May Day Celebrations Recall the Glory of the Soviet Union

A spectre of Russian domination is haunting Eastern Europe, and on this year's May Day, the traditional workers' parades in Russia and eastern Ukraine carried a distinct whiff of nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union.

This year, the Moscow parade was held in the city's legendary Red Square, an old symbol of Soviet power, for the first time since the fall of the USSR in 1991. But the estimated crowd of 100,000 people that gathered there were celebrating more than just the achievements of the country's workers. Alongside the typical labor banners -- "Peace, Labor, May" -- marchers held signs indicating their support for the country's powerful president. "Putin is right," some read. Other placards mocked the Ukrainian government for being unable to prevent Russia from conquering and annexing Crimea: "Let's go to Crimea for vacation," according to the Associated Press.  

Putin participated in the event by awarding the "Hero of Labor" medal, a Soviet-era honor he reinstated last year, to a teacher, an Olympic coach, a farmer and museum director and oil company worker. "These people are creating a strong and successful Russia," he said. "They are true, non-fiction heroes." 

According to the Washington Post, there was one small, sad moment of dissent during the Moscow celebrations. In a bold move, seven protesters walked down one of Moscow's boulevards holding a Ukrainian flag and singing the country's national anthem. The video shows their bold protest and subsequent arrest.

By annexing the Crimean peninsula, an old Soviet possession, and proclaiming the need to protect ethnic Russians stranded in former Soviet republics, Putin has helped feed a longing for the Soviet Union, the collapse of which he famously described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Thursday's Soviet-flavored May Day parades -- and arrests -- provided but the latest example of the way Putin has used the memory of a strong, imperial Soviet Union to his political benefit. May Day marches throughout Europe have long been marked by communist nostalgia, but with Putin apparently attempting to reclaim some of the USSR's old imperial holdings, this year's marches took on a new relevance.

This dynamic also played out in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been accused by senior American officials of fomenting unrest that has seen armed gunmen seize a series of government buildings and proclaim a series of "people's republics."  On Wednesday, Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president, admitted that Kiev had effectively lost control of the country's east.

In the eastern city of Donetsk on Thursday, armed gunmen provided another reminder of the Ukrainian government's impotence by by taking over the local prosecutor's office while pro-Russian May Day marches were taking place.

In Kharkiv, another city marked by pro-Russian unrest, the May Day march was smaller than usual but it had a decidedly anti-government tone. "Kharkiv must stand up and fight! We won't be ruled by the junta government in Kiev!" one of the speakers yelled from a stage, according to the Kyiv Post. Another shouted: "Fascists and neo-Nazis are controlling the country!"

The situation in the city is especially tense after an assassination attempt Monday on the city's mayor, Gennady Kernes.

In an ironic twist, the neo-Nazis denounced in Kharkiv were spotted celebrating the holiday not in Kiev but in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin's hometown. The gathering's official slogans included "Immigrant go home," a reference to migrants who have flooded into the country from neighboring countries.

Maybe these are the Nazis Putin has been looking for.



Why Is Hollywood So Upset About Brunei?

Typically, the imposition of sharia law in a distant land doesn't make much of a splash in Hollywood. But in the case of Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich country whose overseas investments include California landmarks like the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel Air, the imposition of a law mandating the death penalty for gay sex is riling Hollywood elites.

On Wednesday, the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, officially rolled out a harsh new penal code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, making Brunei the first country in East Asia to make sharia a formal part of its legal system. The first phase of the new law took effect Thursday and mandates fines and jail terms for "general" offenses such as failing to pray on Fridays, getting pregnant out of wedlock, and cross-dressing. The second phase of the law, which will be implemented a year from now, will cover crimes punishable by flogging and amputation, such as theft. And one year after that, the third phase will kick in, which will include all offenses punishable by death -- including consensual gay sex. Before the new law, the death penalty wasn't on the books, and while homesexual relationships were illegal, they were punishable by jail time.

Though certainly not the first nation to impose a legal system based on sharia law, Brunei's is the most draconian in the region. While Malaysia and Indonesia also observe Islamic law to some extent, neither country imposes it upon all citizens. Rather, sharia law is usually enforced by religious courts at a local level and, for the most part, penalties are not so severe. Brunei ups the ante by subjecting all of its 400,000 citizens, regardless of faith, to a religious code with the most severe penalties in the region.

That alone probably wouldn't be enough to land Brunei in Hollywood's crosshairs. But it just so happens that this tiny country, about the size of Rhode Island and nestled in a corner of Borneo, happens to own some of Hollywood's favorite breakfast spots. The country boasts a significant portfolio of foreign businesses like the Dorchester Collection, a luxury hotel chain that owns several famed Los Angeles landmarks.

That connection is, evidently, why a handful of Hollywood celebrities and aristocrats are suddenly feeling very invested in Brunei's state policies. Some of those very important people staged a small demonstration in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel on Saturday, protesting Brunei's sharia law with signs that read "The Beverly Hills Hotel = DEATH," and calling for a boycott of all Dorchester hotels. Stephen Fry and Ellen Degeneres are both on board. Last week, Degeneres slammed the law on Twitter and pledged to stay away from Brunei's hotels:

Human rights groups are not happy, either. Amnesty International and the United Nations quickly condemned the law, noting that Brunei's human rights record will come under review by the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, a day after the law went into effect.

Back in Brunei, the Sultan noted during his announcement on Wednesday that he doesn't expect foreigners to understand or agree with the law, as long as they respect Brunei's cultural differences. "[The law] was not made on a mere whim," he said, "but rather based on the policy of adhering to the command of Allah."

But what happens if angry celebs actually manage to hurt Dorchester's bottom line? Probably not much. The sultan is one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth of $20 billion. If it comes down to it, he can just sell part of his $4 billion car collection (who needs 7,000 cars, anyway?) or rent out some of the 1,800 rooms in his Brunei palace.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images