In Moscow alone, over 10,000 people were expected to participate in various rallies, marches, and religious services in honor of Soviet and Russian soldiers.
This popular public holiday marks the first mass draft, on 23 February 1918, into the Soviet Red Army, as well as the first combat action, against occupying German forces. Initially called "Red Army Day," the holiday was renamed "Soviet Army Day" in 1946 and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, changed its name to the current "Defenders of the Fatherland Day."
President Vladimir Putin formally launched the commemorations early today by laying wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, near the Kremlin wall, in the company of high-ranking officials. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov then paid homage to all the soldiers who served in the Russian army and navy.
A Less Festive Remembrance
Federal officials, however, didn't mention another key event that also happened on a 23 February -- the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush.
Between 23 and 24 February 1944, nearly half a million Chechens and Ingush were systematically rounded up and herded into freight trains. They were then sent to the dry plains of Kazakhstan, to Kyrgyzstan, and to the Siberian taiga.
Their deportation was ordered by Josef Stalin, who accused the two peoples of collaborating with the Nazi army. About half the deportees are estimated to have died either during the journey or within the year that followed their deportation, succumbing to cold, hunger, and disease.
It was not until 1956, during Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign, that Chechens were permitted to return to their homeland. The charge of mass treason against them was also dropped.
No Laying Of Wreaths
Asya Musayeva, a 38-year-old Chechen woman employed as a senior executive in a Moscow firm, says her entire family, including her father and mother, was deported to Kazakhstan. She tells RFE/RL that her family, like most Chechens, refuses to take part in any celebrations marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day.
"The fact that we have been forced to celebrate this day as Defenders of the Fatherland Day does not mean we have forgotten that our parents were deported," she says. "We have asked my nephew's school [in Moscow] not to teach him to lay flowers on the monument to some unknown man on Defenders of the Fatherland Day, because this army has brought us nothing but grief."
Musayeva says she plans to spend the day looking at old family photographs and remembering her many relatives who died as a result of the deportation. She says her family living in Chechnya, like most Chechens, will pay solemn tribute to the deportees.
"I bow to these people -- not just me, I think any Chechen. According to tradition, my family will remember those who died during this brutal deportation. There are special traditions when a sacrificial animal is killed, its meat is given to orphans, widows, to the poor. They will also go to the cemetery," Musayeva says.
Despite the lack of official commemorations, Musayeva says 23 February remains a highly emotional date in Chechnya -- not only for those who were deported, but also for their children and grandchildren.
The aftermath of a December 2002 Chechen resistance attack on the main government building in Grozny (epa)