In the year since Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula has faced rising inflation under Western sanctions and periodic blackouts, but it has reached new heights in patriotic interpretive dance.
At a "flashmob" on Lenin Square in Simferopol, more than 300 children, dressed in Russian colors, acted out the supposed threat that the peninsula had faced from Ukrainian fascists before it was taken over by Russian troops. Celebrations across the country this week will mark the anniversary of a referendum that locals subsequently held to join Russia. Two days later, Vladimir Putin triumphantly declared that Crimea, which was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, would "return to its native harbor."
As classic Soviet rock songs blasted, Crimean and Russian politicians looked on as another group of acrobatic children pretended to break their way out of mock prison bars. The finale came when the main contingent filled in a giant outline of Russia on the ground with the white, blue and red of the country's flag.
"A year ago Crimeans, despite the changes in Kiev, the junta that came to power, defended their freedom," Oleg Belaventsev, Putin's envoy to Crimea, told hundreds of spectators. "We need to thank all those who worked on the referendum…and also to our national leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."
"War came to the doorstep of Crimea…We knew the only way to preserve peace here was to return to our homeland, Russia," said Crimean state council chairman Vladimir Konstantinov. "This has become our most important holiday, the holiday of the Crimean Spring. Glory to Crimeans! Glory to the Crimean Spring! Glory to Russia!"
"A year ago Crimeans, despite the changes in Kiev, the junta that came to power, defended their freedom. We need to thank all those who worked on the referendum…and also to our national leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."
The rhetoric echoed that of a two-and-a-half-hour state television documentary called "Crimea: The Road Home" that made its debut on Sunday night. The program featured a long interview with Putin and melodramatic "re-enactments" of standoffs with the Ukrainian nationalists and law enforcement who were supposedly threatening the Crimean population. In it, Putin revealed he had begun to "work on returning Crimea" to Russia as soon as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled huge protests in Kiev in February 2014. Putin claimed Yanukovych's ouster was actually a coup orchestrated by "our American partners," who he said "helped prepare the nationalists" that took a lead role in the unrest.
Putin also said he considered putting Russia's huge nuclear arsenal on alert out of fear the West could intervene militarily. The president made a public appearance for the first time in 10 days on Monday, an uncharacteristic absence for the normally hands-on leader, sparking rumors he had fallen ill, been secretly overthrown, suffered a botched Botox injection or gone to Switzerland for the birth of a child with his mistress.
Speaking to journalists at the rally, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said he was "thankful that the president personally commanded this operation." Aksyonov had kicked off the celebrations that morning by teaching a lesson called "Russia and Crimea: Shared Fate" at a school in Simferopol, with five other schools joining via video-link. The lesson showed the holiday's emphasis on children — and their patriotic education. "Our children should know our real history," Aksyonov said during the session.
At the flash mob, a 14-year-old named Asryana Elen told VICE News she had volunteered to take part because "we'll go down in history, we'll be on TV." But her friend Margarita Gavrilova, 13, said she had volunteered because she was overjoyed that Crimea was now part of Russia.
"It's good, we're all happy. It was right to return to our homeland," she said.
Beyond the young people in the flash mob, many of the spectators were middle-aged and older. A group of communists waved Soviet flags, and the crowd joined Russian rocker Oleg Gazmanov, who appeared after the kids, in singing the refrain of his hit song: "I was born in the Soviet Union, I was made in the USSR."
In the controversial referendum held after Russian troops took over the peninsula, more than 95 percent of Crimeans reportedly voted to join Russia. While voting irregularities were reported and opponents boycotted the referendum, many Crimeans undoubtedly support the move, not least because it brought a huge increase in social benefits and pension payments. Independent polls done this year found that more than 80 percent of Crimeans were happy to have become part of Russia.
"We don't know Ukrainian and we don't want to. We don't recognize Ukraine," said pensioner Yevgenia Khudikova as she waved one of the miniature "Crimea Spring" flags organizers had handed out at the flash mob event. "No one forced us to go to the referendum, we practically ran there, and every last one of us voted for Russia."
Khudikova said her Ukrainian pension had been 1,200 hryvnia (about $55) a month, but her Russian one is 15,000 rubles (about, a huge increase.
But although pensions have gone up, so have prices, as inflation has spiked due to a US and European embargo on Crimea.
"Of course there are problems with the blockade, but they're all temporary," said Mikhail Balandin, commander of the Crimean "rebels," pro-Russian militia men who have now become an official law enforcement body. "The American government needs to understand that Crimea is now Russian…Let Barack Obama come here and see for himself that Crimea is indeed Russia, 95 percent said it is."
On Monday, a Kiev court ordered the seizure of assets of Prime Minister Aksyonov, Chairman of Crimea's State Council Vladimir Konstantinov, and other Crimean officials totaling 1.2 billion hryvnia (about $500 million). While the court holds no sway in annexed Crimea, some of the 67 vehicles and 70 buildings that the court ordered seized are located in mainland Ukraine, the prosecutor general said.
"Say hi to them for me, to the Pechersky court and the fraudsters who serve there," Aksyonov said when asked at the rally about the seizure order. "If they don't have anything to do, let them do it, but it's an empty shot in the air."
Earlier on Monday, Aksyonov announced that Crimea would honor Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Russia's Chechnya republic, with an award for "valor, patriotism and an active political position." The award follows an Order of Honor presented to the Chechen leader by Putin last week, the day after a high-ranking member of Kadyrov's security forces was charged with gunning down opposition leader Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin.