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Orlov said the protests must focus on challenging Putin’s re-election bid. “We can deal a blow on this rule of thieves next March and show the real price to that “national leader,’” he said.

The organizers read a letter from Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader jailed for taking part in a protest earlier this week. “Even behind bars we are feeling free, unlike those who are hiding from the people in the Kremlin,” Orlov said.

Gary Peach and Sofia Javed in Moscow and Douglas Birch in Washington contributed to this story.