Russians told to attend pro-war Vladimir Putin rally in Moscow or 'resign' from jobs

Vladimir Putin led a rally of Russians in Moscow Credit: AP

In the Luzhniki stadium in central Moscow, thousands of Russians belted out the national anthem and listened to pro-war songs at a rally to commemorate the eighth year of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

In 2018, four years after the annexation, the stadium hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the World Cup and the final match in the tournament.

Today the stands were not filled with football fans but with patriotic Russians waving the country's red, white and blue flag in support of the war in Ukraine

Broadcast live across Russia on state television, the stadium was full of people celebrating the 'reunification' of Crimea with Russia and Russia's 'special military operation', in Ukraine.

Many people wore 'Z' on their clothes - a symbol which has come to signify support for Russia's invasion of its neighbour.

The slogans 'Russia, Donbas, Crimea' and 'For a world without Nazism,' were printed on banners, including on a stage where Russia's Olympic medallists stood to sing the national anthem.

Putin spoke in front of thousands of flag waving Russians Credit: AP

Vladimir Putin later took to a podium to praise Russia's military and to say Russia had not seen such unity in a long time.

Except the unity was not real according to one woman who attended the rally. Speaking to ITV News on condition of anonymity, the state employee described how she and about 1,000 of her colleagues had been forced to attend.

"Three days ago our management told us that absolutely everyone has to go to this event," she said.

"Those who didn't want to go for any reason would have to resign. We didn't really have a choice. We have children, parents, mortgages, and other financial obligations."

On social media there have been multiple reports of other Russians also told to attend by their companies.

Luzhniki stadium sits on the bank of the Moscow river and was refurbished for the 2018 World Cup.

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It can hold around 80,000 spectators but that, apparently, was not enough for everyone who wanted to go to the rally.

Images broadcast on Russian state television showed thousands of people swarming around the stadium, unable to get a seat inside.

ITV News has been told the impression the stadium was over capacity was created deliberately.

"We were not in the main stadium but stood near it," the state employee told ITV News.

"We all thought that this was being done to show the global community how many people support the reunification of Crimea [with Russia] so that the stadium couldn't hold all the people who wanted to get inside."

Inside, flag waving Russians listened to pro-war musical performances. Singer Oleg Gazmanov, banned from entering Latvia in 2014 for supporting President Putin's actions in Ukraine, appeared before the crowd to sing his song 'Made in the USSR.'

Gazmanov sang about the "Navy, Air Force, Special Forces, vodka, caviar... and missiles", belting out "Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova are my country".

Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova are all independent countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Crimea was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014.

Shortly after Gazmanov sang, President Putin appeared on stage. He repeated the false claim that Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine to protect people from genocide.

Praising the military, Vladimir Putin alluded to Russia's war casualties and said Russian soldiers in Ukraine "shield each other from bullets with their bodies like brothers on the battlefield".

Shortly afterwards, the broadcast on state television cut away from the president to Gazmanov, singing 'Forward, Russia,' in what the Kremlin later said was a technical glitch.

According to people on the ground, Putin's speech was relayed without problems inside the stadium.

However, for some people brought in for the show, the speech was of little interest and ITV News has been told many people were already going home by the time Vladimir Putin took to the stage.

"Our managers didn't even wait until the president had appeared," the state employee told ITV News.

"They told us once we stood there a bit and once they had marked us as attending that we could all slowly leave. When Putin came out, even when he had started speaking, people continued to leave. No one stopped."

The rendition of the Russian national anthem inside the stadium led by a military choir was also apparently met with similar apathy.

"No one sang the anthem, no one stood up," the employee said.

"Some people were definitely rejoicing at what was going on but most people stood there with incomprehension on their faces. Many people said: 'While we are standing here, people are dying there'."

According to a poll published on Russian state media, Vladimir Putin's popularity has gone up since the start of the war with Ukraine with almost 80% of 1,600 respondents approving of him. 71% of Russians support Russia's actions in Ukraine according to another official poll.

ITV News has been told a lot of people at the rally today appeared to be supportive of Russia's military campaign and smiling audience members could be seen throughout the broadcast on state television. 

A significant number of Russians, however, are against the war but the penalty for voicing criticism of the Kremlin's position is severe. President Putin has signed a law which allows authorities to punish anyone spreading 'fake news' about Russia's military actions in Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison.

The Kremlin insists the conflict with Ukraine is a 'special operation', not a war or an invasion. 

"It's not a special operation, it's a war," the state employee who spoke to ITV News said.

"I love my country but I am on the side of the Ukrainians as they are peaceful people. Russia is the invader."

Those who do not support the war but remain in Russia face difficult choices: go to a pro-war rally or be fired, speak out against the invasion and risk imprisonment.

"I don't know what to tell my child who is asking me, 'why are our troops there'?" the state employee told ITV News.

"People are afraid to speak out, they are worried about themselves, their loved ones, their future, for those who have to stay here.

"Just by talking to you I can face criminal liability. We know they are lying to us and that we are responsible for our actions and yet we do nothing. I am beginning to lose respect for myself. I will be ashamed to answer my children when they ask what I did in 2022."