Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday showed up at a ceremony marking the national holiday — the first big public event he has attended since announcing a nationwide lockdown more than two months ago.
Putin observed the hoisting of the national flag at a memorial park in western Moscow and then took part in an award ceremony. He wasn't wearing a mask, and neither did most of those whose hands he shook after presenting them with Hero of Russia medals.
Putin pointed to the nation's “thousand-year history full of pages of great glory and pride, the unrivaled bravery of our ancestors and their love for their country.” In his speech, he particularly hailed medical workers, praising their courage and self-sacrifice.
The 67-year-old Russian leader's previous public appearance came in late March, when he attended a meeting with business people just as he announced a partial economic shutdown intended to stem the outbreak. He authorized regional governors to decide on restrictive measures, and most of them imposed tight lockdowns at the end of March.
Since then, Putin has held near-daily video calls, but just a few offline meetings with top officials. When Russia marked Victory Day on May 9, the nation's most important holiday marking the Nazi defeat in World War II, Putin stood alone to observe a parade of the Kremlin guard regiment.
Several top officials, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, were infected with the virus. They have now recovered.
Russian media reported that the Kremlin has maintained a tight protocol to protect Putin, placing officials and aides on quarantine for two weeks prior to meeting him.
Asked if those whom Putin awarded with medals also had undergone the same procedure, Peskov said that participants in the ceremony had been tested for the virus but refused to offer further details.
Other Russian cities also held Day of Russia celebrations. In St. Petersburg, festivities included a stunning acrobatic show on the Neva River in which people on water jets conducted stunts and carried a giant Russian flag.
Last month, Putin ordered an end to the nationwide economic shutdown and set dates for the two main events on his agenda that were postponed due to the coronavirus. Citing a slowdown in contagion, he ordered the Victory Day parade postponed from May 9 to be held on June 24 and set a vote on constitutional amendments that could extend his rule until 2036 on July 1.
Putin has been in power for more than 20 years, longer than any other ruler in the country since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Most regions have lifted their lockdowns, and Moscow, which accounted for nearly half of all infections, also ended restrictions earlier this week. Health officials, however, have advised people to continue wearing medical masks, and in some regions, including Moscow, they are mandatory in public places.
Some experts have argued that lifting the lockdown was premature as the country has continued to register high daily numbers of new infections at around 9,000, and opposition activists have accused the Kremlin of jeopardizing public health by rushing the constitutional vote.
Russia has the world's third-highest caseload of more than 511,000 infections, including 6,715 deaths.