MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hundreds of Russian opposition activists rallied in Moscow on Saturday, shouting slogans comparing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a rare protest approved by the authorities.
"Putin is Stalin! Putin is Brezhnev! Russia without Putin," chanted the crowd, including former chess master Garry Kasparov, one of the Kremlin's harshest critics who co-heads the democratic, pro-western Solidarity movement.
One activist held a big caricature picture of Putin kissing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Police quickly took it down.
Other demonstrators -- from grandmothers to schoolchildren -- unfurled an enormous Russian flag and waved placards demanding fair elections as lines of riot police watched over warily.
The opposition says Putin has stifled media freedom and democratic rights when he was president between 2000 and 2008. They also accuse him of blind economic policies similar to the years of stagnation under Brezhnev.
State media did not report on Saturday's opposition rally.
"Haven't you noticed what is happening in this country?"
"The economy is sinking, the politicians do not allow any opposition into parliament, Putin's state control is all encompassing and the authorities cannot close their eyes to us today," Kasparov told Reuters.
He said some 40,000 people have signed his petition asking for the resignation of Putin, who continues to dominate Russian politics after handpicking successor Dmitry Medvedev and becoming prime minister under him.
Putin's supporters say Russia has enjoyed one of the longest periods of growth under his leadership, but the financial crisis silenced some of those voices as Russia's economy contracted.
Opposition groups rely on street protests, often broken up by police, and online campaigning to get their message across.
Kasparov said it was the first time the authorities have let the opposition rally on May 1. Other groups such as nationalists and neo-Nazis have been allowed to rally.
Elsewhere, thousands of Russian Communists, trade union activists, nationalists, black-clad anti-fascists and supporters of Putin's ruling United Russia party rallied to mark May Day.
Media reports put the nationwide total at 2.5 million, from Russia's Pacific coast to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Russia's Communist Party, the country's second biggest party, cherish May 1 -- known as International Workers Day in the Soviet era -- and some 3,000 marched on Saturday holding bright red banners and hoisting large portraits of Stalin.
Youths and pensioners sang songs praising Stalin and Cuban revolutionary hero Che Guevara in what state television said was the largest Communist rally in Moscow in 10 years.
"People of labor have no other weapons but to come out together to force the authorities to listen to their demands," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told Reuters.
"And those demands are pretty simple. We need jobs, we need real modernization and not talk. We need the fight against corruption and bandits."
Additional reporting by Aydar Buribayev, writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Maria Golovnina