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Former Soviet Republics Celebrate Victory Day - 2003-05-09

Each year Russia and other former Soviet republics celebrate the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on May 9. The day is the most important holiday of the year for many people throughout the former Soviet Union, partly because the country suffered far more casualties than any other nation in the war.

May 9 begins with a parade in Red Square attended by President Vladimir Putin, top military officers and thousands of troops marching in review.

These days, the event is a far simpler affair than those which took place during the Cold War, when the latest military hardware would usually be paraded through Moscow's Red Square.

Similar ceremonies are held in cities and towns all across the former Soviet Union, to mark what people see as the great victory over Nazi Germany in what they call the Great Patriotic War.

An estimated 25 million Soviet citizens died during the conflict, with hundreds of battles fought all across Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

The horrors of what happened have been told and retold so often that even those born long after the war know all about it.

Yet apart from the formal events, the day really belongs to those elderly people who actually fought the war.

They gather in public parks all over the country, playing and dancing to the old songs which recall a bygone era.

Most of the veterans dust off their old uniforms and wear them proudly, with dozens of medals dangling from their chests.

They greet each other, have picnics and walk about with their children and grandchildren at their sides.

Most carry large bouquets of flowers given to them by young people.

Many women fought in the Soviet armed forces during the war. Anna Lilyeshna was one of them. She said May 9 is a big day for her. She added that the holiday is always wonderful. It's just like being born a second time.

In a sense, May 9 represents a kind of annual renewal for all of Russia and its neighbors.

While marking a key event in the past, the holiday is also a celebration of spring, another long winter has passed, and people everywhere head outside to enjoy the sunshine.