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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Army Heroes Reap Honors

More than 50 years after they defended their motherland, the heroes of the Soviet Union are still collecting medals.

On Tuesday, World War II veterans gathered around a long conference table in the Central House of the Russian Army to add to the collection of honors pinned to their chests.

"Your personal heroism reflected brightly on the outcome of the war," Defense Minister Pavel Grachev addressed the crowd as he presented them with the medal of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, "the star of the Great Patriotic War."

While many of the veterans left canes under their chairs and walked gingerly up to the podium, Vasily Volkov, a retired sergeant who fought in the Crimea, Belarus, and finally, the taking of Berlin, strode up to meet the minister with an energy that defied his advanced years.

"You are so cheerful, like a real soldier," said Grachev, shaking Volkov's hand.

"I serve the Soviet Union," Volkov responded, catching his mistake almost immediately. "I mean, I serve the Russian motherland."

The reception, complete with a brass band and a column of soldiers standing at attention, took place on the eve of Defenders of the Fatherland Day -- the Feb. 23 military holiday that is second only to Victory Day on May 9.

Yury Nikulin, a beloved Russian actor and director of the Old Circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar, was one of the dozen veterans to receive the medal of Zhukov.

"We are people of a special generation," said Nikulin, after Grachev had pinned the medal on his lapel. "No one knows what would have happened if we had lost the war. It is scary just to think about it."

"You have passed through the most difficult period of our country -- the Great Patriotic War," said Grachev, adding that although the Russian Army was on the verge of financial crisis, he would do all he could to ensure adequate pensions for those who served their country.

But at least one veteran was less than satisfied with what his country was doing for him. Ivan Larkin, who was decorated for heroism in the battles of Oryol and Kursk, said the post-communist economic crisis was the biggest challenge veterans have had to face since Hitler.

"When we reached our 70s we were hit by the shrapnel of shock therapy," said Larkin, calling for higher pensions and better living conditions for all war veterans rather than receptions to applaud them for their courage.

"Reform is necessary," said Larkin, gesticulating with his one arm. "But it has to be civilized."

Grachev took the opportunity to praise Russian soldiers serving in Chechnya -- who, according to recent press reports, are suffering from malnutrition, cold and lice. The military responded to this criticism by blaming supply problems on the insufficiency of government funding.

But the defense minister said little Tuesday about military reform, a controversial issue that is being volleyed back and forth, with few results, between the courts of the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin.

Last week, President Boris Yeltsin criticized the slow pace of military reform, and blamed the Defense Ministry for not taking responsibility to restructure the outdated Soviet armed forces.

"We have a military machine that is right for other goals," said Dmitry Trenin, a military analyst for the Carnegie Institute, adding that the military must be restructured to respond to more realistic threats to national security.

"Instead of changing the machine, they are trying to preserve the one that already exists," said Trenin. "But this one is dying step by step."