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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Celebration and Protest on Army Day

APCommunists laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Thursday, one day before the official holiday.
Some Russians celebrated their military's tradition of dedication Friday, while others protested its recent history of corruption and brutality in separate events marking the annual Defenders of the Fatherland holiday.

In freezing temperatures, President Vladimir Putin stood by as an honor guard laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the shadow of the Kremlin's red brick wall. Communists, meanwhile, marched through Moscow to protest what they consider the shameful treatment of service members and veterans.

The Red Army's defeat of the Nazis on the eastern front is still a source of great pride in Russia and the tradition of military service remains strong -- although the army's reputation suffered during wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

For Putin, the holiday -- also called Army Day -- provided a chance to celebrate Russia's growing prosperity and strength. For his critics, it was a day to hold the government accountable for the military's troubles, including the widespread and sometimes brutal hazing of conscripts.

Putin greeted generals and solemnly adjusted a ribbon on a wreath placed by the honor guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is marked by an eternal flame. Afterward, he held his bare hands over his ears to protect them from the cold.

During the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, the army's inadequacy as a modern fighting force was driven home when a relatively small number of rebels fought federal forces to a standstill.

Putin has pledged to reform the military and announced an ambitious weapons modernization plan this month. But corruption and abuses persist due to resistance by the top brass.

For communists and others angry at Russia's course since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the holiday is a chance to protest what they consider the military's decline.

A few thousand marched down Okhotny Ryad to a monument to Karl Marx, where they called for better pay, pensions and benefits for servicemen and veterans.

State-run television Friday showed a slew of Soviet-era movies and patriotic concerts. It also broadcast a speech by Putin's new defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov -- the former chief of the Federal Tax Service who has little military background. He promised a "profound and thorough modernization of the armed forces, giving them a character fully answering the demands of the 21st century."

During ceremonies at the Kremlin wall, Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church -- which has historic ties to the military -- also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and said a prayer for fallen soldiers.