Allies Join Russians in Victory Day Celebration
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
MOSCOW — As they always do, Russia’s finest infantrymen and sailors and airmen strode across Red Square on Sunday for the annual Victory Day parade, accompanied by a customary display of intimidating weaponry. Tanks rumbled by, planes zoomed overhead and missiles as long as subway cars were towed across the historic cobblestones.
But this year, tradition was upended.
There, in the shadow of the Kremlin, on ground that has long symbolized Russian might, marched a young soldier from New York City, Spc. Tyler Smith, and his fellow Americans, along with troops from other NATO countries — proud Poles, British guards in distinctive bearskin hats, French airmen, and soldiers decked out in the elaborate dress uniforms of former Soviet republics from Ukraine to Turkmenistan.
Specialist Smith, 21, was in awe at playing a part in a momentous event: the inclusion, for the first time, of all the Allied troops in Victory Day, Russia’s most important secular holiday, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Specialist Smith and several dozen others from the 170 Infantry Brigade Combat Team made their way across the square, their American flag waving against the backdrop of the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
“This is a world-changing event,” said Sgt. Mark Kupiec, 23, of Detroit. “In years to come, they are going to be reading about this in the social studies books.”
Among the foreign leaders who attended the parade were Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Hu Jintao of China.
President Barack Obama was invited but did not come. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, citing the crisis surrounding the euro currency, stayed home. But foreigners who were on Red Square seemed thrilled to be there.
In recent years, Victory Day has been something a barometer of Russia’s relations with the West. When tensions have risen, Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister and former president, has used his speeches here to take aim at the United States.
This year, ties have warmed, as underscored by the invitations to troops from the countries known here as the anti-Hitler coalition, and the playing of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy -- a European Union anthem -- by a military band.
“In 1945, not only a military but also a great moral victory was achieved,” Mr. Putin’s protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, said at the parade.
“It was a common victory,” he said. “All peoples of the former U.S.S.R. struggled for it. Our allies advanced it. And today, soldiers of Russia, the former Soviet countries and the anti-Hitler coalition states march together triumphantly. A single rank is evidence of our common readiness to defend peace.”
Still, not everyone was pleased that the boots of NATO soldiers would be tromping on Red Square for the 65th anniversary celebration. Communists and nationalists have held protests, saying that the presence of these foreigners was an insult.
If World War II is a distant memory in many countries, here in Russia, it is an intensely memorialized and discussed trauma, as if it occurred only recently. Roughly 25 million people in the Soviet Union died in the war, historians say, and Russians believe that they sacrificed immensely to save the world from Nazism.
That is why war veterans are venerated, and why most Russians do not feel any discomfort about their government prominently displaying Soviet symbols, including the hammer and sickle, over Red Square for the Victory Day parade.
While some Russians grumbled about the Western troops, it was hard to find a critical word among the veterans who were in the grandstands.
“This parade unites all those who participated in the war,” said Iosif Efron, 85, whose Soviet division met American forces on the banks of the Elbe River in Germany at the end of World War II in Europe. “The invitation was absolutely proper. We fought together, and they helped us.”
“Of course, without Russia, no one would have defeated Germany,” he added.
The parade this year had a poignant aspect, as the Russian leadership seemed to acknowledge that the number of war veterans still living was dwindling.
“Time has great power,” Mr. Medvedev said. “But it is not as powerful as human memory — our memory. We shall never forget the soldiers who fought on the front, the women who replaced men in factories, the children who underwent suffering unthinkable for their ages."
I admit that I don't know nearly enough about WWII and the different countries' roles, but this is just such a huge huge day in Russia. Every single Russian I know still knows someone touched (or even killed) by the war. The fact that all the allied troops are being represented and celebrated on this day is more than a little fantastic.