Moscow Medal-laden World War II veterans marched in parades Tuesday throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrating their victory 61 years ago over Nazi Germany and mourning the comrades they have lost in the past year.
In a Victory Day speech before thousands of veterans, diplomats and dignitaries packed into reviewing stands on Red Square, President Vladimir Putin called the Soviet war effort a lesson in national unity, but he pointedly left out of his speech any mention of wartime allies such as the United States, Britain and France.
It was a reflection of the chill wind that has blown through Russia's relations with the West since last year, when Putin welcomed dozens of world leaders to Moscow to jointly celebrate the Allied victory in Europe.
"A terrible, incinerating force rained down on practically every country in Europe. But the main and most ferocious strike was aimed at our country," Putin said.
For many in the former Soviet Union, the victory over Nazi Germany stands out as the proudest moment in a troubled past. It was achieved at a tremendous cost, with an estimated 27 million dead and much of the western part of the country devastated.
Putin called the holiday "a day of great triumph of our people." He said the war effort represented the unity of the people.
"And history before had never seen such unity, such sacred brotherhood, such powerful faith in victory," Putin said.
About 10,000 veterans and others marched in a Communist Party-led march down one of Moscow's main avenues, while other octogenarians gathered in parks and squares to dance to wartime tunes, toast one another with vodka and catch up with comrades they see once a year.
"The first question we always ask is, 'Whom have we lost since the last anniversary?"' said Nina Gerasimova.
In Kiev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told veterans: "We bow our heads before you."
He renewed his call for Red Army veterans and Ukrainian partisans who fought on opposite sides to forgive one another for the sake of the national unity. The issue is touchy because the partisans were considered traitors during the Soviet Union because many initially sought support from the Nazis in their struggle for independence.
"My nation, my people found the courage to forgive the Germans ... to forgive the Japanese," Yushchenko said, adding that it was time to find the courage to embrace each other.
"The time has come for Ukraine's veterans to shake hands in the name of Ukraine's future," Yushchenko said.
In neighboring Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko used the occasion to lash out at the West and his domestic opposition.
"Those who love saber-rattling imagine themselves the controllers of the fate of planets, the builders of a new world order, and with their metal-toed boots they mercilessly trample countries that do not want to submit to their arbitrary rule," Lukashenko told veterans. "But if armed invasion is impossible, they try to destroy an independent state from within."
Three opposition activists were detained as they distributed flowers and pro-democracy pamphlets in a park alongside the central Minsk square where Lukashenko met with veterans.