Olga Orlova says she never thought she would be able to vote for Vladimir Putin in her native Crimea. "It still seems so surreal, like a fantasy," she said after watching the Russian leader at a rally in the port city of Sevastopol.
The 57-year-old listened to Putin’s less than two-minute speech at an ultra-patriotic rally marking the annexation of Crimea ahead of Russia’s presidential election on Sunday.
The 65-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power since 1999, is widely expected to win a fourth Kremlin term.
"We are still in euphoria (about joining Russia)," Orlova said with tears in her eyes of the momentous events of 2014 which led the West to impose biting sanctions against Moscow.
She was one of around 15,000 people who turned out in the historical home of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Crowds cheered as Putin’s helicopter hovered over the stage as Soviet-era war songs blared and snipers perched on a nearby building.
They had waited for the Russian leader for hours.
But, after his eagerly anticipated arrival, Putin spoke for only a minute and 47 seconds.
“Four years ago you made a historic decision thanks to which Sevastopol and Crimea came back to their native home, our common home, our motherland Russia," Putin told the cheering crowds.
After briefly praising the events of 2014, the Russian leader swiftly walked off stage.
"Thank you very much to all of you. I am sending you all hugs! See you soon," he said.
Shortly after, his helicopter took off to the sound of more cheering.
Many of those who attended had gathered on Sevastopol's main square five hours before the president's arrival. AFP saw groups of people told where to stand throughout, many holding Russian flags.
Ganif Serverovich, a 43-year-old Crimean Tatar told AFP he came to show his support for Moscow. Crimean Tatars have faced persecution since the annexation, but Serverovich said those were rumours fuelled in the West.
"It’s not true that Crimean Tatars are being suppressed in Crimea. They say that in the West because they don't want us to live in peace," he told AFP, adding that he had travelled from the mountain town of Bakhchisaray, a Tatar stronghold.
"We will go vote to show Crimean Tatars support Russia,” he said, adding that it is "never easy to change country" but he believes in a bright future.
Many Crimeans who support Moscow’s rule see Sunday’s presidential election as a repeat of the 2014 referendum to join Russia, which was organised by the Kremlin and has not been recognised internationally.
"Tell the world we went to the referendum voluntarily," said Lyudmila Voloshina, a 65-year-old retired lawyer.
"If there are higher prices in the shops then it does not matter because we returned home (to Russia)," she said.
Russian performers flew in from Moscow and played both modern pop music and Soviet-era military songs.
A heavy metal band played a tune called “Sevastopol will always be Russian” and well-known artists performed ballads about the vastness of Russia.
Putin, who has been in power Russia both as prime minister and president since 1999, is already Russia's longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin and is likely to further extend his rule until 2024 in Sunday’s election.
“I hope he is healthy and stays forever,” said Klavdia Shleynikova, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mother who brought along her children.