The Moscow rallies were peaceful, police said, but a nationalist march of a few hundred people on the outskirts of St. Petersburg turned violent when six people tried to protest. Nationalists attacked the protesters, kicking some of them as they lay on the ground. Riot police moved in to break up the rally and pull the protesters to safety.
The Kremlin introduced National Unity Day in 2005 to replace the traditional Nov. 7 celebration of the 1917 Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power.
But the new holiday was quickly seized upon by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, as well as by Russian Orthodox Christian fundamentalists and monarchists. The first year the Nov. 4 holiday was celebrated, thousands of nationalists marched through central Moscow, some shouting "Heil Hitler!"
Nationalists gathered for a concert Wednesday across the river from the Kremlin and they held their now-annual "Russian March," this year on the outskirts of the capital. But they were far outnumbered by members of pro-Kremlin parties and youth groups who turned out for separate rallies, marches and concerts throughout Moscow.
Members of one youth group wore red ponchos with the words "Everyone Is Ours," in the sense that no one is a foreigner.
The Kremlin push for tolerance and inclusiveness on Wednesday was part of an overall message that Russia is stronger when its people stand united.
In a ceremony just outside Red Square, the Russian Orthodox patriarch was joined by Russia's Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders.
"Our nation is multiethnic," Patriarch Kirill told a crowd of several thousand people, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. "We, representatives of the religions of Russia, are evidence that neither religious nor ethnic differences can divide our nation."
The Kremlin has tried to give the holiday historical significance by tying it to the 1612 expulsion of Polish and Cossack troops who had briefly seized Moscow at a time of political disarray.
President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at a Kremlin reception, noted that four centuries ago "people of different classes, nationalities and faiths" followed the call of merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and came together to liberate Moscow.
"The unity of the people saved the country from internal conflict and foreign influence," Medvedev said.
During the reception the president handed out state awards to foreigners who have helped promote Russian culture and Russia's image abroad.
Russian leaders have spoken out against racism and xenophobia in recent years, partly in response to an alarming rise in hate crimes against dark-skinned foreigners and migrants from Central Asia.
Right activists, however, say the extreme nationalist sentiments are a natural outgrowth of the Kremlin's attempts to rebuild a strong Russian state.
About 2,000 people took part in Wednesday's nationalist march in Moscow, which had city approval and took place in the far southeast of the city. The marchers, mainly young men, carried Russian imperial black, yellow and white flags and banners of an anti-immigrant group. Their route was blocked to traffic and riot police maintained order.
Police said 20,000 people took part in a march in central Moscow and thousands gathered at various parks and squares elsewhere in the city.
Associated Press writer Dmitry Lovetsky contributed from St. Petersburg.
Source: AP News