Moscow Russian soldiers goose-stepped, veterans waltzed and crowds of parade-watchers shouted out thanks Sunday for Nazi Germany's defeat 60 years ago, as Russia launched a lavish, tightly controlled two-day celebration marking the anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945.
As dozens of foreign leaders began arriving a day before Moscow becomes the center of the world's VE Day commemorations, President Vladimir Putin hailed veterans in events emphasizing the Soviet Union's role in the victory.
"For three long years, the Soviet army in fact almost single-handedly battled against fascism," Putin said before a concert at the Bolshoi Theater honoring veterans from Russia and other former Soviet republics.
"Every year, with more emotion and more respect, we bow before your achievement," he said.
With armed, fatigue-clad soldiers lining the sidewalks, other troops stomped down Moscow's main street while elderly veterans, their chests covered with medals, waved from open military trucks.
Spectators clutched balloons, chanting "Thank you!" and shouting congratulations to the veterans for their role in repulsing the Nazi invasion and defeating Hitler's armies.
"I'm overwhelmed with gratitude, pride and love for my motherland and the veterans," said Margarita Kremer, 60, a Moscow teacher watching the procession toward Byelorussky station, where railroad cars tugged by an old-style locomotive pulled in, recreating the arrival of trains bearing victorious Soviet troops back from the war.
As in 1945, the locomotive bore a big portrait of Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader whose legacy is hanging over the anniversary celebrations. Many Russians feel he was the driving force behind the victory, while others revile him as a dictator who killed millions of his own citizens -- including veterans who were captured by the Nazis and then sent to Soviet labor camps as traitors after the war.
The 60 veterans aboard the train got a warm greeting on the platform, and a handful waltzed on the square outside the station, where women in 1940s-era dresses released white doves into the air.
"Today is a great day," said Alexander Roshin, 79, a veteran who arrived in Moscow aboard the train.
Few Russian families were untouched by World War II, in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people. Putin, born after the war to parents who survived the 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, said in televised comments that more than half of his relatives were killed and that his mother was once almost given up for dead.
Today, leaders from around the world and from countries on both sides of the war's bitter divide will pay tribute to the Soviet contribution by joining Putin near Lenin's tomb for a military parade.
Putin invited more than 50 world leaders in all; President Bush was one of those who arrived Sunday. Others expected included Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
For Putin, bringing leaders from all over is part of an ongoing effort to restore Russia's international clout after years of decline following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
But the celebrations also are causing controversy, raising the ire of Eastern European nations who see World War II's end as the start of their domination by Moscow. They also underline the challenges Putin faces in increasing U.S. criticism on his democratic record and in the growing Western influence in former Soviet republics.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga arrived Sunday in Moscow to attend the celebration, but she is the only one of the three Baltic leaders to accept the Russian invitation. Lithuania and Estonia declined to attend, citing Moscow's refusal to apologize for the Soviet Union's annexation of the Baltic states in 1940.
Bush pointedly balanced his Moscow visit with a trip to Latvia, which he celebrated as a young democracy, and a planned stop Tuesday in Georgia, where a new pro-Western leadership is seeking to shed Russian influence.