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.
At the proRussia May Day rally in Donetsk, cries of 'Russia!', 'Referendum!', 'Obama resign!' & Soviet songs pic.twitter.com/tGJtDdTiJb— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) May 1, 2014
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.
? ???? ???? ??? ????? ?????? ? ?????-?????????? pic.twitter.com/zdsFjfAua5— ????? ??????? (@svaboda) May 1, 2014
Maybe these are the Nazis Putin has been looking for.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images