Tens of thousands of people demonstrated outside the Kremlin on Saturday to show their support for keeping the Soviet Union intact at an Army Day rally staged to counter protests by radicals.
In a decree issued for the national holiday, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov noted the Persian Gulf war "blazing near our southern borders" and said: "In these conditions, while persistently implementing military reform, it is necessary to maintain the Soviet state's defense capability and the readiness of Soviet armed forces."Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet military staff, told foreign envoys at a reception: "No matter how dramatically the history of the Soviet Union was sometimes shaped, its armed forces always stood and will always stand guard over the homeland and the interests of the working people."
At the rally, red Soviet flags with the Communist hammer and sickle mixed with banners and signs bearing slogans such as "preserve the great union" and "from the taiga (forests) to the Baltic Sea, the Red Army is the strongest."
An Iraqi flag fluttered next to a portrait of Saddam Hussein. "Bush! Stop the bombing and don't annihilate the citizens of Iraq," one sign said.
"Russians and Arabs were never at war. We have one common enemy," said another, with a Star of David next to the word "enemy."
Col. Viktor Alksnis, a leader of the country's conservative forces, told the crowd at Moscow's Manezh Square near the Kremlin walls that pro-Soviet activists must challenge attempts by separatists to dismember the nation.
"We have stood united against enemies of the state before, and now this moment has come again," Alksnis said.
The official Tass news agency said 300,000 people participated in the demonstration, but the crowd size appeared to be no more than half that size.
"Our offspring will curse us if we let the union collapse," Alksnis said. "Ours is the only path. The other path is a path to civil war."
Alksnis was one of the conservative military officers whom former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze scorned as "boys in colonels' stripes" during his resignation announcement two months ago.
Others speakers and some signs criticized Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation leader who called earlier in the week for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation and who has increased his support for nationalists in the Baltic republics and elsewhere in the country.
"Yeltsin equals civil war," read one poster.
Alksnis, a conservative lawmaker from the Baltic republic of Latvia, noted that radicals had held many rallies at Manezh Square, a traditional protest site in the Soviet capital, where he said "we have heard calls for destroying the empire."
Citing a series of famous war battles in Russian history, Alksnis said that all Soviet soldiers who died defending their homeland "would curse those appeals."
In Leningrad, about 20,000 people massed in Palace Square in support of the Soviet army and carried banners that said "The Army Means Peace. Yeltsin Means War."
Sergei Laptev, a cadet in the Frunze Military School, said he and his classmates were given a day off on the condition that they participate in the rally. Some cadets started leaving about a half-hour into the two-hour rally.
This was followed by an anti-Communist demonstration that drew another 15,000 people but proceeded peacefully.