President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday told the annual massive Victory Day commemoration in Red Square that desecrating war monuments harms relations between countries.
Putin did not mention any country by name, but the statement in his speech before thousands of veterans, dignitaries and soldiers was an apparent reference to the recent removal of the statue of a Red Army soldier from downtown Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Estonia.
The statue's relocation and the planned reburial of soldiers who had been interred near it set off days of clashes between police and mainly ethnic Russian demonstrators, in which one person was killed and hundreds arrested.
Putin condemned those who "are desecrating monuments to war heroes, and in doing that are insulting their own people and sowing enmity and a new distrust between nations and people."
Victory Day, one of the most important holidays on Russia's calendar, commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. For many Russians, the victory stands out as the most glorious feat of the nation's troubled past.
It was achieved at a devastating cost, with an estimated 27 million dead and much of the western part of the country ravaged in four years of fierce battles.
The parade, involving several thousand troops dressed in parade uniforms, is a rite that has remained virtually unchanged since Soviet times. Goose-stepping soldiers in tight formation marched across the square and fighter jets roared overhead.Before the parade, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov solemnly greeted the troops as he stood in an open-top Soviet-era ZIL limousine that drove through the square.
The war's large role in the national psyche has frequently been seen in Russia's denunciation of any moves it regards as disrespectful to the country's sacrifices in the fighting. Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, acknowledges the Red Army's driving out of the Nazis, but also portrays the army as occupiers who helped keep it under Soviet control for the next half-century.
Putin, speaking from a podium in front of Lenin's Mausoleum, hailed Victory Day as "the holiday of huge moral importance and unifying power."
"Russia will always honor the memory of the great victory, of heroic feats of our fathers and grandfathers," Putin said. "Like them, we will selflessly defend the interests of our motherland."
Parades and celebrations were also held in other cities across Russia. Many other ex-Soviet nations also celebrated it. Putin said in his speech that the holiday "unites us with our close neighbors."
He also honored Western allies' contribution to the World War II victory. "We are paying homage today to the nations of the anti-Hitler coalition. We won't forget their contribution to the defeat of the Nazis," Putin said.
Away from festivities, most Russians observe the day with visits to the graves of relatives and family dinners as nationwide television stations run interviews with veterans and Soviet-era war movies.
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