Putin's 15-year-reign.
Other Kremlin critics who have been slain include journalist Anna Politkovskaya, KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko and human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov - to name just a few.
The 55-year-old Nemtsov was a deputy prime minister during Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the 1990s and a charismatic critic of the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Kremlin pressure's opposition
Russian opposition groups have come under severe pressure, criticized by officials and state-controlled media as pawns of the United States and EU.
"Our key demand today is democratic reform in Russia that will make political killings impossible and ensure peaceful government transition when it needs to be changed," opposition activist Ilya Yashin said. "We want to make Russia the country that Nemtsov was fighting for and the one he gave his life for."
Five Chechens have been arrested over Nemtsov's killing, and the suspected triggerman served as an officer in the security forces of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. But opposition leaders have criticized the Kremlin for failing to track down those who ordered the murder.
Authorities allowed the demonstrators to walk through downtown Moscow but denied organizers permission to march across the bridge to the site where Nemtsov was gunned down. Still, after the protest ended, thousands made their way to the bridge, where a makeshift memorial has arisen.
The US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft was among those who came to pay their respects, laying a wreath with a ribbon saying "From the American people."
No arrests have been reported but a Reuters correspondent reportedly saw one man being dragged away into a side street in handcuffs. The anger on the streets was palpable.
"The authorities, this regime killed Nemtsov," said Yevgeny Mishchenko, 41. "The economic situation is worsening. Support for the authorities is crumbling. This will all end in a civil war, like a hundred years ago."
bik/jlw (AP, Reuters, AFP)