updated 11/4/2005 12:09:01 PM ET 2005-11-04T17:09:01

Russia celebrated a new national holiday Friday, although many people did not even know its name or what it stood for.

With the Kremlin trying to balance strong nostalgia for the Nov. 7 Soviet holiday marking the Bolshevik Revolution with efforts to inspire patriotism in the fractious and sprawling nation, President Vladimir Putin signed an order last year establishing the “Day of People’s Unity,” designed to commemorate Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612.

State-run TV led newscasts with explanations of the holiday and showed footage of people performing traditional music and dances, followed by broadcasts of classic Soviet-era films and children’s cartoons showing folk traditions and fairy tales.

In central Moscow, about 500 people protesting illegal immigration marched along several streets, along with other right-wing political groups, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. Some participants chanted “No to Occupiers!” and “Throw Out the Occupiers!” the station reported.

Human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyevna lamented the fact that the anti-immigrant groups were being allowed to hold rallies on a holiday ostensibly intended for national unity.

“Recently, I’ve gotten the impression that Moscow, and federal, authorities are infected with xenophobia, or are afraid of these people or are trying to hoping to use them for their own purposes,” she said in comments on Ekho Moskvy.

New holiday to replace USSR-era celebration
The Day of People’s Unity is the second holiday set up to replace the Great October Socialist Revolution holiday, one of the Soviet Union’s most important celebrations.

In 1996, President Boris Yeltsin re-christened the Bolshevik holiday, which was celebrated on Nov. 7 but took place in October under the old calendar in use during the 1917 revolution, as the Day of National Reconciliation and Accord.

In a poll conducted by the respected Levada Center, 63 percent of respondents opposed the decision to scrap the Nov. 7 holiday. When asked what holiday Russia would celebrate Friday, 51 percent did not know and only 8 percent referred to it by the correct name.

The Oct. 14-17 poll of 1,600 people nationwide had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

'It is a day of victory'
A Russian Orthodox Church leader earlier this week compared the holiday to Victory Day, the major holiday marking the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 — a holiday many Russians see as the proudest moment in the nation’s history.

“It is a day of victory, an undeservedly forgotten day of victory,” Metropolitan Kirill told a news conference Wednesday. “Moscow was liberated.”

The new holiday comes amid Kremlin efforts to strengthen patriotism, warning that separatism could tear the multiethnic country apart.

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