They gathered under a light snow on Thursday — tens of thousands of factory workers, milkmen, engineers and nurses filling a central Moscow stadium to declare their love for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Love isn’t what Putin was looking for, though, what he needed was troops.
Addressing what appeared to be the largest crowd yet to turn out in support of his bid to return to the presidency, Putin mustered the full force of militaristic rhetoric in urging Russians to come to his side as he faces growing protests in opposition to his rule.
“We are all ready to work for the good of our great motherland — not only to work, but to protect her,” Putin said, his taut face peeking out from a white polo-neck jumper. “We are a victorious people ... it’s in our genes, in our genetic code, passed down from generation to generation.”
One reference to the Napoleonic War later and Putin ended his speech by saying: “The battle for Russia continues. We will be victorious.”
Who the enemy is did not need to be spoken — those Russians who have turned out by the thousands since early December to protest against Putin’s expected return in the 4 March presidential vote. The long-time leader, himself, has accused the US Department of State of orchestrating the protests.
“We won’t let anyone meddle in our domestic affairs,” he told the crowd, before demanding: “Don’t cheat on your motherland.”
It was a gathering reminiscent of a Soviet spectacle both in rhetoric and style. Thousands of workers from the provinces were brought by bus or rushed on to trains to attend the event.
Tatyana Leshova, 53, and Valery Mikhailov, 57, stood amid a crowd raising blue flags emblazoned with the words “Russian Milk.” Based in Ruza, 110km outside Moscow, the dairy’s board of directors arranged for 2,500 of its 8,000 employees to attend the rally, they said.
“We want stability in our country,” the firm’s financial director Leshova said. “Putin will help us develop our industry and agriculture, so we can eat our own potatoes, eat our own apples, drink our own milk.”
Her colleague jumped in to add: “Putin tried our milk. He liked it.”
Putin has worked hard to build a cult of personality that equates his leadership with the continuing existence of Russia. Yet just as some of his stunts have proved to be fake — his spokesman recently admitted that he did not in fact stumble upon a centuries-old Greek amphora during a scuba dive — so has much of his support, at least in Moscow.
Galina, a 50-year-old nurse who was leaving the rally just minutes after it began, hushed a friend who admitted to a reporter that the small group had been “invited” to attend by their municipal hospital.
“We came of our own will to watch the concert, eat pancakes,” she said, as her friend shook her head.
Their colleague Sergei, a 41-year-old doctor, admitted he had no plans to even vote for Putin, as he prefered far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The crowd, 130,000 strong according to police, consisted mainly of great groups of employees somehow linked to the state. Most signs were neatly typed and homogenous, implying careful planning: “Putin is stability,” and “Putin’s plan is our victory.”
Oleg Gultyayev, a 32-year-old real-estate worker, was one of the few who crafted his own sign. It read: “For the motherland. For Stalin. For Putin.” “Stalin and Putin both do everything they do for ordinary people,” he said.