MOSCOW (Reuters) - The flame that will burn at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games arrived in Moscow on Sunday, starting an epic torch relay around the huge country and bringing Vladimir Putin's campaign to stage Russia's first post-Soviet Olympics a step closer to completion.
President Putin was to signal the start of the torch relay at a ceremony in Red Square 123 days before Russia's first-ever Winter Olympics begin in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on February 7.
Protected by a small lantern, the flame was flown in from Greece after being lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics and handed over to Russia on Saturday at the marble Athens stadium that hosted the first modern Games in 1896.
Gingerly carrying the lantern, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak stepped off the plane and onto a red carpet as an honor guard of rifle-toting soldiers in wooly Astrakhan collars stood by, chins jutting high.
"Today can truly be called a historic day for us," Kozak said. "We - all Russians - have a right to be proud.
The longest torch relay before a Winter Olympics will show off Russia's variety as well as its sheer scale of taking the flame though all 83 regions in a more than 65,000 km (40,400 mile) journey around the world's biggest country.
It will go to the North Pole, to the top of Mt. Elbrus, Europe's highest peak, to the depths of Siberia's Lake Baikal and aboard a rocket to the International Space Station, whose crew will take the torch - unlit - on a spacewalk.
More than 90 percent of Russia's 142 million people will be within one hour of the flame, which Sochi Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said should help "ensure that all residents of Russia will feel involved in the Olympic celebrations".
But six years after he secured the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi with an impassioned pitch, it is Putin - who turns 61 on Monday - who is the most invested in making the only Olympics staged in an independent Russia a success.
Putin has faced international criticism over a law he signed this year prohibiting the spread of gay "propaganda" among minors, which activists and Western governments say is discriminatory and curtails basic human freedoms.
Critics have also questioned the $50 billion cost and the wisdom of holding the Winter Games in a subtropical locale, and have called a security decree Putin signed draconian because it restricts movement and bans rallies unrelated to the Olympics.
After an International Olympic Committee inspection visit last month, delegation head Jean-Claude Killy said the venues, most of which had to be built from scratch, were ready and that athletes and spectators could expect "a fabulous experience".
(Writing by Steve Gutterman, editing by Justin Palmer)