The fact that thousands and thousands in areas outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg came out despite this tremendous risk, to participate in rallies that were, with few exceptions, not permitted by the authorities, means a few things, and none of them are good for Putin.
First and foremost, it was a tremendous show of power by Navalny, who has declared that he is running for president of Russia in 2018. He is a long shot at best, and the Kremlin may not even allow him on the ballot. Yet he showed he has real political power and that tens of thousands of people across the country see him as a legitimate leader, despite the Kremlin’s assiduous work to marginalize him by keeping him off government-controlled television—still Russians’ main source of news—and inventing a half-dozen criminal cases against him.
Second, it indicated that despite the government’s total control of television and creeping control of the web, technology and social media are still powerful tools. By Sunday, the Medvedev expose had been viewed nearly 12 million times. By comparison, 52 million people voted in September’s parliamentary elections. It doesn’t mean that all those viewers believed it or agreed with its anti-Kremlin message, but it means they at least saw it, even though it wasn’t shown on state TV. It also means that Navalny, with his YouTube channel, which was doing a live broadcast during the protests, can reach past Kremlin TV and influence people even in the heart of Putin country.
Third, it indicated that, despite the slight easing of the economic crisis in Russia and the conventional wisdom that Russians have adjusted to the slow sagging of their economy, an economic, populist message resonated enough to bring out what in Russia counts as a massive showing.