Over a thousand anti-government protesters were allowed to rally on Sunday in Moscow's central Triumph Square for the first time in years as authorities granted their opponents a moment to air their grievances.
Though veteran human rights defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva was granted permission by authorities to hold a rally for 800 people, scores of armed police stood by as the square filled up with more people than allowed, many of them chanting "Russia without (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin!"
"We are holding this protest to uphold our constitutional rights. This is no longer the Soviet Union," Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident, told a jubilant crowd.
Opposition attempts to hold monthly rallies on the square, which lies on the city's main shopping street, have become a barometer of the Kremlin's willingness to tolerate dissent. Police have broken up a dozen rallies and detained protesters.
Alexeyeva hailed Sunday's rally as "a small victory."
To the side of the square, a much smaller protest of around 200 and organized by fierce Kremlin critic Eduard Limonov formed, which had not been granted permission to rally.
Riot police detained at least seven protesters from that rally, a Reuters witness said.
For over a year, Russia's marginalized opposition have been convening on Triumph square on the 31st of each month symbolizing the right to free assembly guaranteed in Article 31 of Russia's constitution.
Alexeyeva said the opposition was still far from sated, referring to an August decision by Moscow authorities to rail off most of the square for an underground parking garage, a move widely seen by analysts as an attempt to weaken the opposition by taking away their traditional place of protest.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who styles himself as more liberal than his mentor Putin, last month dismissed Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov after 18 years in power. He was replaced by longtime Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.
Medvedev has repeatedly called for more democracy and engagement with civil society in Russia since taking office two years ago as Putin's anointed successor, but human rights groups and diplomats say little has changed.
"Putin has totally violated the rights of citizens who belong to this state," said opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under former president Boris Yeltsin.
A trio of elderly women donned masks of Putin and held up baseball bats with "31" written on them.
"Putin is simply against the people of Russia. He is corrupt and has established legal banditry in Russia," said musician Olga, one of the three.
In Russia's second city Saint Petersburg, 70 people were detained by police at two protests totaling 300 that were not given permission, according to a Reuters witness.
But in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, police did not intervene when around 40 opposition supporters gathered in the center and held signs saying "31" and pages of the Russian Constitution.
"We are here to support our allies in Moscow on Triumph Square, who get regularly beaten and detained by police," said activist Alexander Kurov.