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President Putin (left) at today's wreath-laying ceremony (epa) February 23, 2007 -- (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin today opened celebrations of Russia's Defenders of the Fatherland Day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


Meanwhile, an estimated 3,000 leftist demonstrators marched through central Moscow and held a rally at the statue of Karl Marx.

MORE: Coverage in Russian, with photo gallery, from RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Carrying red Soviet flags and pictures of Josef Stalin, demonstrators called for better military pay, pensions, and benefits.


In the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, a smaller group of about 20 human rights activists used the holiday to call attention to the problem of hazing and harassment in the Russian armed forces.


In one of the most notorious hazing cases, soldier Andrei Sychyov had his legs and genitals amputated last year following abuse at the tank academy where he served near Chelyabinsk.


Leftist demonstrators in Moscow today (RFE/RL)

Kirill Shtifanov, one of the demonstration's organizers, told RFE/RL that political leaders will not address the issue of abuse in the military without public pressure.


"There's no point in appealing to the state, because they simply don't care about what society thinks" Shtifanov said. "We want to direct our efforts first and foremost at the people, because the army today is a very closed institution from which information often comes out distorted, and never reaches us in full. As long as our leaders our indifferent, we'll never achieve anything."


Today's holiday replaces the Communist-era Soviet Army Day.


(with material from agency reports)

RFE/RL Russia Report


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