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article image500,000 Muscovites march in memory of WWII victory

By Olga Rotenberg (AFP)     May 9, 2015 in World

Brimming with pride and clutching portraits of relatives, more than 500,000 Russians flooded central Moscow on Saturday to commemorate 70 years since Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, in the biggest march of Vladimir Putin's rule.

In a rare show of unity, the commemorative rally brought together Russians regardless of their political opinions, as the participants carried portraits of their family members who fought in World War II.

Many smiled and the mood was festive, with parents carrying children on their shoulders and some shouting "hurrah" as they walked through central Moscow towards Red Square.

The procession took place after the main parade on Red Square and according to police mustered more than half a million, an amount that vastly exceeded expectations.

Organisers said up to 1 million more people took part in similar marches in cities and towns across the rest of the country.

In Moscow, the elderly walked together with the young, as the march drew people from all walks of life.

"This is our biggest holiday," said Yevgeny Safronov, 47, who carried portraits of his two grandfathers, who were both wounded in the war.

Another marcher, Lyudmila Yurkova, a 72-year-old university lecturer, said the world owed a debt to Russia for taking the brunt of losses.

People carry portraits of World War Two soldiers as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march du...
People carry portraits of World War Two soldiers as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015
, Ria Novosti/AFP

"Europe is forgetting that the USSR won the war," she told AFP.

Many people carried homemade signs or just an unframed photo, others clutched red carnations or tulips in a Kremlin-backed campaign dubbed the Immortal Regiment.

Often sporting Soviet army caps, many of the marchers wore the black-and-orange ribbons that have become a symbol of patriotism in recent years.

The number of people who took part was the highest since the turbulent 1990s, and a national television journalist said she was "getting goosebumps" just watching the spectacle.

The Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million soldiers and civilians in World War II -- more than any other country -- and the Red Army's triumph in the deadliest war in history is an enormous point of pride in the country.

Over 70 percent of Russians say a close family member was killed or went missing during the war, making Victory Day an emotional symbol of unity for the nation.

In what is seen as punishment for the Kremlin's meddling in Ukraine, Western countries led by Russia's World War II allies -- the United States, Britain and France -- boycotted the May 9 festivities in Moscow.

-'Putin is cool'-

Some participants slammed Western leaders for not coming while others said they could not care less.

"It is wrong that Europeans did not come," said Boris Khlopov, a 16-year-old pupil. "The USSR liberated them."

People carry portraits of World War Two soldiers as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march du...
People carry portraits of World War Two soldiers as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015
, Ria Novosti/AFP

Irina Karpova, a 47-year-old university lecturer whose grandfather fought his way up to Budapest, accused the West of seeking to "revisit the results of WWII," an often-heard Kremlin refrain.

"In politics there is no friendship, only self-interest," she said.

Vasily Igoshin said European leaders including the Soviet Union's key WWII allies did not attend the festivities under pressure from Washington.

"This is their weakness and cowardice," said the 53-year-old, sporting a flag with a portrait of the wartime tyrant Stalin.

Even though many admitted to feeling the pain of the economic crisis brought on by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, many participants praised Putin for presiding over Russia's resurgence.

"Putin is a cool guy," said Safronov. "There is work, salaries are paid, our children are growing up. It's much better than it was in the 1990s."

Alexander Pizhankov, who carried a portrait of his grandfather, called Russia "the centre of good forces in the world."

"That's why they want to destroy it -- because there is darkness all around us," said the 44-year-old.

The Russian strongman wowed Russians by unexpectedly joining the Red Square march with a portrait of his father Vladimir.

"I think that my father, just like millions of simple soldiers -- and he was a plain soldier -- had every right to walk through this square."

"I am very happy because my father is together with me."

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