Protests Swell in Russia’s Far East in a Stark New Challenge to Putin

KHABAROVSK, Russia — Watching the passing masses of protesters chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin resign!” while passing drivers honked, applauded and offered high-fives, a sidewalk vendor selling little cucumbers and plastic cups of forest raspberries said she would join in, too, if she did not have to work.

“There will be a revolution,” the vendor, Irina Lukasheva, 56, predicted. “What did our grandfathers fight for? Not for poverty or for the oligarchs sitting over there in the Kremlin.”

The protests in Khabarovsk, a city 4,000 miles east of Moscow, drew tens of thousands of people for a three-mile march through central streets for the third straight week on Saturday. Residents were rallying in support of a popular governor arrested and spirited to Moscow this month — but their remarkable outpouring of anger, which has little precedent in post-Soviet Russia, has emerged as stark testimony to the discontent that President Vladimir V. Putin faces across the country.

Mr. Putin won a tightly scripted referendum less than four weeks ago that rewrote the Constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2036. But the vote, seen as fraudulent by critics and many analysts, provided little but a fig leaf for public disenchantment with corruption, stifled freedoms and stagnant incomes made worse by the pandemic.

“When a person lives not knowing how things are supposed to be, he thinks things are good,” said Artyom Aksyonov, 31, who is in the transportation business and who was handing out water from the trunk of his car to protesters under the baking sun in Lenin Square, on the protest route. “But when you open your eyes to the truth, you realize things were not good. This was all an illusion.”

Across Russia, fear of being detained by the police and the seeming hopelessness of effecting change has largely kept people off the streets. Many Russians also say that whatever Mr. Putin’s faults, the alternative could be worse or lead to greater chaos. For the most part, anti-Kremlin protests have been limited to a few thousand people in Moscow and other big cities, where the authorities usually crack down harshly.

Partly as a result, Mr. Putin remains firmly in control. And independent polling shows he still enjoys a 60 percent approval rating, though the figure has been falling.

But the events in Khabarovsk have shown that the well of discontent is such that minor events can ignite a firestorm. The weekend crowds have been so large that the police have not tried to control them — even though the protesters did not have a permit, let alone a clear leader or organizer.

And with Russians switching en masse from television, which is controlled by the government, to the largely uncensored internet to get their news, the state can easily lose its grip on the narrative.

Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 close to the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese border, had not seen any protests of much significance since the early 1990s. That changed after July 9, when a SWAT team dragged the governor, Sergei I. Furgal, out of his car and whisked him to Moscow on 15-year-old murder accusations.

Khabarovsk social media forums erupted in indignation over an arrest that looked like a Kremlin move to eliminate a young and well-liked politician who had upset an ally of Mr. Putin in the regional election in 2018.

Tens of thousands spontaneously poured into the streets on July 11 as residents called for protests online, and they re-emerged in greater numbers on July 18. Smaller-scale marches through the city continued daily.

Russian journalists who have been following the protests since the beginning said Saturday’s crowds were the biggest yet. Opposition activists estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 had turned out. City officials said that about 6,500 people had attended, clearly an undercount.

As they have on previous weekends, the protesters gathered in the central Lenin Square by the headquarters of the regional government. They marched down a main street, blocking traffic, and made a three-mile loop through the city center before returning to the square. Police officers walked along casually on the sidewalk, without interfering.

The crowd, some of whom wore face masks stenciled with Mr. Furgal’s name, looked like a cross section of the city, including working-class and middle-class residents, pensioners and young people. The most concrete demand in their chants was that Mr. Furgal face trial in Khabarovsk rather than in Moscow, but they did not shy away from challenging Mr. Putin directly. They shouted “Shame on the Kremlin!”, “Russia, wake up!” and “We are the ones in power!”

Mr. Putin last Monday appointed a 39-year-old politician from outside the region, Mikhail V. Degtyarev, as the acting governor of the Khabarovsk region, angering residents further. Asked whether he would meet with the protesters, Mr. Degtyarev told reporters that he had better things to do than talk to people “screaming outside the windows.”

The Kremlin appears determined to wait the protests out. The regional authorities have warned that they could worsen the spread of the pandemic, announcing on Saturday a sharp rise in coronavirus infections and noting that medical equipment and personnel had arrived from Moscow to aid local hospitals.

One of the protesters, Vadim Serzhantov, a 35-year-old railway company employee, said he had held little interest in politics until recently. The arrest of Mr. Furgal, whom residents praise for populist moves such as cutting back on officials’ perks, was a turning point, Mr. Serzhantov said.

“To be honest, I used to not care at all,” Mr. Serzhantov said. “But this is lawlessness.”

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