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Russia takes Victory Day very seriously

Amid songs and parades, Russians vow to repel any aggression.

Military planes fly over Red Square in Moscow during the Victory Day celebration, May 9, 2009. President Dmitry Medvedev warned against "military adventurism" on Saturday, saying Russia would firmly defend its interests — just as it did during World War II when the Soviet Union defeated fascism. (Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters)

SMOLENSK, Russia — Young troops dressed in their finest military garb marched through the streets of this sleepy city in western Russia over the weekend, leading the way for a handful of thundering tanks and trucks loaded with missiles.

The crowd — seemingly every one of Smolensk’s 300,000 residents — cheered loudly. Children ran to snatch bullet casings lying on the ground. Old men with canes, their chests gleaming with dozens of medals, wiped tears from their eyes.

For Russia, Victory Day, celebrated every May 9, is more than an acknowledgment of World War II’s end. It is the very basis of the country’s national identity and government-imposed nationalism, as well as a stark reminder of its failure to acknowledge the complexities of its troubled past.

“It’s our country’s best holiday,” said Ivan Maksakov, 69, who was a child when the war broke out. “If this holiday didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist on this earth.”

Throughout Russia, it’s as if the war’s end came yesterday. Veterans, a term that includes those who lived through the war as children, don uniforms and medals, then accept flowers and words of thanks from well wishers. World War II-era films show on state-run television, and performers line city squares singing military anthems.

In recent years, Russia’s leadership has taken the opportunity to build upon the swell of nationalism to issue threats to the neighbors, with whom its relations are increasingly tense.

“Russia’s defense is our holy duty,” President Dmitry Medvedev said this year at the annual parade on Red Square, in front of the mausoleum housing the body of the Soviet Union's first leader, Vladimir Lenin. “Any aggression against our citizens will be rightfully repelled.”

Coming as it did amid a spiraling war of words with Georgia — with whom Russia fought a five-day war last summer — the statement was taken as a clear threat.

Average Russians have picked up on the trend.

“I didn’t think we had so many troops,” Alexei Nikolaev, 83, said after the parade in Smolensk on Saturday to mark what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. “It shows that Russia is strong, shows the Americans that we beat them and will beat them if they test us.”

“They’re encircling us,” Nikolaev said, echoing official rhetoric blaming U.S. influence for Russia’s loss of neighboring Ukraine and Georgia. “Nothing good will come of this. People attacked Russia many times … and all were beaten.”