MOSCOW (AP) — Chanting "Russia will be free," about 30,000 people marched across Moscow on Saturday in memory of the slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in a strong outpouring of emotion on the anniversary of his killing. Some carried signs saying "I am not afraid."
The march was the largest opposition gathering since a similar number turned out to mourn Nemtsov two days after he was shot late at night as he and a companion walked across a bridge near the Kremlin. The brutality so close to the center of Russian power both frightened and angered supporters of the beleaguered opposition.
Nemtsov, who had been a deputy prime minister during Boris Yeltsin's presidency, was a charismatic figure and a vehement critic of President Vladimir Putin.
"He was the embodiment of freedom and courage. He was a model for me," said marcher Kamala Igamberdiyeva, a 26-year-old accountant. "We still have a chance if the opposition shows wisdom and unites."
City authorities denied march organizers permission to hold a procession to the bridge where Nemtsov was killed, but approved another route in central Moscow. For hours after the march, thousands also visited the bridge, filing past in a steady stream and laying flowers at the makeshift memorial.
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft laid a wreath at the bridge, saying he came to express hope that "some of the dreams that Boris Nemtsov had will come true in Russia." The ambassadors of European Union countries planned to pay their respects at the bridge on Sunday.
"I don't have a clear understanding of what this will lead to, but I really want there to be a civil society so that people can express their opinions," said Daria Skrylova, a 32-year-old history teacher who came to the bridge bearing 10 white roses.
In Putin's decade-and-a-half in power, Russian opposition groups have come under severe pressure, criticized by officials and state-controlled media as pawns of the West. Permission for their rallies is frequently denied.
"Our key demand today is democratic reform in Russia that will make political killings impossible and ensure peaceful government transition when it needs to be changed," said opposition activist Ilya Yashin. "We want to make Russia the country that Nemtsov was fighting for and the one he gave his life for."
One woman came to Moscow's rally with a large suitcase because she was flying back to Cheboksary, a city on the Volga River, later Saturday.
"I wanted to come to a place where other people thought the same way as I do," said Irina, a 48-year-old director of a small company, who would not give her last name for fear of incurring problems for her business. She said opposition rallies in her hometown typically attract no more than a hundred people.
Rallies in memory of Nemtsov were held in dozens of Russian cities, including in St. Petersburg, where a couple thousand people turned out. But most were small.
In Voronezh, just a few dozen people took to the streets and unknown young men attacked the protesters with green dye and flour. In Nizhny Novgorod, the capital of the region where Nemtsov served as governor in the 1990s, several hundred people participated, including the mayor.
Many opposition supporters say even if Putin had no direct hand in Nemtsov's killing, he bears responsibility for encouraging a truculent authoritarianism.
"Nemtsov's death was the result of the atmosphere of hatred in our country," said 78-year-old demonstrator Pavel Movshovich.
Nemtsov's fellow opposition leaders are now focused on the September election to Russia's parliament, which now serves largely as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin.
"We are continuing what we started with Boris Nemtsov last year: changing the political course of our country, changing the country through elections," said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was the prime minister during Putin's first term before joining the opposition. "We're preparing to turn Putin's imitation of elections into proper fair elections."
Five suspects have been arrested in Nemtsov's killing, all of them Chechens. The suspected triggerman served as an officer in the security forces of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The official probe has failed to identify those who ordered the killing, and Russian opposition activists have criticized the Kremlin for failing to track down the mastermind. Earlier this week, Yashin released a report accusing Kadyrov of involvement in Nemtsov's killing and demanded his resignation.
Kadyrov, whose term expires in April, has rejected the accusations. At the same time, he tried to secure his position by acting obedient.
"The nation's leadership needs to find another person so that my name isn't used against my people," he said Saturday in televised remarks. "My time has passed."
Putin has relied on Kadyrov to stabilize Chechnya after two separatist wars, making him effectively immune from federal controls. Kadyrov's unparalleled privileges and defiant ways have earned him numerous enemies in Russia's law enforcement agencies, whose leaders have pushed for his dismissal.
Katherine Jacobsen, James Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.