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DONETSK, Ukraine – Thousands of men and women gathered on Lenin square in east Ukraine’s main rebel-held city Donetsk on Monday, February 23, to celebrate a Soviet-era holiday and pay homage to their fallen fighters.
Military music blasted out as a cossack dressed in black and a leather-clad rocker carried an icon of the Virgin Mary with Jesus onto a stage to mark Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland Day”, originally a celebration of the mighty Soviet Red Army.
“This festival is a celebration of the army of workers and peasants,” a woman shouted into the microphone.
Commanders in camouflage from the Vostok battalion of the pro-Russian separatist forces gathered on the stage to celebrate what they described as “free Donetsk”.
“I remember the birth of this movement when there were only 10 people. Now the square is jam packed,” said commander Alexander Khodakovsky.
But while the mood was celebratory there was still a somber moment of silence to remember those killed fighting for the pro-Moscow insurgency, which Kiev and the West says is masterminded by the Kremlin.
A man in military fatigues and beret then took to the stage to sing a song that he composed himself.
“Do not judge me but I can not give you back your son, he was the best and he died saving me, I will make the enemy pay for his death,” he sang.
‘I feel proud’
Among the fiercely partisan crowd there was enthusiastic support for the rebels after 10 months of brutal conflict with Ukrainian forces that has cost at least 5,690 lives.
“I feel hope,” said Lyudmila, 65, who came with her 10-year-old granddaughter. “I hope that the war stops now, and my little girl lives in peace. I hope we can do what we want without Kiev telling us what to think.”
“And I feel proud,” she continued, her voice quavering and tears in his eyes, “because my father fought for the Soviet Army during the Second World War”.
As she talked, girls in white and red tutus danced on stage along to the music of Britney Spears. A couple of young newly-weds clambered up to celebrate their marriage with a kiss.
Natalia and Victor Mantula, a retired couple in their seventies, said they had come to celebrate “the men who liberated us”.
One of their sons, they say, participated in the fierce battle for Debaltseve, a key transport hub that the rebels captured from the Ukrainian army last week.
When asked whether they feel nostalgia for the Soviet Union, they answered without hesitation: “Yes of course, a great nostalgia. The people were together, we were well off, we weren’t worried about finding food to eat.”
Behind them, a flag of the rebels’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic fluttered from the huge Lenin statue on the square.
Written above it was a quote from Lenin about the role of this coal-rich industrial region.
“Without the Donbass, socialism would have remained a beautiful idea.” – Rappler.com