Enthusiasm for self-rule was palpable in the line snaking out of the district administration building in Mariupol, now converted into a polling station.
So was hostility directed at Ukraine's government, whose attempts to regain control of this largely pro-Russian city left up to 21 dead days earlier.
Nelli Levkovskaya, a pensioner stopping by one of the tyre barricades near Mariupol's burned-out city hall as she headed to cast her ballot, clucked at what has become of her home town.
"Look what they did here, sending in troops on May 9 to bomb and destroy everything," she said. "Now people just want to go and vote. I don't want to be part of Russia, I just want to be independent."
The port city of 500,000 people had just four polling stations operating yesterday. Large crowds formed outside, waiting to vote - hoping that by doing so they could restore some semblance of order over what has become a charred and lawless wasteland.
The ballots, which Ukraine and the West have rejected as illegal, seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.
"The organisers of this criminal farce have violated the constitution and Ukrainian law," the foreign ministry said. It added the vote was "inspired, organised and financed by the Kremlin".
Rebel organisers of the vote in Mariupol said that the poor security situation meant they had to concentrate balloting in only a few district buildings rather than the scattered assortment of schools and social clubs where elections are normally held.
Outside the Illichovsky administration building, the line of hundreds snaked down the street.
"I'm willing to stand here and wait until 8pm to vote if I need to," said Ludmila Shvedova.
The resident dismissed accusations from Kiev that the process was being managed behind the scenes by Russia, in the same way Moscow organised a referendum in Crimea before annexing that territory in March.
Watch: East Ukraine gears up for rebel referendum
"Do you see Russia standing here? There is no Russia here, this is ordinary people," she said.
The recent violence strengthened their resolve for self-rule.
"Our town was flourishing and beautiful but they turned it into a desert," said former naval officer Valery Sidorov.
But some locals said they were opposed to the referendum. They said they were fearful of what would happen should separatists try to force through the result.
"I am for Ukraine. I was born in this country and I want to stay in this country," 20-year-old fireman Ivan Shelest said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press