Russia marked the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany with soldiers bearing hammer-and-sickle banners goose-stepping through Red Square and President Vladimir Putin sending a veiled warning to Estonia over its relocation of a Soviet war memorial.
On one of the most cherished holidays in the Russian calendar, veterans bedecked with medals joined officials across the country Wednesday to lay flowers at graves and bask in the memory of the 1945 victory, one of the most glorious feats in the nation's troubled past.
An estimated 27 million people died during the conflict known to most Russians as the Great Patriotic War and much of the western part of the country was ravaged during four years of battles.
Speaking from a podium in front of Lenin's Mausoleum, Putin hailed Victory Day as "the holiday of huge moral importance and unifying power."
He also honored the contribution of Western allies to the defeat of Adolf Hitler's Germany but appeared to take a swipe at the United States, saying that the world now sees threats to peace "based on the same disrespect for human life, claims to global exclusiveness and dictate, just as it was in the Third Reich."
He did not specify to whom he was referring, but the comment echoed recent sharp criticism by him of the United States for an allegedly aggressive foreign policy and Kremlin objections to U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in eastern Europe.
"I am convinced that common responsibility and equitable partnership offer the only tool for rebuffing these challenges and repelling any attempts to unleash new armed conflicts or undermine global security," Putin said.
Putin also alluded to Russian anger over last month's removal of a Red Army memorial from a square in Tallinn, capital of the former Soviet republic of Estonia.
The monument's shift to a military cemetery and the planned reburial of Soviet soldiers interred at the square set off days of rioting by ethnic Russians in Estonia and drew outrage and threats of economic retaliation from Russia.
Putin did not mention Estonia by name, but 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."
Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, pays tribute to the Red Army for driving out the Nazis, but also portrays Soviet troops as occupiers who helped keep it under communist control for a half century.
In Tallinn, ethnic Russians observed the anniversary with peaceful celebrations, including a few hundred who showed up at the square where the statue known as the Bronze Soldier stood until April 27. Hundreds placed flowers at the monument's new location.
Against a backdrop of earlier Kremlin threats of unspecified economic consequences for Estonia in the monument dispute, Russia has disrupted some transportation links this week, although officials cited other reasons.
Russian authorities announced restrictions Wednesday for a bridge on the main road linking Russia and Estonia. Valentin Sidorin of the regional administration said the decision to bar trucks with capacity over 3Ѕ tons was necessary because the bridge needs repairs.
On Tuesday, Russia's state railways said it was ending passenger train service between St. Petersburg and Estonia for lack of passengers.
The Soviet defeat of Nazi troops plays a large role in Russia's national psyche, and Russians are quick to denounce any moves they consider disrespectful to the country's sacrifices, particularly as Putin leads a resurgence in pride about the Soviet past.
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov rode through Red Square standing in an open-top Soviet-era limousine reviewing the troops, who then sang the national anthem to the boom of artillery salutes. Soldiers marched across the cobblestones and fighter jets roared overhead.
As soldiers wearing World War II-era uniforms and bearing hammer-and-sickle flags with the face of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin marched by, hundreds of veterans watched from bleachers along the Kremlin walls.
"We are supporting the traditions of our fathers, our grandfathers. Without traditions, we are nothing," said Vyacheslav Markin, an 83-year-old former pilot struggling to hold all the carnations he had been given.
The display of the Soviet-era symbols reflects a nostalgia among many Russians, particularly the older generation, for a time when the country's military instilled fear and respect abroad and a cradle-to-the-grave social system gave certainty at home.
In a rare public statement of dissent for a patriotic holiday, human rights activist Yelena Bonner called on Russians to acknowledge that the victory over the Nazis did not result in liberation for many countries, including the Baltic nations.
"We didn't liberate anyone, we weren't even able to liberate ourselves, although for four difficult years of war we hoped for it. We even said 'After the war, if we survive it, all life will be different.' It didn't happen; not in 1945, not in 1991!" she said.
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