Moscow holds first May Day parade since Soviet era

The square was a sea of brightly coloured flags and balloons as students, labour union members and nurses marched by. Photograph: Yuri K...

The square was a sea of brightly coloured flags and balloons as students, labour union members and nurses marched by. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
The traditional May Day parade made a return to Moscow's Red Square on Thursday, gathering tens of thousands of students, labour union members and passersby in an outpouring of patriotic fervour following Russia's takeover of Crimea.
The event has not been held on the square since Soviet times, when huge marches of labour unions and athletic organisations celebrated Soviet solidarity with the workers of the world, while members of the politburo looked on from the mausoleum holding Vladimir Lenin's mummified body.
Although president Vladimir Putin did not attend the event, many of the attendees held the same "Putin is right" and "We believe Putin" signs that were waved during his speech on Red Square when Crimea was officially accepted into Russia on 18 March.
Shortly after the Red Square march, Putin presented Hero of Labour awards, a Soviet prize that was reinstated last year, at a ceremony in the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, a huge variety of groups, from LGBT activists to neo-Nazis, took advantage of the willingness of local authorities to grant permission for rallies on May Day and held their own demonstrations around the country.
According to police estimates, some 100,000 people came to the Red Square march, while independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta put the number of attendees at 70,000. More than 2 million people participated in similar marches across the country, according to Mikhail Shmakov, head of the Federation of Independent Labour Unions, who led the march along with Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
The mood among marchers seemed to be a mix of Soviet nostalgia and patriotism over Putin's successes on the world arena in the past year. Although the event was not officially linked to Ukraine, the majority of marchers were supportive of Russia's actions there, with some holding signs reading "I'm proud of my country," "'Let's go to Crimea for vacation" and "Motherland, freedom, Putin." Some wore St George's ribbons, a symbol of the Soviet victory in the second world war that has been adopted as the main symbol of the pro-Russian movement in Ukraine.
The square was a sea of brightly coloured flags and balloons as members of trade unions, teachers, nurses, construction workers, university students and veterans' groups marched by, as well as parents happy to induct their own children in the holiday they loved as kids. Soviet-era songs played on the loudspeaker system, while marchers played traditional songs on accordions and brass instruments and carried Russian flags. Pro-Kremlin politicians including MP Andrei Isayev addressed the crowd.
Meanwhile, a nearby march and rally organised by Russia's Communist party drew an estimated 10,000 people, although Novaya Gazeta said there were only 3,000. The mood here was markedly less pro-Kremlin, although Soviet nostalgia was even greater. One speaker declared, "The Medvedev-Putin government should be dissolved!"
The rally "reminds me of my native country, the USSR", said a burly man holding a giant Soviet flag who identified himself only as Boris. "We used to live by the slogan 'One for all and all for one'. Now that's all gone."
A pensioner named Alevtina who declined to give her last name said she had come out to celebrate the labour movement and the Soviet Union.
"We had a life without conflict. The workers lived together in peace," she said. "Now we have a democracy of thieves," she added.
But many protestors nonetheless supported Putin's aggressive stance on Ukraine. One man even held a sign reading "The failure of Darwin's theory! A big-eared monkey is trying to rule the world!" in an apparent reference to US president Barack Obama, who is blamed by many here for the Ukraine crisis. Two young men dressed as factory workers held a man in a Barack Obama mask holding a Nato bomb cutout in chains, while other protestors chanted "Don't be a fool, America! Hands of Ukraine!"
Boris said he supported Crimea joining Russia but called the geopolitical conflict in eastern Ukraine a "game of imperialism".
In St Petersburg, where gay rights demonstrations have been attacked and dispersed over the past year, about 50 LGBT activists were able to march peacefully as part of a rally for democracy, while neo-nazis held a separate demonstration. A large police contingent prevented hostile political groups from clashing, said St Petersburg LGBT activist Igor Kochetkov.
"Those who wanted to attack the LGBT column decided not to do this because the police were reacting harshly to any provocations," Kochetkov said. "It's the day of the year when the authorities allow all rallies and demonstrations, and so everyone comes out on 1 May, nationalists, communists, environmentalists," he added.
The democracy march finished at the Field of Mars, where a sanctioned gay pride rally last summer ended with participants being beaten and pelted with eggs by anti-gay activists, and dozens of were detained by police.
LGBT activists also participated in a rally of far-left groups in downtown Moscow, where a few hundred protestors and speakers spoke out for workers' rights and against war in Ukraine.
Nationalists of different political affiliations held their own march for a "Russian Spring" in cities including Moscow and St Petersburg. That term has been used to refer to the pro-Russian protests and building takeovers in eastern Ukraine, as well as theories on the Russian-led unification of Slavic peoples. A social network page for the St Petersburg gathering featured photos and links to the neo-Nazi groups, and official slogans for the rally included "Immigrant go home!" and "Putin is the president of Tajikistan!" Millions of migrant workers come to Russia each year from Tajikistan and other countries in central Asia and the Caucasus.
Although the singer of a nationalist metal band was detained in Moscow on Thursday morning after authorities decided not to allow his group to perform at the Russian Spring event, the many rallies and marches around the country ended peacefully.


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