Cars decorated with white ribbons and carnations drove around Moscow's Garden Ring Road in a wet snow this past Sunday, honking cheerfully to the thousands of demonstrators on the sidewalk who formed a human chain around the city.
Elena Korobova was a link in that chain.
"I want to get rid of Putin, because I don't like his policy, I don't like what he's doing for Russia," she says of Vladimir Putin, Russia's current prime minister.
The 60-year-old university administrator believes elections for the parliament, or Duma, in December were rigged. Now, she is training to be a poll watcher for the presidential vote this Sunday.
Putin has been Russia's most powerful leader for more than 12 years, first as president and now as prime minister. Last fall, he announced that he and the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, would switch jobs.
Although Russians are expected to vote Putin back to the Kremlin, he is facing a rising wave of people power.
Most Russians say they will vote but don't really like any of the five choices on the ballot. They believe Putin has manipulated the system to eliminate any real opposition.
Those disenchanted voters include Olga Mosina, who is in her 30s and works with an investment company. She says she might cross off all the names, but she will go to the polls.
"I didn't vote in the Duma elections, because I thought my vote wouldn't count," Mosina says. "Now I think it's important. I was at Bolotnaya and now I feel ashamed that I didn't go vote."
Bolotnaya Square is where the first big protest took place after the apparent vote fraud in December. Mosina didn't expect so many people to join the human chain last Sunday, given the mass rallies the Kremlin has mobilized to support Putin.
"I thought the willingness of people to protest against him would be waning," she says.
Russia is changing, says Boris Makarenko, director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"By choosing such a straightforward way of returning to the Kremlin — [such] limited competition, and with [such] imperfect elections — Mr. Putin awoke the protest of middle class, [who are] crying out for dignity more than money or anything else," he says.
That includes middle-class Russians like 47-year-old Anna Nikiforova, a newcomer to Moscow from Yakutsk, in Siberia. On Saturday, she attended a question-and-answer session with one of Putin's four challengers, Mikhail Prokhorov.
She had overcome her initial fear that the Kremlin had set Prokhorov up to run to make the ballot look competitive. The candidate wooed supporters with a pre-Lenten holiday party.
Nikiforova, who works for Russia's biggest insurance company, says she is curious about Prokhorov's plans for a political party. She says she's ready to join because Prokhorov says he wants to give priority to human beings — not the state.
Nikiforova's 25-year-old son, Vitaly, also likes Prokhorov.
Many of his friends want to leave Russia, he says, but he wants to stay and make it better.
While Prokhorov managed to pack an auditorium with a mostly young crowd at Moscow's Academy of Sciences, many of Russia's young and discontent aren't supporting anyone yet. They blame Putin for what they see as rampant corruption and the absence of rule of law.
Makarenko, the political analyst, says this group is an amorphous mass. And yet, he warns, Putin is likely to face a difficult six-year term.
"He is at odds with a considerable and active part of the society, and the only recipe [for] success is to regain their trust," he says.
And Putin won't have an easy time with people like protester Olga Mosina.
"He'll be a lame duck from Day 1," she says. "I don't think he'll be in office for six years."
The opposition is already planning more demonstrations immediately after the vote.
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