MOSCOW -- One year after the March 16 referendum that resulted in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Russian media is awash in images of flag-waving citizens celebrating the first anniversary. Yet the reality is far from rosy.
The 2014 plebiscite saw an overwhelming majority of the peninsula's ethnic Russians vote to be part of Russia, but the events it sparked have started a new Cold War and helped push Russia to the brink of a recession.
The civil war in east Ukraine, next door to Russia, that began shortly after the referendum has killed more than 5,800 people and set in motion military and diplomatic crises that have inflamed East-West tensions. Confrontations between Russia and NATO countries, which accuse Moscow of arming the Ukrainian rebels, are at their worst since the days of the Soviet Union. Sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union, together with the drop in the price of oil, have resulted in a stalled Russian economy. Prices are skyrocketing, with inflation up from 7 percent to 17 percent since last April.
But inside Russia, the man who started it all, President Vladimir Putin, is more popular than ever.
State-run pollster VTsIOM said last week that Putin is enjoying an 88 percent job approval rating, and added that his approval hasn't dropped below 80 percent since April. Even independent, liberal-leaning pollster Levada Center puts his support at 86 percent of voters, up sharply since the annexation of Crimea.
"Almost all Russians, even Muscovites, and immigrants...love and adore Putin," construction worker Vladimir Yakovlev, 28, said, referring to Moscow's liberal streak and to the millions of Central Asian workers here. Putin "is resolute," Yakovlev said. Like him, his girlfriend, 25-year-old restaurant manager Anastasia Grakun, supports the annexation of Crimea enthusiastically.
"It's wonderful," said Grakun, who was hanging out at a mall in central Moscow. Like many Russians, she thinks of the annexation as a reunification, because Crimea had been part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to his native Ukraine in 1954. Even opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a staunch Putin adversary who typically rips apart Kremlin policies and is under house arrest, has said he thinks Crimea should stay with Russia.
"For the past two decades, the idea of joining Crimea to Russia has enjoyed a high degree of support among Russian citizens -- roughly from 80 to 84 percent," the director of Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty when the peninsula was annexed a year ago.
However, everyday life in Russia shows the consequences of the events set in motion in Crimea. The country's economic woes have Russians worried about holding on to their jobs in one recent poll, while another has suggested that the fear of a military confrontation between Russia and other countries is rising. Food prices have climbed dramatically because of inflation and Russia's food import ban against the European Union and the U.S. in retaliation for their financial sanctions.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in Ukraine have settled in Russia. The country's Federal Migration Service counted 280,000 in Russia as of January, business daily Kommersant reported at the time.
The killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down near the Kremlin in late February in what could have been a politically motivated murder, has exacerbated the tense climate. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on March 1 in his memory, with many insinuating that the murder benefits Putin.
But for the overwhelming majority of Russians, whether in bustling Moscow, a small suburb or a village, such issues are at arm's length. TV news consists of emotional reporting on Ukraine or sanitized reporting on problems at home, and most Russians get their news from television, which is dominated by a pro-Kremlin slant.
The intense anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiments on news programs are a continuation of the government's decade-long campaign of nationalistic content on TV. In the past year the nation's top channels, almost all owned or controlled by the government, have worked up their jingoism to a fever pitch: Views contrary to the state line that Russia gives only moral support to rebels in eastern Ukraine and that NATO is threatening Russia are rarely heard.
Instead there's a steady stream of graphic images from war-torn parts of Ukraine, blame hurled at the Kiev government, and sarcastic news presentations on the U.S., EU and NATO.
Many independent news outlets have been undercut or defanged.
There have been clampdowns on at least four large news outlets during the past year: TV Dozhd, or "TV Rain," an independent TV channel that carriers dropped without explanation just before the Crimea annexation; news site Lenta.ru, whose head editor was fired; business newspaper Kommersant, which lost its editor-in-chief; and liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which received an "extremism warning" from the government, one step away from a shutdown, over its Ukraine coverage.
Even earlier, in December 2013, Putin signed a decree dissolving the state-funded but partially independent RIA Novosti news agency and replacing it with a Kremlin-directed organization.
The Russian parliament has also passed a law that will force many independent publications, which often have European investors, to sell large parts of their companies to Russian buyers by early 2017.
The media crackdown is helping limit discontent over a classic Russian source of complaints: food stores. From the end of December to mid-March, the average price of many staples rose markedly: Flour and beef went up almost 10 percent, and milk, 5 percent. The cost of vegetables and fruits has skyrocketed -- carrots and onions by 41 percent; apples by 20 percent; and white cabbage, a Russian staple, up by 53 percent, per the Russian Federal Statistics Service. That's especially rough for Russia's pensioners, who typically receive just a few hundred dollars a month.
But that isn't translating into a backlash against Putin. Many Russians attribute higher prices not to the government's policies but rather to back-and-forth sanctions between the U.S. and European Union on one side and Russia on the other. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 people on the commercial flight, the U.S. and the European Union, accusing Russian-backed rebels of being responsible, imposed sanctions that limited loans from their banks to Russian banks.
Combined with a sharp rise in interest rates announced by the central bank to try to shore up a dramatically falling ruble, this has caused bank loans to become far more expensive. The retail, construction and real estate investment sectors have suffered.
Companies that don't rely on outside financing or consumers' disposable incomes have been pulling through, however. In one example, IBS Group, a software developer and IT services provider, has seen business stay the same over the past year, said company president Anatoly Karachinsky. "Nothing has changed," said Karachinsky, who founded the company in 1992. "We don't use [outside] loans."
Even after a year of increasing hardship, ordinary Russians aren't placing the blame on Putin, whose mandate runs until 2018. The percentage of Russians who would choose him as their candidate for president in a Levada survey went from 29 percent in January 2014 to 46 percent in March 2014, to 55 percent last month.
But behind those numbers, there is some dissent, however limited. Even among supporters of Crimea's return to Russia, some are saying that the country is facing more problems now than before.
Lawyer Anastasia Pavshednaya, 25, said she was in favor of reunification, but "now there are more issues," she said while waiting in Moscow's ornate Kievskaya metro station. "There is more polarization" than there was a year ago, she added.