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Russia: Leaders And Populace Support Defenders Of Motherland Day

Moscow, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's leaders and common people joined yesterday to celebrate Defenders of the Motherland Day, honoring the Russian armed forces and an army victory on 23 February 1918 over German invaders in World War I.

The holiday remains popular in Russia despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, impoverishment of the armed forces, and even revisionist historians' challenging of the 80-year-old victory as a myth and the 28 February holiday date as an accident.

President Boris Yeltsin used the occasion to promise once more an economic renaissance for the military. He put it this way in a written speech published by the Kremlin press service: "The state will do everything it can to equip the armed forces with modern weaponry and hardware, and to improve service and living conditions of servicemen and their families."

Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Yeltsin said his ministers finally have developed faith in the reforms that Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev is struggling to implement.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin read Yeltsin's address to a meeting of active and retired servicemen in Moscow. Then he added details to the promises. He said the government will substantially increase military wages this year. He said all servicemen will have their own flats by 2000.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who participated with Yeltsin at the wreath laying, laid on still more detail. He said that the first thousand of 100,000 Russian officers who are waiting for flats to which they are entitled by law, will get housing certificates next month. These are eventually to be used for the purchase of apartments.

Opposition figures also turned out, countering the upbeat rhetoric. About 15,000 supporters of the Communist Party, Labor Russia, Officers' Union and other opposition elements rallied in central Moscow Sunday calling "Down with this Government" and lamenting the condition of the Motherland and its defenders.

According to the Soviet version of history, newly formed units of the Red Army scored 80 years ago on February 23 their first victory over Germans trying to break through to St. Petersburg, then called Petrograd.

Recently, historians have described the action being commemorated as a battle on 28 January 1918, in which the German onslaught briefly was slowed, then continued. The following year, the Lenin government failed to prepare a celebration in time and so rescheduled it for 23 February, a date which one Soviet official called "accidental and hard to explain."

Nonetheless, Russians seem to have embraced the celebration. Questioned last week by the Independent Analytical Center, 77 percent of Moscow and St. Petersburg residents polled said their families observe Defenders of the Motherland Day.