MOSCOW - Some 100,000 workers joined a May Day parade on Moscow's Red Square Thursday for the first time since the 1991 Soviet breakup, as the takeover of Crimea boosts President Vladimir Putin's standing amid a surge of patriotism.
A huge column of demonstrators waving Russian flags and balloons marched through the iconic square near the Kremlin walls as trade union leaders addressed them from the podium on International Labour Day.
"Putin is right", "Proud of the country" and "Let's support decisions of our president" read the banners carried by the smiling demonstrators in a carefully-choreographed spectacle harking back to Soviet times.
Moscow police said more than 100,000 people took part in the "march of trade unions" on Red Square.
The Kremlin is keen to show that Russians are ready to rally around the 61-year-old strongman despite the latest round of biting Western sanctions slapped on its officials and companies over the Ukraine crisis, and brewing economic trouble.
Some of the banners read "Good for you Crimeans," celebrating the return of the peninsula which was part of Russia before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed it over to then Soviet Ukraine in 1954.
Crimea's main city of Simferopol reciprocated in kind, with officials bringing out some 75,000 people for a pro-Moscow May Day rally, according to local estimates.
"This is the rise of the entire Crimean society, all of our Russian people," said the head of the local legislature Vladimir Konstantinov.
Over two million people turned up for May Day demonstrations across Russia, trade union leaders said.
Elsewhere, the slogans appeared less political, with demonstrators calling for better wages and work conditions.
"Give us wages, we are not slaves," read one banner in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, where 40,000 turned up for a rally, according to trade unions.
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012 after huge protests against his decade-long rule, Putin has sought to boost support among his core constituents of middle-aged Russians and blue-collar workers.
After Moscow's takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March, patriotism has surged to new heights.
A new study by the independent Levada Centre pollster released on Wednesday said that 82 per cent of respondents said they approved of Putin's job.
Putin meets union leaders
But the danger of unrest and disillusionment with Putin's policies is not lost on the Kremlin as the economy is entering recession and the national currency, the ruble, has fallen to levels not seen since the 2008 global financial crisis.
Meeting trade union leaders at the Kremlin later Thursday, Putin said workers needed to increase productivity, adding that a plan to raise wages was putting a strain on regional budgets.
"I have to say it's not easy to do," said Putin. "Often there is already not enough money for investment activity," he said after bestowing "Hero of Labour" medals on several Russians.
In recent years Putin has cleverly tapped into middle-aged Russians' nostalgia for the stability and superpower status of the USSR.
He has reinstated a Soviet-era programme of fitness tests, known under the abbreviation GTO, or Ready for Labour and Defence and first introduced under Josef Stalin in the 1930s.
International Labour Day, or May Day, was a key date in the Soviet calendar, instituted after the Bolshevik Revolution.
The celebrations became increasingly elaborate in the later years of the USSR, with party bosses presiding over ranks of marching athletes, workers and farm labourers from the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square, awash with red flags.
Vedomosti business daily said in an editorial that the Kremlin was playing a dangerous game by harking back to the Soviet era.
"The late USSR is the period which directly led to the collapse of the economy and state system of the entire Soviet country."