President Vladimir Putin has eased curbs on demonstrations in the Winter Olympics venue of Sochi in a gesture likely to burnish Russia's image ahead of an event dogged by worries over security and human rights.
Keenly aware that the success or failure of the Games will help shape his legacy, Putin has closely identified himself with the US$50 billion project.
He made a surprise inspection of venues in the Black Sea resort on Friday and was shown on Russian state television skiing down a slope in dark glasses and a helmet.
Putin amended a decree to allow groups to hold some marches and gatherings at sites approved by the security services, the Kremlin said.
"Gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets, which are not directly connected to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, could be staged on January 7-March 21, 2014 … only after agreeing with … a local security body," it said.
Campaign groups, calling for everything from gay rights to political reform, have complained that the ban on rallies, imposed in August as part of a security crackdown, violated Russia's own constitution.
Putin's move came shortly after he ordered a further security clampdown in the wake of two suicide bomb attacks in the southern Russian city of Volgograd that killed at least 34 people. No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts.
The International Olympic Committee welcomed Putin's decision, the latest in a flurry of gestures apparently aimed at disarming critics of Russia's human-rights record.
"It is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authorities' plans to ensure free expression during the Games whilst delivering safe and secure Games," the OIC said.
Putin wants to use the Olympics to showcase what he regards as Russia's political and spiritual revival under his firm leadership after its loss of superpower status with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the economic turmoil of the 1990s.