Sevastopol, scene of Russian glories, eager to 'go home'
A pro-Ukrainian activist waves Ukrainian flags next to pro-Russian activists during a rally in Sevastopol on March 9, 2014 - by Viktor Drachev
And as Moscow cements its control over Crimea, residents say they are looking forward to the day when the Russian flag, already omnipresent, will fly as the official standard.
In this city of 350,000 -- where the squares and streets carry the names of heroes of the Crimean War or the Soviet Union -- Ukraine's independence in 1991 was traumatic.
So when the pro-Kremlin regime of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown last month, tens of thousands rushed to the streets, rallying in the central square and proclaiming a pro-Moscow businessman, Alexei Chaly, as the city's new mayor.
"The citizens of Sevastopol decided to cut all ties with the thugs, criminals and Nazis who seized power in Kiev," Ivan Komelov, an advisor to Chaly, told AFP.
"No one doubts the result" of the March 16 referendum in Crimea on becoming part of Russia, he said.
"During 23 years of independence, Ukraine has done nothing for us. Kiev took our money and that's it. When the people of Sevastopol have had their say we hope that Mother Russia will answer our call and take us into her bosom."
Chaly, who made his fortune in the electronics industry, is known in Sevastopol for having financed the reconstruction of monuments to the memory of Russian heroes.
Among them is Vladimir Kornilov, the famed Russian admiral who led the defence of Sevastopol against a Franco-British-Ottoman force during the 349-day siege of the city in 1854-55.
Kornilov's famous last words during the siege -- "Defend Sevastopol!" -- were emblazoned on a stage this weekend as city residents gathered for a pro-Russia meeting.
Chanting "Russia! Russia!" the crowd watched as performer Nadezhda Babkina sang and danced in a multi-coloured dress, embroidered shawl and traditional headdress.
Among the crowd was 47-year-old Pavel Filipov, wearing a red anorak marked "Russian National Team" in English.
- 'Like a rejected transplant' -
"I have been waiting for this moment for decades," he said. "We are going home, the vote here will be 100 percent for Russia."
His wife Olga, 46, recalls the Soviet era when the city and its surroundings were secret military areas closed to foreigners.
"We had peace and security, we left our keys under the mat, children played outside. It was good," she said.
Touring the city, there can be little doubt of the pivotal role Sevastopol has played in Russian history.
A "Hero City" of the Soviet Union, Sevastopol saw 250,000 Red Army soldiers killed when German forces took control in 1942 after a devastating siege.
It was rebuilt by Stalin after the war, its majestic buildings and statues to heroes lined up along a ledge overlooking the port.
Along the waterfront, shops sell striped sailor shirts to tourists, magnets in the shape of submarines and Red Army souvenirs.
The yellow-and-blue of the Ukrainian flag is nowhere to be seen.
Sitting on a park bench, Anna and Larissa, two women in their 60s with gold teeth, shelter from the drizzle under their umbrellas.
They will "happily" vote for Crimea to join Russia on March 16, said Anna, who would not give her last name.
"This city has always been Russian, and despite what was said, we were never part of Ukraine. It was like a transplant that was rejected -- we were Ukrainians in name only. Now we are going home," Anna said.
"Ukraine is a very poor country. Everything will be much better for us when our currency is the ruble," said Komelov of city hall.
"Russia is a rich and powerful country, which Ukraine will never be. Of course the Ukrainians who don't agree with us will be allowed to stay. Like foreigners living in Russia."