MOSCOW -- Russia on May 9 commemorated the 74th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with a military parade on Moscow's Red Square and celebrations in every town and city from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.
President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev attended the parade held in the capital in the morning, before crowds of people descended on the city for the annual Immortal Regiment march to commemorate the 27 million Soviet civilians estimated to have died in the war.
In his speech before troops and dignitaries on Red Square, Putin said "the main liberator of Europe" from Nazi Germany was the Soviet Union and called the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, "an ancient Russian capital."
Critics say his government has increasingly sought in recent years to nationalize the victory over Nazi Germany.
"The victory was earned by the bravery of those who participated in defending ancient Russian capitals -- Kyiv and the Great Novgorod, by the courage of the defenders of Smolensk, Odesa [a Ukrainian Black Sea port city], Sevastopol [a city in Ukraine’s Crimea annexed by Moscow in 2014], and the unlimited stamina of the residents of the blockaded Leningrad," Putin said.
The Russian president also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin.
Moscow managed to defy dismal weather forecasts by deploying cloud-seeding technology to disperse cloud cover in the hours preceding the morning parade.
Temperatures in the early afternoon rose to a humid 25 degrees Celsius as hundreds of thousands of people descended on the central Tverskaya Street, clutching portraits of dead relatives who had fought in the war.
The annual Immortal Regiment march is held in every major Russian town and dozens of foreign cities where Russian-speaking communities live and attracts millions of participants each year. Critics say the Kremlin has hijacked it since its inception in 2012 as a grassroots movement to honor the dead.
They also cite the annual military parades across Russia as a show of strength by Putin's government and argue that the Kremlin uses the celebrations to stoke patriotism but pays little attention to the needs of aging World War II veterans.
Russia's Defense Ministry said earlier that 13,000 troops and 130 pieces of advanced military hardware took part in the parade, which was broadcast nationally on state-run television.
According to the ministry, representatives from all of Russia's armed forces and the National Guard participated.
However, the Kremlin's flight control center said combat aircraft did not take part in the parade because weather conditions were unfavorable.
Nazarbaev's presence alongside Putin came as a surprise. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that no foreign leader would attend the event.
Although Nazarbaev resigned as Kazakhstan's president on March 19, he retains the title "Leader of the Nation."
Putin and other Russian officials wore the ribbon of St. George, a centuries-old military symbol that decorated postcards and posters in the Soviet Union and was revived in 2005 as a physical prop representing victory in World War II.
In recent years, the ribbon has come to be seen in some former Soviet republics as a symbol of Russian nationalism, not least in light of its widespread use by the pro-Russian separatists who have occupied swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Since 2017, the ribbon of St. George has been officially banned in Ukraine as a symbol of "Russian aggression."
Rather than the ribbon of St. George, Nazarbaev wore a blue ribbon representing Kazakhstan's national flag.
Russia's land forces commander, Army General Oleg Salyukov, opened the parade and reported to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who then led the event.
Victory Day celebrations were also being held in several other former Soviet republics.
But feelings of unity with Moscow inspired by memory of a common enemy during the war are fading -- and many of Russia's neighbors are wary of its perceived appetite of expansion following its military intervention against Ukraine.
The way the end of the war is commemorated in other former Soviet republics now differs from country to country.