The holiday marks the date in 1918 during the Russian Civil War when the first mass draft into the Red Army occurred in Petrograd and Moscow. It was originally known as Red Army Day. In 1949, it was renamed Soviet Army and Navy Day. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the holiday was given its current name.
The reasons behind celebrating Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23 are unclear, as the date does not coincide with any historical event. Russia first celebrated this day in 1922 as the fourth anniversary of the Red Army. However, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin signed a decree for the creation of a Bolshevik Army on a different date (January 15, 1918). In 1938, Soviet history books started claiming that the Red Army won an important victory over German invaders on February 23, 1918, but no independent sources supported this claim. The Russian Parliament voted to remove it from the holiday’s history in 2006.
Between 1936 and 1990, February 23 was observed as the Soviet Army and Navy Day. It became a workday in 1991. The Russian parliament reintroduced it as a public holiday in 2002, after renaming it as Defender of the Fatherland Day.
Officially, as the name suggests, the holiday celebrates people who are serving or were serving the Russian Armed Forces (both men and women), but unofficially, nationally it has also more recently come to include the celebration of men as a whole, and to act as a counterpart of International Women's Day on March 8.
The holiday is celebrated with parades and processions in honor of veterans, and women also give small gifts to the Russian men in their lives, especially husbands (or boyfriends), fathers and sons. As a part of the workplace culture, women often give gifts to their male co-workers. Consequently, in colloquial usage, the holiday is often referred to as Men's Day.
What do people do?
Many Russians observe February 23 as men’s day because military service is obligatory for most men in Russia. Women often give presents and postcards to their male relatives, including those who never served in the military. On a workday before or after the holiday, many women also congratulate their male colleagues and schoolboys may receive small presents from their female classmates (because all men suppose to served in the Soviet Army at least for once, and all boys were considered like defenders of Motherland in the future). That was a Soviet tradition what we still follow now. And even so we don’t have Soviet Union and Soviet Army anymore we still have this tradition and honor our men.
Russian authorities may organize local parades to honor the military and veterans on this day. It is becoming more common for women who serve in the military to be honored on this day, and this challenges the traditionally masculine aspect of the holiday.