As Crimea votes in favor of secession, the threat of sanctions with Russia grows. (Reuters)

Long before the ballots were tallied Sunday night by tired volunteers in empty classrooms, official announcers at a jubilant rally in Lenin Square proclaimed a new “Crimean spring” for the autonomous region of Ukraine. Ecstatic screams of “Ross-i-ya!” filled the crisp evening air.

Then, shortly before midnight, Crimean political leaders emerged on a giant stage and declared triumphantly that with half the vote counted, 93 percent of Crimeans had chosen to be reunited with Russia. Fireworks burst in the sky, and thousands of people in the streets screamed, wept or embraced.

Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula of 2 million at the center of the high-stakes showdown between Russia and the West, chose overwhelmingly Sunday to break away from pro-Western Ukraine and rejoin Moscow in a hasty referendum condemned by most of the world and boycotted by many non-Russian minority voters.

Crimea’s pro-Russian officials, who took power with Moscow’s backing last month after bloody protests toppled the pro-Kremlin government in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, said that about 82 percent of registered voters had cast ballots.

Many voters expressed strong emotional identification with Russia, resentment at what they described as years of humiliation by officials in Kiev, and fear that “fascist” forces are gaining power there. The Crimean region was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet rulers in 1954, and many people here expressed fierce hopes that reuniting with Russia would bring them a more prosperous and stable life.

“I want to give the biggest possible thanks to Vladimir Putin. He gave us the chance to choose our future that we always longed for,” said Nadezhda Kozak, 38, a postal worker in the town of Kashtanovoya.

Hours later, as thousands of exultant residents gathered in Lenin Square and an orchestra played patriotic Russian songs, another voter reached farther into history, thanking Catherine the Great and “all our generals of World War II” for liberating Crimea from successive foreign invaders. “Now we are back home with Russia again,” said Galina Skibadanskya, 65, a theater performer.

Couples with children on their shoulders and elderly couples hoisting flags or balloons strolled through the Crimean capital long after dark. Young men raced along the streets in flag-waving caravans.

A similar scene unfolded in Sevastapol, the Crimean Black Sea port that is a historic marine base. In Nakhimov Square, thousands of people celebrated, and an emcee with a Russian flag draped around his shoulders shouted over and over, “What country are you going to wake up in tomorrow?”

“Ross-i-ya!” the crowd roared back.

Among those in the throng was a young father with his 7-year-old son. The man, who gave his name only as Vyacheslav, said he had been a boy when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, an event seared into his memory as the collapse of a great nation. “We have always felt Russian, and today is like a holiday,” he said.

At polling places in many areas, voters greeted one another with hugs and handshakes.

“We can live without the West, and I will kiss the boots of the Russian soldiers who have come to save us,” said Sergei Denzyen, 55, a retired naval officer who was strolling home with his neighbors after casting his ballot.

Many voters expressed anger and bewilderment at Western criticism of the referendum and seemed to have been persuaded by a barrage of official campaign rhetoric that described present-day Russia as an updated version of the paternalistic Soviet state, with higher pensions and salaries, lower taxes, and more generous public health and education benefits.

This rosy narrative, however, contrasted sharply with the memories of opposition minority groups, especially Muslim Crimean Tatars, who boycotted the referendum. The Tatars, an ancient Turkic group, were deported en masse by Soviet rulers in the 1940s and returned to a democratizing Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s.

Members of the ethnic Ukrainian minority seemed shocked at the momentum that propelled the referendum toward a virtual foregone vote for annexation to Russia.

Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, confined to their bases across Crimea while pro-Russian security forces blanketed the region, nervously faced an uncertain future. At one Ukrainian base in Simferopol, two Russian armored vehicles were stationed outside the gates Sunday. A Ukrainian officer inside the gate said he did not feel safe.

“I feel we have no hope now,” said an ethnic Ukrainian waitress in a deserted cafe in Simferopol as she watched the pro-
Russia celebrations erupting on television. “Crimea is very big in the news now, but soon it will be small and forgotten again. We will be back in the Russian system, and we will have to learn to survive all over again.”

Morello reported from Sevastopol.