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Russia Marks National Unity Day With Rival Rallies, Statue

  • Tom Balmforth

A woman holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as she takes part in a march marking Russia's National Unity Day on Tverskaya Street in Moscow on November 4.

A woman holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as she takes part in a march marking Russia's National Unity Day on Tverskaya Street in Moscow on November 4.

MOSCOW -- Separate crowds of nationalists and government supporters have marched through the streets of Moscow as Russia marked National Unity Day, a holiday established by the Kremlin more than 10 years ago to replace communist-era celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution anniversary.

Outside the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a controversial 17-meter-high statue of Grand Prince Vladimir, an iconic figure who legend says converted eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in 988, when he was ruler of Kievan Rus.

Putin has used the November 4 holiday to promote patriotism and seek to consolidate society and strengthen the Kremlin's grip on a vast, diverse country. He has tried to balance messages of unity with verbal support for the ethnic Russian majority and the predominant Russian Orthodox Church.

"Prince Vladimir has gone down forever in history as the unifier and defender of Russian lands, as a visionary politician," Putin said at the event on Borovitskaya Square, which was attended by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and other senior officials as well as Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, underscoring the symbolic importance Moscow placed on the event.

The monument unveiling -- which was closed to the public -- came after marchers from mainly pro-government groups and mainstream political parties, many carrying banners and Russian flags, made their way down the central Tverskaya Street a few hundred meters away. Authorities put the size of the crowd at about 80,000.

WATCH: Hundreds of people joined mainstream political parties in the Lyublino district of southeast Moscow on November 4, waving Russian imperial flags, carrying nationalist banners, and chanting "Glory to Russia." (RFE/RL's Current Time TV and Russian Service)

There was a heavy police presence in the Russian capital, with metal barriers sealing off side streets.

Nationalists and monarchists held separate marches and rallies in outlying districts of Moscow. Pro-government gatherings were held in cities across Russia as well as in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014, severely straining its ties with Kyiv and the West.

Grand Prince Vladimir -- Volodymyr in Ukrainian -- is a key part of the current struggle between Moscow and Kyiv. He ruled Kievan Rus from Kyiv, the cradle of Russian civilization and the capital of Ukraine, and is a patron saint in both countries.

He has long been seen, however, as belonging to Kyiv, where a soaring statue has been a chief symbol of the city since it was erected on "Volodymyr's Hill," overlooking the Dnieper River, in 1853.

Russian President Vladimir Putin later was on hand for the unveiling near the Kremlin of a statue of Grand Prince Vladimir, who, according to legend, converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 when he was the ruler of Kievan Rus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin later was on hand for the unveiling near the Kremlin of a statue of Grand Prince Vladimir, who, according to legend, converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 when he was the ruler of Kievan Rus.

"Today our duty is to stand up together against modern challenges and threats by basing ourselves on this spiritual legacy," Putin said.

National Unity Day is a national holiday created by Putin in 2005 to celebrate a Russian victory over Polish forces in 1612. It took the place of Soviet-era commemorations of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which were held on November 7.

Earlier, Putin laid flowers at the Red Square monument to Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who are credited with leading Russian troops against the Poles in 1612.

Attending that event along with Putin were heads of major religious faiths, including Kirill and Russian Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin.

Elsewhere in the Russian capital, hundreds of ultranationalists shouting slogans such as "Glory to the white race! Glory to Russia!" marched through Lyublino, a southeastern neighborhood. Hundreds of riot police with batons were on hand, along with police troops in green fatigues and regular police.

Among other chants shouted by the ultranationalists, some of whom had shaved heads, included calls to free Dmitry Dyomushkin, who was arrested on October 28 on charges of extremism and placed under house arrest. Dyomushkin has been a key organizer of the nationalist Russian March parade in past years.

Russian nationalists attend a Russian March demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow on November 4.

Russian nationalists attend a Russian March demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow on November 4.

While Putin has promoted a patriotic brand of nationalism, the Kremlin is wary of hard-line ethnic Russian or Slavic nationalists, many of whom are disenchanted with his leadership. The government has prevented them from marching in central Moscow in recent years.

One slogan chanted at the march was "Putin, Skis, Magadan" -- a call for Putin to be sent to gulag, or prison. Another was: "Russians forward! Blood, fatherland, faith!"

Building A Nation?

Ahead of the holiday, Putin urged lawmakers to craft legislation on the "Russian nation" -- using the word Rossiiskaya, which indicates the Russian state, rather than Russkaya, which implies ethnicity -- in what analysts called an effort to project an image of unity. The giant country has a large Muslim minority and a wide variety of ethnic groups.

But members of some minorities such as Tatars, who are mainly Muslim, say they fear such steps are actually aimed to sweep their cultural identity under the rug and create a more homogenous nation. They may also bristle at the monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, who was described by Kirill as having chosen the "truth."

During the pro-government march in central Moscow, some participants held up placards like "Russia, peace, unity", and "When we're united, we're unbeatable."

Also visible were banners of the orange-and-black St. George ribbon, which the state has promoted as a patriotic symbol but which many Kremlin critics and people in neighboring countries now associate with Russian military aggression and in particular the war Russia-backed separatists are waging against government forces in eastern Ukraine.

A balloon, several meters in diameter and emblazoned with the word "Antimaidan" -- a sign of opposition to Ukraine's Euromaidan protest movement, which drove Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014 -- floated above the procession.

Analysts say there is little enthusiasm among ordinary Russians for the holiday, with many turning out for rallies organized by the state or its supporters only after pressure at work. Others have admitted in the past to being paid to attend such rallies.

Three Uzbek migrant workers at the march on Tverskaya Street told RFE/RL that they did not receive money for turning up for this year's festivities, but added they had been paid in the past for taking part in rallies.

A tweet from the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom said, "Our congrats to compatriots and colleagues on National Unity Day," and included a drawing featuring matryoshka dolls, bears, balalaikas, and vodka bottles -- as well as fur hats with the Soviet red star.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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