ST. PETERSBURG -- Pensioners and veterans angered over the cutoff of welfare benefits clogged streets and paralyzed traffic in St. Petersburg, hometown to President Vladimir Putin, for a second day yesterday, and the street demonstrations spread to other Russian cities.
Top government officials sought to shift the blame by accusing regional leaders of botching the management of new social programs, under which benefits such as free medicine and public transportation were replaced by a monthly government stipend.
Although authorities in St. Petersburg promised to restore some benefits after 10,000 people jammed the center of Russia's second-largest city Saturday, demonstrators returned yesterday to rally on Nevsky Prospect, again snarling traffic in the center of the city.
''Hitler stole our childhood, and Putin stole our declining years," declared a banner held aloft by a protester.
Others waved red flags, beat spoons against saucepans, and chanted slogans urging Putin to step down. ''We are here to demand the right to life," said Zhanna Filonova, 61. A large contingent of police stood by but did not intervene.
Since the new benefits program took effect Jan. 1, the protests have spread to several cities across Russia's 11 time zones. Retirees were in the streets of the Volga River city of Samara for a fifth day yesterday, and a rally in the southern city of Stavropol drew as many as 5,000 people.
The discontent prompted authorities in many regions to restore some benefits. Valentina Matviyenko, governor of St. Petersburg, went on city television late Saturday to promise subsidized passes for public transportation.
Many senior citizens, who have said in the past they are treated like second-class citizens, consider the changes a final insult as they struggle to survive on meager pensions in inflationary, capitalist Russia. Those affected by the new program lived most of their lives under a cradle-to-grave welfare system until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
''Prices keep rising, and now they have canceled our benefits," said Yevgeniya Sidorova, 70. ''Putin and his government want us to lie down and wait for death."
Alexander Zhukov, the first deputy prime minister, and Boris Gryzlov, the parliament speaker, appeared on state-controlled Rossiya television last night to defend the social reform bill and faulted provincial authorities. ''It's quite natural that people are angry," Zhukov said.
But protesters say new monthly payments of about $10 are worth far less than the lost benefits, leaving senior citizens to choose among food, transport, and medicine.
''It's an outrage," said Nina Kuzmina, 65. ''The government must step down and face justice."
Galina Tolmacheva, 67, said the benefit cuts amounted to ''the second siege" of the city. She was referring to the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known, during World War II.
Many pledged to keep protesting until benefits were restored and pensions were increased. An average monthly pension is worth about $80.
Several small orange tents went up at the rally in St. Petersburg. Orange was the symbolic color of the campaign run by President-elect Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine. His supporters occupied central Kiev for weeks and won a court decision to hold a new vote, which their candidate won.
''These tents are a symbol of the fight for democracy, the unity of the people like in Ukraine," Alexander Bogdanov said.
Young activists joined the mix yesterday. ''We came here because the government humiliated senior citizens," said Semyon Borzenko, a member of a socialist group for young people.
Police in St. Petersburg engaged in friendly conversation with the protesters. The police and military lost similar welfare benefits at the start of the year.
The rallies across Russian cities, many of which involved blockades of key highways, have put new pressure on Putin, who has seen little public opposition or protest in his tenure before now.
Observers have said the protests probably would intensify after people receive January utility bills, which also will increase significantly without government subsidies.
The Kremlin has described the benefits changes as a long-overdue effort to streamline the economy, but many commentators have predicted that Putin may respond to the crisis by making his government the scapegoat and firing his ministers.
Lyubov K. Sliska, a senior member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, which dominates parliament, has said the entire Cabinet could be ousted.