(Misha Japaridze ~ Associated Press)
MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin underscored the importance of moral values and military might Tuesday, honoring Russians from a frail-looking Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who documented the Soviet Union's brutality, to men who designed its nuclear-armed submarines.
The pomp-filled State Prize ceremony in a Kremlin hall was the elaborate centerpiece for nationwide festivities on Russia Day, a holiday that was created to mark the country's emergence from the crumbling Soviet Union but has become a celebration of Russia itself.
The holiday was introduced by Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to commemorate Russian lawmakers' 1990 declaration of sovereignty and was long known to many as Independence Day. However, millions of Russians regret the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the holiday's name was officially changed to Russia Day in 2002.
Tuesday's ceremony was a fresh chance for Putin, who has challenged the West and demanded his resurgent but troubled nation be treated as an equal on the global stage, to talk up Russia's achievements and call for unity at home as his presidency approaches its end.
Putin strode through a golden doorway to start the ceremony beneath glittering chandeliers, and handed out medals carried across the room by goose-stepping guards in uniforms evocative of the czarist era.
He said the recipients -- rewarded for work as diverse as cruise-missile design, film restoration and neurosurgery -- have improved lives and boosted Russia's spiritual wealth, global clout and military security.
"We pay increasing attention to the revival of science and culture, the establishment of morals and spirituality in society," Putin said in the nationally televised ceremony. He also proclaimed that "modern Russia is a country that is open to the world."
Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate and longtime exile who documented the murderous Soviet prison camp system in works such as "The Gulag Archipelago," was given a State Prize for "humanitarian activity" -- a lifetime achievement honor for the 88-year-old author.
"Practically his entire life has been devoted to the fatherland," Putin said.
Solzhenitsyn, who was not present, has not appeared in public in recent years, and his wife, Natalya, accepted the award.
Putin later visited the writer at his home in Troitse-Lykovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, thanking him in a televised portion of the meeting for "all your work for the good of Russia."
Solzhenitsyn, sitting in a wheelchair, thanked Putin for coming.
In a taped message, Solzhenitsyn said Russia's rough experience during the "cruel and troubled years" he chronicled should help the country avoid new upheaval.
"Our bitter national experience can yet help us in a possible repeat of unstable social conditions. It will forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdowns," he said, looking gaunt and speaking haltingly.
Solzhenitsyn and Putin are unlikely allies -- the imprisoned and exiled enemy of the Soviet state, and the longtime KGB officer.
But while Solzhenitsyn was harshly critical of chaotic post-Soviet Russia when he returned from the United States in 1994, he has praised Putin for working to restore a strong state and echoed the president's accusations of Western encroachment.
Solzhenitsyn has warned of the possibility of a return to the turbulence that plunged czarist Russia into chaos and led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Putin, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term next year, has stressed the need for unity as the March election approaches. At the awards ceremony, Putin said that "common moral values" are the key to multiethnic Russia's unity.
Putin has repeatedly suggested that the greatest threat to the country comes from external foes, and the ceremony emphasized Russia's military might as much as its cultural depth. Five of the 12 recipients were honored for work related to the military, and Putin announced a special award for the developers of the Iskander-M cruise-missile system, who were not named because their identity is a state secret.
New missiles for the system were tested last month, officials said, as part of what Putin called a response to U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
"Labor in the name of strengthening the country's defense capability has always been greatly respected," Putin said.
The June 12 holiday is one of several that have been shifted or renamed as Putin's Kremlin seeks to shape Russia's image. It was introduced by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to commemorate Russia's 1990 declaration of sovereignty and was long known to many as Independence Day. However, millions regret the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union -- which was dominated by Russia -- and blame Yeltsin for the disintegration.
That means there is little political capital to be gained from celebrating Russian independence, and the holiday's name was officially changed to the Russia Day in 2002.