Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in May Day rallies across Russia on Sunday, most showing support for the Kremlin as others called for Arab-style rallies to overthrow it.
Crowds waving balloons and blue or red flags gathered in cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Moscow in carefully-choreographed rallies reminiscent of the Soviet era when May 1 was one of the most venerable holidays celebrating international socialism.
While the holiday has been renamed "Spring and Labour Day," many Russians still take to the streets with Soviet-era slogans like "Peace. Labour. May."
Russia is gearing up to hold parliamentary elections in December followed by presidential polls next March in which both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are considering running.
While calling for better social security, the bulk of the rallies expressed implicit support for the Kremlin, while several thousand opposition supporters of all hues gathered separately to protest against Kremlin policies.
In central Moscow, the Left Front leftist activists urged Russians to follow the example of the Arab world and turn against their leaders.
The activists chanted: "Whether Cairo or Moscow, only through fighting will you obtain rights!" and "Tandem to the scrapyard of history" -- referring to the duo of president and prime minister.
The protesters also held a banner saying "Throw down the tandem" depicting Putin as Madonna holding his "child" Medvedev
On the same square in central Moscow around 30 Syrians gathered to express solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators back at home, holding banners in Russian and Arabic that read: "Freedom to Syria from despotism" and "Stop the siege of Syrian cities."
Analysts say the Russian opposition is fragmented and unlikely to muster an uprising that could sweep the ruling duo from power but authorities are eyeing any opposition protests with increasing unease.
Authorities are regularly criticised for violently dispersing opposition rallies and Sunday's May Day demonstrations is a chance to showcase respect for freedom of assembly.
The Russian Federation of the Independent Trade Union, a pro-Kremlin group, had said it would aim to bring some 2 million people onto streets.
The ruling United Russia party headed by Putin said ahead of the demonstration it had hoped to bring up to 25,000 people onto the streets under slogans like "People! Medvedev! Putin! Together we are a force!"
Sunday's relaxed atmosphere at the pro-government rallies contrasted sharply with riot police's violent dispersal of opposition demonstrations in recent months.
While the country's older generation embraces the holiday for sentimental reasons, many said they were under pressure to join the rallies.
In remote Vladivostok, where many residents entertain anti-government sentiments, more than 50,000 people participated in demonstrations organized by the regional government and led by United Russia.
School teacher Veronika Fyodorova told AFP she had been made to join the rally.
"If your bosses tell you "you have to," then you'd better heed that wish," Fyodorova told AFP in Vladivostok.