Commemorations of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were seized as a chance for ordinary Russians to criticise Vladimir Putin for reversing the progress towards democracy that had seemed unstoppable 21 years ago.
The two-year jail sentences handed down last week to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for their anti-Putin church protest were condemned on Sunday as a throwback to Soviet-era show trials and just one example of Putin's tyranny.
"The situation with democracy is substantially worse than it was, say, 15 years ago," said Ivan Preobrazhensky, 31, at a Moscow memorial to three young men who died opposing an attempt by government hardliners to seize control of the country from Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's reformist president back in 1991.
"We are moving towards authoritarianism and totalitarianism," he said as, with his wife and five-year-old daughter, he placed a flower at the memorial that reads "Defenders of democracy in Russia died here in August 1991".
Later, there was a rally behind the White House - the spot where Boris Yeltsin, as the new president of the state of Russia, had stood defiantly on an armoured vehicle sent to drive out the pro-democracy Muscovites who had gathered there.
More than two decades later the talk was still of liberating the nation. Sergei Kovalyov, an 82-year-old Soviet-era dissident, said: "We're back where we started." Before setting off a chant of "Russia without Putin", he likened Putin, a 59-year-old former KGB officer, to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in their attempts to forge a cult of personality.
Housewife Galina Pimenova, 53, said the Pussy Riot trial showed Putin 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."