MOSCOW— -- Russian President Vladimir Putin returned in force to the public stage this evening, appearing at a large concert outside the Kremlin to celebrate the annexation of Crimea one year ago.
Tens of thousands of people, plastered in multicolored jackets, waving flags and brandishing placards with slogans such as “Je suis Crimea,” turned out to see Putin and celebrate what they view as a moment marking Russia’s resurgence as a great power.
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.
It was Putin’s first major public appearance since his peculiar disappearance last week that sparked wild rumors about his health and even that he had been toppled by a coup. He reappeared after 10 days Monday for a meeting with Kyrgyzstan’s president, but he had looked pale then, with bruises on his face that led some to wonder whether a botched botox injection had caused him to take to cover.
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.
One year ago, Putin signed a law formally incorporating Crimea into Russia, completing the takeover of the peninsula, which has plunged Russia’s relations with the West into crisis and helped spark a separatist war in east Ukraine.
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.