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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Russia Day, Putin Embraces Democracy

ReutersYoung men waving a Russian tricolor as they march in the parade downtown.
Despite having once called the Soviet collapse the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," President Vladimir Putin on Monday praised Russians for rejecting dictatorship and embracing democracy.

His comments came at a reception celebrating Russia Day, which commemorates the day in 1990 when the Russian socialist republic's parliament declared sovereignty, dealing a critical blow to the Soviet Union.

The holiday was originally known as Independence Day but was renamed in 2002 because officials felt it placed undue emphasis on the Soviet breakup and not enough on Russian patriotism.

Also on Monday, thousands of youths converged on Tverskaya Ulitsa to proclaim their love for their country while hundreds of protesters decried the re-emergence of Russian authoritarianism.

Speaking at a reception at the Kremlin's Ivanovskaya Ploshchad, Putin called Russia Day "a tribute to Russia's statehood ... and the historic choice that the Russian people conscientiously made at the start of the 1990s."

Putin, a former KGB officer who has been widely accused of backsliding on democracy, added that "thanks to that choice, we live and work in a democratic state and a free society where the main value is a person and his free spirit."

Putin extended an especially warm welcome at the reception to former President Boris Yeltsin, who won the country's first democratic presidential election in 1992 and paved the way for Putin's ascendancy in late 1999.

At a ceremony at the Kremlin Palace's St. George Hall prior to the reception, six artists and scholars and Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II received prizes. Each prize carries with it 5 million rubles ($180,000) and a gold and silver medal.

Putin, speaking at the reception, said Russia's "huge" intellectual resources would bolster the nation's economy and armed forces.

One of the prizes at the awards ceremony went to an unidentified scientist who did not attend the ceremony, Interfax reported, ostensibly because the scientist is conducting research related to national security.

Other winners included Igor Gorynin, for his role in designing submarines, and physicist Alexander Skrinsky, for helping develop a particle collider, NTV television reported.

"Each of the awardees ... spoke of the most important thing -- of his love for the fatherland," Putin told top government, cultural and religious figures at the ceremony in comments broadcast on state television. "This is the backbone that unites our country, that makes it great, that makes it reliable, that definitely will make it prosperous."

The march on Tverskaya Ulitsa included as many as 46,000 young people bused in from the Moscow region. The youths, from the group Mestniye, wore green-and-white T-shirts and waved the group's green-and-white flags and Russian tricolors. They chanted "Russia!" and touted signs declaring, among other things, "Russia was, is and will be a great power."

Misha Japaridze / AP

Putin awarding Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II a medal in the Kremlin.

At moments, the marchers walked in relative quiet, giving an impression of tight discipline, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.

"They gathered us, and we came here," a marcher who did not give his name said on NTV.

The marchers came on 840 buses, Moscow police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said, RIA-Novosti reported. The marchers were quickly bused back once the event was over.

A concert was scheduled to take place on Vasilyevsky Spusk, near Red Square, later Monday.

Seven Air Force planes were sprinkling the clouds over Moscow with chemicals designed to prevent rain until midnight, Air Force commander General Vladimir Mikhailov said, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, on nearby Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, about 600 people demonstrated for democracy, protesting censorship of the media, the hazing of military conscripts and the war in Chechnya.

The protesters also condemned Putin's efforts, they said, to hand pick a successor and assure the conviction of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

A recent Public Opinion Foundation poll found that more Russians now consider June 12 a holiday, as opposed to a day that people simply take off from work. While 12 percent of those polled in 2004 considered the day a holiday, that figure rose to 20 percent in the 2006 survey, released last week.

The poll of 1,500 respondents across the country was taken earlier this month. Its margin of error is 3.6 percent.

Dmitry Zimin, a 25-year-old engineer who spent part of Monday taking a stroll near the Russian State Library, hailed the holiday as recognition of "the freedom of Russian citizens."

Alexander Prilutskikh, 41, an off-duty policeman walking with his wife, said he didn't need a holiday to make him feel patriotic.

One woman, who would only give her first name, Natasha, said there was nothing worth celebrating because the government had turned its back on its own people.

"Why do so many people try to go abroad and make a living there?" Natasha, 30, said while waiting for a friend.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin offered congratulations to Russians in celebration of the holiday, Interfax reported.