On March 18, in Manege Square outside the Kremlin, Moscow staged a concert. Formally, the event was dedicated to the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But in reality the celebration was a repeat of what took place at the same spot in March 2012, when Vladimir Putin held a victory rally to celebrate his return to the presidency. On Sunday, Putin greeted the crowd in Manege Square again, thanking everyone for their support and promising “continued success” for the nation.
Billed as a celebration of the annexation of Crimea, the concert at Manege Square was scheduled to start late at 9:30 p.m. People were gathering near the metal-detector entrance gates as early as 7 p.m., and the organizers started letting them into the square an hour later. More than a few people came with booze. “Why the sad face?” a man asked his girlfriend. “We had to come here, so we might as well enjoy it.” Then he cracked open a can of beer and handed it to her. “Fine. I already can’t feel my ass,” the woman told him.
Techno blasted from the speakers. The music’s refrain repeated: “The best sex! Over and over!” Neither Shazam nor Siri could name the tune. Bitterly cold and huddled up, people danced. “Over and over — it’s just like with Putin and Russia,” said a woman hiding her face behind a thick, yellow scarf.
At 9:30 p.m., the evening’s hosts emerged: sports commentator Dmitry Guberniev and actress and TV presenter Svetlana Zeinalova. “As a ship returns to its harbor, so too have we returned Crimea to its native harbor!” Guberniev told the crowd, getting straight to business. Next, the singer Girgory Leps walked out, accompanied by a recording of his hit song “I’m Happy Like Nobody Else.” He strutted about the stage, not making an enormous effort to sync his lips to the music playing from the speakers. “Yikes. The singing is as authentic as the election,” a young man told his girlfriend. Both were wearing hats topped with big fur pom poms.
As the concert continued, couples danced to songs by Tamara Gverdtsiteli. When music by Aleksandr Buynov started playing, young people started jumping in place and forming circles and jumping more. Men walked around passing each other bottles wrapped in bags. “The construction of the Crimean Bridge is the feat of the century!” Dmitry Guberniev reminded the crowd. “Russia is the most peaceful nation!” the singer Zara said from the stage.
When 11 p.m. rolled around, the conversation shifted sharply from Crimea to the presidential election. Guberniev video-conferenced with cosmonaut Anton Shaplerov, who’s currently aboard the International Space Station. Shaplerov told the crowd that he “happily voted,” while in orbit. “Even there they got him with these elections! That means you can’t hide from them, even up there,” a woman told her friend, laughing.
Guberniev announced that the Central Election Commission had already counted 36 percent of the votes, and Vladimir Putin was leading. “The overwhelming majority of the votes are for Putin. Wonderful!” he rejoiced. Then the filmmaker Fyodor Bondarchuk took the stage as one of Putin’s official campaign proxies and congratulated the audience “on this victory,” saying he was “delighted that the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation coincided with the presidential election.”
Meanwhile, a group of people was gradually lining up in front of the stage. They all wore white vests with the words “Putin 2018.” Next up were the comedians Mikhail Galustyan, Garik Kharlamov, and Andrey Rozhkov. Rozhkov said he didn’t make it to St. Petersburg to vote where he lives, but thanks to the government’s nifty new online portal, he was able to request an absentee ballot and managed to vote in Moscow.
By 10:30 p.m., people couldn’t dance anymore, and they just stood around shifting their weight between their feet. “The thermometers show minus, but don’t believe them!” Guberniev shouted from the stage. “I’m waaarm!” he said. Then a man in the audience waving a “Sober Russia” flag yelled back, “I’m waaarm, too!”
“I’m so warm! And I’m feeling so great! It’s so heartwarming to see everyone here. I honestly feel like it’s finally spring outside,” Guberniev told the crowd. “What the hell is he drinking to feel so warm?” spectators asked each other with a hint of jealousy.
The “Turkish Choir” then performed three songs in a row, finishing on the Soviet tune “With What Does the Motherland Begin?” which the hosts introduced as “our president’s favorite song.” That was at 11:55 p.m. Finally, Guberniev announced that it was now “clear to him how the country voted,” and he considered it to be “the right choice.” Then he invited Vladimir Putin to the stage.
“Putin! He’s alive!” shouted a young man in glasses. “Finally, he’s popped out,” grumbled a half frozen older woman.
“Thank you, dear friends. Thank you for gathering here in the center of the capital on this frosty Moscow evening,” Putin said from the stage. He made almost the exact same speech at Manege Square in March 2012, immediately after winning Russia’s last presidential election. Even his parka jacket looked like the same one he had on six years ago.
“Thank you very much for this result. You are our team, and I am a member of your team,” Putin said. “And everyone who voted today is our big, nationwide team. Does success await us?”
“Yes!” the crowd cheered.
“It’s very important to preserve this unity, my friends. We need this unity to move forward,” Putin said. “And in order to move forward, every citizen needs to pitch in. Together, we’ll take on great, monumental work in the name of Russia!”
Then Putin left the stage and the rock band Lyube took his place, but the audience was no longer interested in more music. People started making for the exits, hurrying to the subway.
One of the young men leaving the square yelled out, “Freedom!”