The torrential rain beat down so hard that it was tough to look ahead. But the protesters knew the way — they have been marching these same streets each day for the past three weeks.
Up and down the hills that ripple across the centre of Khabarovsk, a city in eastern Russia, more than 10,000 demonstrated through the downpour on Saturday, the 22nd consecutive day of protest against Moscow, the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin.
Spontaneous, leaderless and attracting people from across society, the daily rallies have felt more like the city’s summer festival than the most sustained political protest movement in Mr Putin’s more than 20-year-long rule. They are the most striking example of the Kremlin’s vulnerability to popular discontent fuelled by specific local issues.
“We are the power here,” thousands chanted as they snaked around the city centre. “This is not Moscow, this is not St Petersburg. This is the far east,” said Zoya, a 15-year-old student who marched alongside pensioners, dog walkers and toddlers on scooters. “People here are different, and we don’t want to be told what to do by Moscow.”
While the Kremlin believes the protests are not a threat as long as they remain focused on the city, they have exposed a weakness in Mr Putin’s administration. His method of rule is built around taking power and decision-making from regions to Moscow and projecting back a sense of national unity and compassionate leadership.
That delicate relationship was broken on July 9 when Sergei Furgal, the popular local governor of the Khabarovsk region who is not a member of Mr Putin’s ruling party, was detained and flown to a Moscow jail on murder charges which he denies and which his supporters say are politically motivated.
The protests demanding his release began the next day.
“My mother voted for Furgal: she wanted him,” Zoya told the Financial Times. “We all want him. But then our vote, our choice, was taken away.”
The sense of citizens standing up against the Kremlin on a local issue mirrors protests last May in Siberia’s Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, that ultimately forced Mr Putin to back down on plans to build a massive cathedral on the site of a popular park. It also echoes unrest in Moscow in support of a journalist detained on false charges, who was subsequently released.
The rise of local political movements in opposition to the Kremlin has already contributed to sharp falls in the popularity of Mr Putin and his ruling United Russia party in recent years and could be a defining feature in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for next September. Last year, United Russia won just two seats in the 36-seat Khabarovsk region’s parliament, down from 30 seats in 2014.
“This is about dignity,” said Artyom Lukin, a political scientist based in Vladivostok, the capital of the far east region. “People felt humiliated, and understood that they have been punished by the Kremlin for their choice, like little children who do things their parents don’t like.”
Under Russia’s strict rules governing mass gatherings, the Khabarovsk marches are unsanctioned and thus illegal, yet have been left almost entirely untouched by law enforcement, in stark contrast to the deployment of heavy-handed riot police that has become commonplace for Russian protests.
Protesters credit that to the Kremlin’s slow response to the movement and to its relaxed, celebratory feel. Local police officers also seem reluctant to punish their fellow citizens.
“I don’t know what will happen in the end but what’s important for me is that the people in power take notice of us,” said Aleksandra, a 31-year-old who has never taken part in a protest before.
“There’s so much unity and teamwork here. People clean up after marches, there’s no litter. Others bring water,” she said, in an ‘I am Sergei Furgal’ T-shirt she made herself. “It’s a team effort and we are all here because we want to be.”
Demonstrators used megaphones to blare dance music along the protest route and people waved and cheered from apartments as the rally passed below.
There is no official protest merchandise: attendees come wearing homemade T-shirts emblazoned with slogans shared on social media, and wave handwritten placards, banners and flags. Crowd-funded donations have paid for the police fines issued to a handful of prominent protesters.
“In Moscow they are nationalists and believe in this strong idea of Russia,” said Stanislav, his blue T-shirt soaked through. “But here we instead believe in our city and the far east region.”
“It’s our road!” one protester shouted at a solitary police car that attempted to drown out the chanting with its horn on Friday night, before two men on bicycles blocked its path by cycling very slowly.
“The protesters are remarkably peaceful but after all why should they be violent?” said Mr Lukin. “This is their city. And they are rational people, they are not a mob.”