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People walk in the Red Square near the Kremlin in Moscow March 3, 2012.Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

The crowd coming out of the Kitai-Gorod metro station was greeted by a young woman with a handwritten sign reading "Concert 12." Anyone who fell into line behind her was immediately handed a plastic Russian flag.

Concert 12 started to walk, and I walked with them. Although Concert 12 was made up of at least 50 people, no one spoke as we marched.

We travelled southeast across Moscow's Old Square, to the foot of a monument to the Orthodox saints Cyril and Methodius. There we joined with the other "concerts." There were several thousand of us now, standing in neat rows, all carrying little white-blue-and-red flags.

Leaders emerged, wearing T-shirts identifying them as volunteers for the ruling United Russia party. Some had clipboards with lists of names on them. Others were handing out yet more Russian flags and ribbons. A young United Russia volunteer yelled "Tsaritsyno!" – the name of a neighbourhood in south Moscow – and suddenly another crowd began walking towards the square from a bus stop across the street.

An older group gathered under purple and yellow balloons. "Svyataya Rus," or "Holy Rus" read a sign their leader held aloft on a stick. Others wore the orange-and-black St. George's ribbons that have become a symbol of support for the Kremlin, particularly in its showdown with the West over Ukraine.

I'd seen this happen before, I realized. I was on Old Square last March, waiting to have lunch with a colleague, when thousands of flag-bearing youths (as well as the older Svyataya Rus crowd) began arriving at the same spot. As I did on Friday, I made the short walk with them to Red Square, where the crowd chanted "Crimea is ours!" as President Vladimir Putin announced that he had signed the documents joining the Crimean Peninsula – which had been part of Ukraine since 1954 – to the Russian Federation.

This time, the gathered crowd would head to Red Square to help mark Russia Day, a holiday theoretically celebrating the country's June 12, 1990, declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

The original reason for the holiday seems lost now. Mr. Putin, like many Russians, has made it clear he mourns the downfall of the USSR. The official "Russia Day" billboards around the city show the modern Russian tricolour flag growing out of the red Soviet banner, which is in turn attached to the black-yellow-and-white flag of the tsars.

It could hardly have felt more Soviet as we silently marched in long lines behind our leaders to Red Square. Eventually, I fell out of step and decided to watch from a distance.

The job of the "concerts," it became clear, would be to provide a flag-waving throng that would stand at the front of the tens of thousands who would eventually gather on Red Square for a sun-drenched afternoon of patriotic pop music. (Among the songs played live outside the Kremlin walls was Oleg Gazmanov's controversial anthem Made in the USSR with its opening lyrics "Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova – that is my country.")

The "concerts" would be the ones seen on television around the country, making the vast plaza look even fuller and more enthusiastic than it really was. A line of back-uniformed police formed behind the "concerts," separating the United Russia-organized crowd from others who came to Red Square of their own accord.

"These ideals of patriotism are so deep and strong that no one has ever been or will be able to re-encode Russia, adapt it to their formats," Mr. Putin said in a speech Friday after a ceremony to bestow medals on some of the country's top artists and scientists. Mr. Putin was referring to the Kremlin's belief that the West is intent on imposing its values on Russia and the former Soviet republics that Moscow still sees as within its "sphere of influence."

There's a genuine fear in official Moscow that the United States, which is seen as having masterminded last year's pro-Western revolution in Ukraine, will try to stage one here, perhaps around next year's parliamentary elections.

Part of Russia's response to the perceived threat has been to whip up nationalism, using rhetoric emphasizing that Russia and the Orthodox world belong to a separate civilization than Western Europe and North America.

A survey published this week by the independent Levada Centre suggests the tactic is working. A year after the Crimea annexation, 78 per cent of the 1,600 people interviewed across the country say they consider themselves a "Russian patriot." And, despite more than a year of Western sanctions, a falling ruble (despite a recent recovery, the currency is still worth just 60 per cent of its pre-crisis value against the U.S. dollar), and the bloody Kremlin-backed war in eastern Ukraine, 86 per cent say they approve of the job Mr. Putin is doing. The West often calls Mr. Putin a dictator, but the awkward truth is that he rules with the people's consent.

The way the crowd was mustered and controlled ahead of Mr. Putin's Friday speech shows that the surging patriotism is nonetheless something the Kremlin is keen to keep control of. Red Square was fenced off for three days before the Russia Day holiday, encircled by busloads of police and lines of metal detectors. At least 12 truckloads of soldiers were parked a short walk away from Friday's festivities.

There was little need for such precautions. Two women – including Nadya Tolokonnikova of the shock-art group Pussy Riot – were detained Friday in central Moscow while sewing a Russian flag wearing prison uniforms. Ms. Tolokonnikova spent nearly two years in prison after she and two other Pussy Riot members were arrested for singing an obscenity-laced anti-Putin song inside Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral in 2012.

But the flag-sewing stunt was a lonely flicker of dissent.

Many of who joined the Russia Day celebrations on Red Square walked there across the Bolshoi Moskovetsky Bridge, passing the flowers and photographs that still mark the spot opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in February. Few paused.