Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

May Day Rally Ends in a Standoff

MTCommunist supporters carrying a red banner through a metal detector as they prepare for a May Day march in central Moscow.
A Communist Party-led May Day rally that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets to denounce the administration of President Vladimir Putin ended in an hour-long standoff between OMON officers and the far-left Red Youth Vanguard, which demanded -- and won -- the release of six activists who were detained for burning a photograph of Putin.

Click here to see photo essay

The rally was the most eventful of the three held on the traditional communist holiday in Moscow on Sunday. A second was led by members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, including Mayor Yury Luzhkov, while a coalition of liberal politicians and human rights activists staged a march followed by boat cruises on the Moscow River. A total of 1.2 million people took to the streets nationwide, according to the Federation of Independent Labor Unions.

Moscow's main rally began Sunday morning in the shadow of the monument to Vladimir Lenin at Kaluzhskaya Ploshchad. As many as 50,000 marchers lined up along Ulitsa Bolshaya Yakimanka, from pensioners at the head of the column waving Soviet flags and a street-spanning banner reading "Our Strength Is in Solidarity With the Workers," to a group of leather-jacketed youths from Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party who held photographs of jailed comrades and chanted "Revolution!" and "Russia without Putin!" before the march had even begun.

One unlikely presence was a contingent from the nationalist Rodina party, which was formed just two months before the 2003 parliamentary elections in what some believe was a Kremlin attempt to steal votes from the Communists. Both Rodina and the Communist Party have benefited in recent months from their criticism of a Kremlin-sponsored law that earlier this year replaced social benefits for millions of Russians with small cash payments. Rodina representatives said it was a shared opposition to the law, the oligarchs and Putin himself that led the party to join the Communist rally.

The Red Youth Vanguard cut a militant figure from the beginning. Many of the 100 young activists wore scarves over their faces and waved flags with the group's logo -- a machine gun emerging from the Russian abbreviation for the name, AKM -- while OMON police officers stayed close by. During a stop on the march to the city center at noon, group member Alexei Makarov lit a photograph of Putin on fire.

He was not detained until nearly two hours later, however, when he attempted to leave the rally at Teatralnaya Ploshchad via the Okhotny Ryad metro station. Makarov and five other activists were seized by police at the entrance to the metro. An ensuing scuffle quickly drew a crowd from the hundreds of people still on the square.

Mieke Woestenburg / For MT

Police detaining Alexei Makarov outside the Okhotny Ryad metro on Sunday.

Red Youth Vanguard leader Sergei Udaltsov emerged from the scuffle with a black eye and a cuts on his forehead, although he later explained the injuries were from a separate incident.

Whistles and cries of "For shame! For shame!" rained down on the police. Bystanders -- most of whom were decades older than the detainees -- called for immediate action, and Udaltsov urged the crowd to march on the Prosecutor General's Office, located nearby on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, to secure the release of the six activists. "Whoever is not with us is with Putin," Udaltsov said through a megaphone.

Some 50 Red Youth Vanguard members grabbed metal construction barriers on the street in front of the prosecutor's office and formed a barricade between themselves and about 100 OMON troops in riot gear, who arrived on three buses shortly after the protesters reached the office. The Red Youth Vanguard members were joined by several dozen sympathizers, including young Rodina activists.

Udaltsov negotiated with an OMON colonel, while older demonstrators shouted reprimands at the helmeted officers and chants of "Freedom or death!" came from the barricade.

The detainees were released two at a time over the next hour. The final pair included Makarov, whose face had bruises he said he received when police wrestled him to the ground. "We believe that these kinds of methods practically make for a police state," Udaltsov told reporters. "This is unacceptable, and we intend to communicate that to the authorities."

In the speeches by rally leaders that preceded the incident, Putin and his Cabinet were the chief targets but were far from the only ones. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov drew applause by calling for "a revival of the union among Russia, Ukraine and Belarus," and warning Western countries to keep their "hands off Belarus" -- an apparent reference to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's call for regime change in Belarus after her recent trip to Moscow.

Rodina leader and Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin turned his wrath on Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who earlier this year accepted Putin's invitation to visit Moscow for May 9 Victory Day celebrations but emphasized that for much of Eastern Europe, liberation from Nazi rule only meant the beginning of an oppressive Soviet occupation. Rogozin called the claim "loutishness," saying that "the development of Latvia happened only thanks to the strength of our people."

Between the speeches, scores of people milled around Teatralnaya Ploshchad debating, distributing leaflets and selling Soviet-era souvenirs. More than a few spoke passionately about Josef Stalin. "He was a politician, a diplomat and a leader -- a brilliant one," said Viktor Kozlov, a pensioner who stood beside a meter-tall portrait of the former Soviet leader.

The younger generation does not appreciate his achievements, Kozlov said, "but that happens. Our youth are obligated to make mistakes."

Komsomol member Arseny Svidersky, 12, was one young person who saw eye-to-eye with Kozlov. With a Soviet flag flapping above him, Svidersky said: "There's no need to spit on Stalin. He and Lenin may have made mistakes, but every leader does."

Svidersky emphasized the importance of Stalin's leadership during World War II -- as did many at the rally. "If Putin faced that kind of war today, it would be just like what happened to Nicholas II: He would lose not just one war, but one after another," Svidersky said.

Asked whether a new revolution might be on its way, Svidersky replied: "Most likely, yes. There will be a change in leadership. As they say, the revolution won't let you down."