A double-headed eagle with a sickle and hammer sits on the combined coat of arms of Russia and the Soviet Union. Above it is the Russian tricolor - the same one that President Vladimir Putin gave biker Alexander 'The Surgeon' Zaldostanov back in 2009 to take to Sevastopol. This structure is lifted to the sound of the Soviet hymn playing.
Hundreds gathered to watch this ceremony and mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the base of pro-Kremlin motorcycle club ‘Night Wolves’, near Sevastopol. Here they call it the “Crimean spring”. Among those present were Crimean militia, cossacks, men in "Berkut" uniforms, some with "Novorossiya" patches, Black Hundreds, youth with flags "Sevastopol is ours" and bikers from Russia, Simferopol and Sevastopol.
Five years ago, on March 16, Moscow staged an illegal referendum in Crimea on ‘joining Russia’. This is now an official holiday in Crimea, along with March 18, the date Moscow declared as Crimea’s "reunification” with Russia.
Celebrations started on March 15, with several Russian officials arriving on the peninsula for the festivities. Among them were State Duma head Vyacheslav Volodin, who demanded compensation from Ukraine for “annexing” Crimea in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Former French deputy Thierry Mariani also arrived on the peninsula last week, leading a small French delegation. Despite their lack of power, their presence helps Russian and occupation authorities perpetuate the narrative that foreigners support the annexation.
In Yalta, on the square in front of the Lenin monument, school children are initiated into Russia's military-patriotic movement Yunarmiya (Youth Army). Next to a makeshift stage and military vehicles, there men in uniform reminiscent of the so-called "green men" -that’s what the Russian military in Crimea was called in 2014.
However, the most bizarre event was organized on Sevastopol’s Mount Gasfort - where the historical battles of the Crimean and Second World War took place. Today, it serves as the base for the “Night Wolves”. The Russian biker club was established in 1989, following the example of American biker clubs. It now supports Russian nationalist politicians and is considered a mandatory attribute of the "Russian World". The club head founded the Russian movement “Antimaidan”, which joined the annexation of the Crimea.
“The Russian spring began back in 2009, when Vladimir Putin handed me a flag, which I brought to Sevastopol,” Zaldostanov, the movement’s leader, proudly explains. He led a convoy that united motorcyclists from Simferopol and Sevastopol in front of Gasfort lake.
“Let's go, there will be a unique event, we will unfurl the flag,” he calls out to journalists - mainly from Russian channels. Bikers brought the largest Russian flag - which features in the Guinness World Records - to Sevastopol.
A group of four men gather in front of a makeshift checkpoint, recreated for the celebrations, where several photographs are pinned up on. They try to spot themselves in the photographs, which show men standing at checkpoints that popped up around Crimea in March 2014. A man dressed in a Berkut uniform stands a few meters away with his daughter. A little further away, next to a car with the flag of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”, is another participant sporting the “Novorossiya” patch.
“Day of restoration of justice” states a slogan unfolded by Nikolai. He unzips his coat to reveal several medals from 2014. Nikolai was born near Bryansk and later served in Lutsk, but since has lived in Sevastopol since Soviet times. During the annexation he joined the so-called Crimean self-defense, who helped the Russian military seize the peninsula.
Nikolai is difficult to interrupt. He talks about a united Slavic people and expresses displeasure at how Ukrainians and Belarusians in the army shared some things between themselves, and also about the dominance of English words in the Russian language. Somewhere in the background, American music is playing. Near the speakers, there is a stall with Chechen dishes and above it is a flag with the image of Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.
“We don’t care about sanctions,” is written on two posters, written on behalf of the power engineers of the Crimean heat and power plant.
Soviet emblems and copies of “The Worker and the Collective Farm Woman” sculpture are among the industrial characters featured here - like decorations in a scene of a certain Russian-Soviet steampunk film.
A middle-aged woman, who looks completely uncharacteristic in the crowd of bikers and people in uniform, tells me she came here from Feodosia.
“My sister received a medal in 2014 ... well, for those events,” she says.
Heavy metal mixed with the singing of Aleksandr Marshal - a rock musician who became one of the key singers of the Russian regime.
On the bank of a lake, among the iron structures and against the background of loud music, a meeting is taking place. Although the audience is relatively small, this is where key figures who supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea have gathered. Among them is de-facto leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, who in a short speech stated that the operation to seize Crimea was personally led by the President of Russia.
“We solved the problem of civilization choice. We wanted to be together with our historic homeland, Russia. We did not set the conditions and we did not demand anything. But it wouldn’t have happened if our President Vladimir Putin wasn’t personally in charge of the operation and didn’t personally take the decision, on which the fate of Crimea and Sevastopol depended,” he said.
“The President’s decisions saved our lives. Thank you to him. Thanks to the Russians, thanks to the special operations forces, all who were here and took part in ensuring the security of the referendum.”
He added that it was “a unique operation”.
“Everything happened so quickly, boldly and brazenly that our opponents did not have time to come to their senses,” he said.
Putin is expected to arrive in Sevastopol for a concert on March 18.