Vladimir Putin Storms Back to Public Stage to Celebrate Crimea Takeover

Confident president leads celebratory Red Square chants of “Russia, Russia!"

Soviet-style crooners cried out, “We are invincible. Because now we are together. Forever.”

The return of Crimea was a matter of “the historical roots of our spirituality and our state,” Putin told the crowd. “It’s what makes us one people.”

A girl, watching, clutched a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons with Putin’s face on them.

But he was comfortably back in control today, leading chants of “Russia, Russia” on Red Square. The concert marked the culmination of a steady buildup of strident nationalist events this week celebrating the anniversary.

Since then, and despite Western sanctions, Crimea is rapidly becoming a core plank of Putin’s political system. State media has portrayed the annexation as an historic victory against an encroaching West intent on degrading Russia. In a documentary aired last weekend, Putin revealed, sometimes with evident satisfaction and almost step by step, how Russian special forces had taken control of Crimea, rescuing its people, he said, from rampaging Ukrainian nationalists.

The Kremlin’s narrative plays strongly on nostalgia among many Russians for the country’s prestige as a super-power under the Soviet Union, as well as their pride in defeating the Nazis. Today’s concert was heavy with Soviet and nationalist icons, including communist hammers and sickles, as well as mustachioed Cossacks, semi-folkloric figures who have been revived under Putin as a paramilitary force.

“Friends, the word Crimea has always meant ‘victory’ to us,” MCs shouted from the stage, referring to defenses against Napoleon and the Nazis.

Although Putin, 62, was greeted with a strong cheer, the atmosphere was sometimes a little limp, if good humored. As often occurs at state-organized events here, there were a significant number of people who appeared to have been required by their employers to attend: One man was heard complaining loudly on his phone about having to spend the evening at the rally, and hundreds of people streamed away after only half-an-hour.

But thousands also attended out of genuine enthusiasm, with independent polls here showing roughly 80 percent of Russians support the annexation.

“I love Putin,” Dmitri Vetrov, 26, said. “I love him because he will do anything for his country."

Vetrov said he felt the takeover of Crimea had restored historical justice.

A number of people seemed overthrown by emotion, struggling to articulate why they were happy about the annexation. Asked how she felt about the president, one woman simply gasped, “Pride,” her pupils dilating.