(AP) — Tens of thousands of Russians flocked Tuesday to the first massive protest against President Vladimir Putin's rule since his inauguration, as investigators summoned several key opposition figures for questioning in an apparent bid to defuse the rally just hours before its start.
The interrogation session would make it hard, if not impossible, for activist leaders to appear at the rally, and it follows searches of their apartments Monday widely described as a crude attempt by the government to derail the protest.
Leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov snubbed the summons, saying on Twitter that he considers it his duty to lead the protest as one of its organizers. He may now be arrested.
Also called for interrogation were anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navaly, liberal activist Ilya Yashin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak.
Braving a brief thunderstorm, protesters showed up on the iconic Pushkin Square ahead of the planned march and their number grew as they began marching down a tree-lined boulevard to an avenue where the rally is to be held.
Udaltsov put the number of protesters at 50,000, while police estimated that about 10,000 showed up.
"Those in power should feel this pressure. We will protest by any means, whether peacefully or not," said Anton Maryasov, a 25-year-old postgraduate student. "If they ignore us, that would mean that bloodshed is inevitable."
Another protester, 20-year-old statistics student Anatoly Ivanyukov, said that attempts by authorities to disrupt the rally would only fuel more protest. "It's like when you forbid children to do something, it makes them even more willing to do that," he said.
The investigators' action follows the quick passage last week of a new bill that will raise fines 150-fold on those who take part in unauthorized protests, to nearly the average annual salary in Russia.
"I can't predict whether I'll leave here freely or in handcuffs," Yashin told reporters before entering the Investigative Committee headquarters for an interrogation. "The government is doing everything possible so that I don't end up there (at their protest)."
The top Twitter hashtag in Russia on Monday was "Welcome to the Year '37," a reference to the height of the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Tuesday's protest has city approval, but any shift from the agreed upon location and timeframe could give police a pretext for a crackdown.
The previous big opposition rally a day before Putin's inauguration in May ended in fierce clashes between police and protesters. The raids of the opposition leaders' homes and their questioning were connected to the May 6 protest.