By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Kremlin foes criticized Vladimir Putin on Sunday at events commemorating the defeat of a coup that hastened the 1991 Soviet collapse, saying the Russian president had reversed progress toward democracy that seemed unstoppable 21 years ago.
Opposition politicians and everyday Russians said the two-year jail sentences handed down to punk performers Pussy Riot for a protest against Putin in a cathedral were part of a crackdown that evoked Soviet-era show trials and scare tactics.
"The situation with democracy is substantially worse than it was, say, 15 years ago," said Ivan Preobrazhensky, 31, who came with his wife and 5-year-old daughter to place a flower at a modest memorial to three young men who died opposing the coup.
"We are moving toward authoritarianism and totalitarianism," he said, calling the Pussy Riot verdict part of a series of steps to crush dissent since Putin, in power since 2000, won a new presidential term in March.
He and his family added their flower to a waist-high pile of white carnations in front of the memorial on an overpass above Moscow's congested Garden Ring road that reads "Defenders of democracy in Russia died here in August 1991".
At a rally later behind the White House - the building where Boris Yeltsin stood on an armored vehicle to defy the coup attempt, and now the Russian government headquarters - speakers called for Putin to be peacefully pushed from power.
"We're back where we started," said 82-year-old human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident.
He likened the cult of personality that surrounded Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to the treatment Putin, a 59-year-old former KGB officer, enjoys in the state-controlled media, and started a chant of "Russia without Putin!"
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted on Friday of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a "punk prayer" in which they asked the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
They say the protest, which offended many in mostly Orthodox Christian Russia, was meant to criticize close ties between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader has likened Putin's 12 years in power to a "miracle of God".
Western governments, rights groups and celebrities like Madonna have criticized the sentences as disproportionate. Opposition leaders said they hoped the outrage provoked by the case around the globe might draw more Russians to demonstrations starting next month, re-igniting a protest movement that erupted in December over election fraud suspicions and anger over Putin's decision to return to the presidency.
But on Sunday the crowd numbered in the hundreds, and many drivers passed indifferently by the monument to the coup victims while a trickle of people came to leave flowers, suggesting Putin's foes face an uphill battle turning such feelings into a serious challenge.
Galina Pimenova, 53, a homemaker at the White House rally, said she had attended several of the winter protests that were the biggest faced by Putin. She said she saw the Pussy Riot trial as an indication the president, who could stay in power until 2024 if reelected to another six-year term, would never tolerate dissent.
"It's shocking: This vengeful, petty KGB man who can't stand to hear a word spoken against him," she said. "I had to come here because I need an outlet for my feelings."
(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)