Racism, confusion shadow Russia's post-Soviet unity day
Russia on Thursday marked a new public holiday celebrating national unity but marred by plans from far-right groups for an anti-immigrant rally and public confusion over the purpose of the holiday.
The National Unity Day has been marked on November 4 since 2005 when Russia's then president Vladimir Putin created the holiday to replace the November 7 commemoration of the 1917 October Revolution.
The day seeks to cement Russia's sometimes shaky post-Soviet national identity by commemorating the repulsion from the Kremlin of an invading Polish force by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and merchant Kuzma Minin in 1612.
Tens of thousands were expected to take part in rallies across Moscow marking the holiday, including a gathering of an expected 20,000 people by pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi on the banks of the Moscow river.
But the Moscow authorities have controversially given permission for a rally of up to 5,500 people by a collection of far-right groups in the southeastern Moscow district of Lublino protesting against immigration to Russia.
Russia has in the last years seen a huge increase in immigration, most notably of migrant workers from ex-Soviet states in Central Asia.
"It is necessary to guarantee freedom of expression but I do not think that such actions are of benefit," said the head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky.
"What ideas are they expressing? Against whom are they protesting? Against the grandchildren of those who defeated fascism? What is the good in that?" he told the Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, the origins and purpose of the holiday remain a mystery to most Russians, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM).
Its nationwide end-October poll of 1,600 Russians found that only 1 percent believed National Unity Day was among Russia's most important holidays and only 10 percent could name the holiday properly.
Only 10 percent of Russians were also able to name correctly the historical origin of the holiday as the liberation of Moscow in 1612 from Polish forces, it said.
The events of 1612 brought to an end a chaotic period in Russian history known as the Time of Troubles and opened the way for the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty that ruled Russia until the Revolution.
© 2010 AFP