Tens of thousands of Russians protested in streets of Moscow Saturday chanting that Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is “a thief,” in one of the largest anti-Kremlin demonstrations since the struggles of the post-Soviet collapse in 1993.

The protests have put Putin in a bind. The unrest doesn’t appear to be dissipating anytime soon: The crowds vowed a larger protest on Dec. 24.

And it comes as a surprise to Putin, who just a few months ago faced a population that was all but apathetic. He enjoyed high official approval ratings, and saw opposition parties in a shambles. That all changed last week, with the raid viral spread of videos (here’s one) that allegedly show evidence of violations during last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. And added to that are the continued blog posts and tweets coming from protester and blogger Aleksei Navalny (below right), who was thrown into jail earlier this week for 15 days. Navalny had channeled the unrest with charismatic speeches about government corruption. However, he is apparently still tweeting to his 141,000 followers, with the last tweet about 12 hours ago, pointing to his latest blog post.

There’s been other good reporting about how Russians, once conditioned to be apathetic by a daunting bureaucracy, have been moved by seeing fellow citizens rise up in protest, and how Facebook, and Russia’s homegrown social network, VKontakte, have been used for calls to action. And while the Kremlin has apparently launched denial-of-service attacks on some critical sites, it’s going to be tough for it to do more, short of bringing entire Internet to a halt.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction is surging uncontrollably against Putin, and word of mouth — helped by social media — is helping to drive the uprising. In fact, the opposition has been growing since Putin brazenly announced in September that he would swap jobs with President Dmitry Mevedev. Currently the Prime Minster, Putin’s move would keep him in power — assuming he’d stay for two terms — until 2024. This incensed the Russians, because the move requires voters’ approval, but Putin had apparently assumed he could get away with the announcement, in part because of the disarray of the opposition parties.

For a while, Putin’s September power grab had been met with eerie silence.

But what Putin apparently underestimated was the power of technology — namely social media — to spread discontent. Much has been made of the influence of technology — such as the use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — by revolutionaries in the Arab revolts to date. There just doesn’t seem to be any question that social media and technology is a positive force for change in Russia right now. Russia is indeed corrupt. We’ve blogged about that, and what it means for business. Change is good, and tech is helping driving that change.

Indeed, the bigger question now may be what can social media do to help gather consensus and building constructively after a revolution instead of just tearing down. We’ll be watching closely at Russia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond about how that other story unfolds.

[Image credit: Courtesy of the Institute of Modern Russia]