MOSCOW — Russia's president on Sunday ordered an investigation of electoral fraud in last week's parliamentary elections after thousands of protesters rallied against the election results in the most massive demonstrations in the country's post-Soviet history.
Dmitry Medvedev announced the investigation on his Facebook account, which drew thousands of angry comments and criticisms from other users of the social-networking website.
In Moscow and other cities, hundreds of protesters on Sunday and tens of thousands on Saturday demonstrated against the election results, which gave the parliamentary victory to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, which was formed in 2001.
Widely seen as a steppingstone for Mr. Putin's third presidential bid in March, the election drew heated opposition — and its results even more heated protests — from Russians apparently long outraged by the former Soviet republic's widespread corruption and growing economic disparity.
"Things just reached a boiling point," student protester Anton Titov, 20, told The Washington Times as some 50,000 people braved driving sleet to rally peacefully at downtown Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on Saturday.
"I'd never been to a protest before, but after I saw what went on at the polls, I felt I had no choice but to join in," said media professional Yevgeniya Akhmedzhanova. "I felt so insulted."
Public criticism is new to Mr. Putin. State-run television channels, as prominent journalist Leonid Parfyonov noted last year, report on Russia's leaders "like the dear departed."
For a new generation of educated, well-traveled Russians, the unspoken deal the country made with Mr. Putin in the early 2000s — stability and relative prosperity in exchange for their silence — is no longer valid.
"They've been feeding us that for 12 years," jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny said in a letter that was read during the massive rally Saturday. "And we are sick of it. ... It's time to wake up from our slumber."
"Russians are demanding respect for their basic rights," said Anna Arutiunova, executive editor of the Russia Profile website. "Freedom of choice, the ability to gather and protest, respect for the law. ... Before you start criticizing policy, you need to first fight for the ability to criticize."
Drawing a clear picture of who makes up the protesters is tricky.
If the initial post-poll protests were largely attended by an informed, young crowd, then the 50,000 who flocked to downtown Moscow to chant "Putin out!" and "Give us back our elections!" were drawn from every walk of life. On Bolotnaya Square, pensioners mingled with teenagers and young families stood side-by-side with hardened opposition activists.
But while there is disagreement about how far the protests should go, there is a general consensus that now is the time to force some kind of a change.
"We don't want revolution, and we don't want blood. We have a good financial situation, but we understand that something has to change. If we lose this moment, it will never come again," lawyer Dmitry Raiov said.
Mr. Putin, who was barred by the constitution from serving more than two presidential terms, handed over the presidency to his hand-picked successor, Mr. Medvedev, in 2008.
Recent changes to the constitution, pushed through the parliament by United Russia, would allow Mr. Putin to serve as president until 2024 if he is re-elected.
"When I heard that these guys are supposed to govern our country for 12 more years, I realized I wouldn't know what I could say to my small daughter when she eventually asks me, 'Why didn't you do something?'" protester Ilya Fainberg said.
Russia's opposition has called for new protests Dec. 24 if the Kremlin does not agree to new parliamentary elections.
But it's unclear whether the opposition will be able to sustain the protests throughout the long, cold winter to come.
Still, for many in the crowd Saturday, the protest was simply confirmation that there are others willing to make public their opposition to Mr. Putin.
"This rally isn't about what we are saying to the authorities," Moscow student Ruslan Dudenkov said. "They don't give a damn about us — yet. The most important things is what it says to other people, other protesters. We are telling them, 'You are not alone.' "