Russia’s second-largest city is marking the 75th anniversary of the lifting of Nazi Germany’s devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II in which hundreds of thousands of civilians perished.
President Vladimir Putin presided over ceremonies in the city, now named St. Petersburg, but did not attend a military parade being held on Palace Square on January 27.
The Siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days, from September 8, 1941, until January 27, 1943. It is estimated that 1.2 million civilians died during the blockade, most of starvation or exposure.
Although the estimates vary, experts believe the Soviet Union suffered up to 27 million deaths during World War II.
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The military parade in St. Petersburg began with a minute of silence in memory of those who died during the siege, as snow fell and temperatures hovered around minus 18 degrees Celsius.
Colonel General Aleksandr Zhuravlev, the commander of the Western Military District, said that the Russians "bow to the holy memory of those who didn’t return from the war and died of wounds and diseases.”
“The Russian Army will always keep memory about the exploits of our fathers and grandfathers," he added.
More than 2,500 soldiers and cadets of military academies in modern and period uniforms, as well as 80 units of military equipment, participated in the parade, which featured the famed T-34 tank, which played a key role in defeating Nazi Germany, multiple-launch rocket systems, and infantry fighting vehicles.
It also spotlighted the short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander-M missile system, whose deployment in Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad has angered European NATO members.
Ahead of the commemoration, nearly 5,000 people signed a petition calling on officials to cancel plans to hold the parade.
Critics, including some siege survivors, have denounced the event as misplaced saber-rattling and militaristic propaganda.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the controversy, saying St. Petersburg was known for its "rich polemic traditions."
An unidentified Defense Ministry official dismissed the petition, telling the AFP news agency: "A military parade is a soldierly ritual."
"We have an order to conduct a parade and we will conduct it," the official added.
Putin, a native of St. Petersburg, marked the anniversary by laying flowers at two monuments commemorating those who died during the Siege of Leningrad -- the Landmark Stone memorial in the Leningrad region and the Motherland monument at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.
The Russian president, 66, was born after the war. But his older brother died in childhood during the siege and is buried in a mass grave at Piskaryovskoye.
Peskov said the day was important "for all Russians and personally for President Putin."
“We mourn those who fell defending the city and breaking the blockade,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted. “We remember those who worked in the besieged city. We bow to our veterans. Their heroic deeds will be in our hearts forever.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said that Putin had signed an order allocating 150 million rubles ($2.3 million) for creating new exhibits at the state museum dedicated to the siege.
And Germany’s Foreign Ministry announced the launch of two projects in St. Petersburg in remembrance of the Siege of Leningrad.
A statement said that the German government was providing a total of 12 million euros for the projects to modernize a hospital for war veterans in the city and establish a center in the city where “Germans and Russians, including survivors of the siege, will be able to meet each other to talk and remember the past.”
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that while the initiative was "important," it "does not mean the closure of the question of the provision of individual payments by the German government to all currently living survivors of the blockade."
Zakharova said in a statement that Germany had paid siege survivors of Jewish origin compensation of 2,500 euros ($2,850) as part of reparations for the Holocaust.