Russians from the Pacific coast to the Baltic passed their verdict on Vladimir Putin's ruling party on Sunday in parliamentary polls seen as a test of his personal popularity ahead of a planned return to the presidency early next year.
Putin remains by far the most popular politician in the country but there are some signs Russians may be wearying of his cultivated strong man image. The 59-year-old ex-spy looked stern and said only that he hoped for good results for his United Russia party as he walked past supporters to vote in Moscow.
Some voters expressed disgust with a poll they thought likely to be rigged. Others said they backed the party of Putin, who has continued to exert influence as Prime Minister since yielding the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 under a constitution forbidding more than two consecutive terms.
I will vote for Putin. Everything he gets involved in, he manages well, Father Vasily, 61, a bespectacled and white-bearded monk from a nearby monastary said. It's too early for a new generation. They will be in charge another 20 years. We are Russians, we are Asians, we need a strong leadership.
Some said they would vote for Just Russia, which calls itself 'new socialist', or the Communists, who retain support largely among poorer citizens two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of a free market system.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, voting at a cultural centre decked with Soviet-style hammer and sickle flags, said there were election violations in several of Russia's 93 regions spanning 9,000 Km (5,600 miles).
Polls show Putin's party is likely to win a majority but less than the 315 seats it currently has in the 450-seat lower house of parliament, known as the Duma.
It is time for something to change so I am going to vote for the (nationalist party) LDPR. So far this seems the only party that can resist United Russia, 24-year-old event manager Yekaterina Makarova said in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.
If Putin's party gets less than two-thirds of seats, it would be stripped of its so called constitutional majority which allows it to change the constitution and even approve the impeachment of the president.
Supporters say Putin saved Russia during his 2000-2008 presidency, restoring Kremlin control over sprawling regions and reviving an economy mired in post-Soviet chaos.
His use of military force to crush a rebellion in the southern Muslim region of Chechnya also won him broad support.
Opposition parties say the election is unfair because the authorities support United Russia with cash and television air time. The independent Ekho Moskvy radio station said its website had been shut down by hackers early on Sunday morning.
It is obvious that the election day attack on the site is part of an attempt to prevent publishing information about violations, the station's editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov wrote on the radio's Twitter account.
Independent election watchdog Golos said it was excluded from several polling booths in the Siberian Tomsk region, according to Interfax news agency. Moscow prosecutors launched an investigation last week into Golos' activities after lawmakers objected to its Western financing.
Russian customs officers held the director of an independent election watchdog for 12 hours at a Moscow airport on Saturday. The United States said it was concerned by a pattern of harassment against the watchdog.
Putin has no serious personal rivals as Russia's leader. He remains the ultimate arbiter between the clans which control the world's biggest energy producer.
But his party has had to fight against opponents who have branded it a collection of swindlers and thieves and combat a growing sense of unease among voters at Putin's grip on power.
I shall not vote. I shall cross out all the parties on the list and write: 'Down with the party of swindlers and thieves,' said Nikolai Markovtsev, an independent deputy in the Vladivostok city legislature on the Pacific seaboard.
These are not elections: this is sacrilege, he said, adding that the biggest liberal opposition bloc had been barred from the vote by the authorities.
Opponents say Putin has crafted a brittle political system which excludes independent voices and that Russians are growing tired of Putin's swaggering image.
Sports fans booed and whistled at Putin at a recent Moscow martial arts fight -- an exceptional event in a country inclined to show respect and restraint towards leaders.
Putin is almost certain to win the March 4 presidential election but signs of disenchantment are extremely worrying for the Kremlin's political managers.
In an attempt to reinvigorate his party, which President Medvedev is leading into the election as part of a job swap announced in September, Putin has sent his closest allies to lead United Russia in some of Russia's 83 regions.
Russians in the Far East region braved temperatures as low as minus 41 degrees Celsius (minus 42 Fahrenheit) to vote eight hours before polls opened in Moscow.
Chukchi reindeer herders living across the Bering Sea from Alaska voted in late November as did some oil workers on rigs pumping the lifeblood of Russia's $1.9 trillion economy, with their ballots taken out by helicopter to be counted.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
($1 = 30.8947 Russian roubles.)