This Monday, Russia President Vladimir Putin visited the cemetery in the village of Marfino, not far from the old western Russian city of Staraya Russa, where he placed a bouquet of red roses. Then he met with veterans of the "Great Patriotic War," the term Russians use to describe their battle against Hitler.
It would be hard to find another part of Russia that is as saturated with the blood of that war than the earth around Staraya Russa. Officially, 850,000 soldiers died there during the two-and-a-half-year German occupation. The real figure is probably higher, because the Red Army long attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to fend off repeated attacks by the enemy along the northwestern front.
The encounter near Marfino was one of the events with which the Russian president is preparing his country for May 9, which marks the anniversary of the end of the war with Hitler's Germany. It is "our country's most important and most honest holiday," Putin said in Staraya Russa. "It is the day of the great victory."
The end of the war will be commemorated in Russia for the 70th time this year. Since it was declared an official holiday in 1965, May 9, with its spontaneous gatherings of veterans in the streets, public festivals and gun salutes in the evening, has in fact become Russia's most moving holiday -- and perhaps the only one that has truly united the people. The victory over Hitler happened three generations ago. Still, during Putin's visit to Staraya Russa, the veterans reminded him of the words of military commander Alexander Suvorov, who said that a war is not over "until the last soldier has been buried." Last year, search teams recovered the remains of 12,900 fallen soldiers from swamps near Novgorod, the forests of Smolensk and the region around St. Petersburg.
Reopening Old Trenches
May 9, 2015 shows that there are also other reasons why the war still hasn't ended for Russia. It demonstrates that the country's leadership needs the memory of that war more than ever, even though only a few soldiers who fought in it are still alive today. Finally, it shows that this anniversary, unlike all previous victory celebrations, has become a European political issue, because old trenches on the Continent have been reopened. There are those in Russia who say that this year the celebrations on May 9 must become a demonstration against the "rehabilitation of fascism in Europe" and a "revision of the outcome of World War II."
The parade in Moscow on the morning of May 9 is intended to set an example. It will be the biggest military parade ever held. Some 15,000 soldiers will march across Red Square, 4,000 more than at the last major anniversary. Two hundred tanks, artillery and missiles will roll past the Kremlin, and 140 fighter jets will crowd the skies over Moscow. Weapons will be displayed that "will astonish the entire world," wrote the tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, full of anticipation -- including "the 'Armata,' our new miracle tank."
There are few images available of the Armata to date, but the pro-Kremlin press is already touting its qualities, including a 125-millimeter smoothbore cannon, which is capable of firing guided missiles. It also includes a high-tech fire control system that can allegedly capture 40 ground and 25 air targets within a radius of 100 kilometers (62 miles), and, of course, can destroy the enemy right as it reaches the combat zone. As the "icing on the cake," the Armata supposedly has a new radar system that senses incoming missiles and rockets and issues the command to destroy them at just the right moment.
Russia would have liked to showcase the Armata and a host of other military technology to the foreigners who were supposed to be sitting in the VIP stand on May 9. The Kremlin had invited 68 leaders of foreign countries to the victory celebration, including the most important politicians in the Western world. So far, only 25 have accepted Moscow's invitation. US President Barack Obama will not be attending, nor will British Prime Minister David Cameron or French President François Hollande. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be there, but only on May 10, the day after the parade. TV images from Moscow will illustrate how isolated Russia has become as a result of its policy on Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
The bitter news was long kept from the Russian people. Television stations were constantly reporting that more and more foreign leaders would be attending the parade, but then the newscaster would read out the names of the countries they represent, including places like North Korea, Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam.
Senior representatives of only three European Union countries -- the Czech Republic, Greece and Cyprus -- are so far planning to attend the ceremonies, but many Russians only became aware of this when a scandal erupted surrounding Czech President Milos Zeman. On Sunday, Zeman banned the US ambassador from his offices in Prague Castle, after the American had criticized the Czech president's trip to Moscow.
Praise from Russia
"I am traveling to Moscow as a sign of gratitude that we were not forced to chant 'Heil Hitler' in this country," Zeman told a Czech radio station. It was exactly the kind of sentiment the Russians wanted to hear. Officials in Moscow promptly responded, saying Zeman possessed a rare trait among European politicians: He sees the world as it is.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also won praise from Russia during his mid-week visit to Moscow, when he paid tribute to the two countries' joint struggle against Nazism and promised to return in one month to attend the parade on May 9. Although Tsipras expressed his commitment to Europe while in Moscow, his visit was still a success from the Kremlin's point of view, because it demonstrated that Europeans are divided over how best to deal with Russia. There were no gifts for the Greeks, but Putin now hopes to be able to develop the Greek premier into an ally in Europe in the long term.
Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council and therefore spokesman of the European heads of state and government, had declared weeks ago why we would not attend the Moscow parade on May 9. "A presence at the military parade, hand-in-hand with today's aggressors and a person using weapons against civilians in eastern Ukraine? For me, delicately speaking, it's too ambiguous," Tusk said.
The debate over why East and West no longer jointly celebrate the victory over Hitler is a difficult one. At its center is a country that, by some estimates, lost 27 million in the four years of World War II. "From a formal standpoint, you can understand the Western leaders, but it's difficult on a personal level," says Andrey Yashlavsky, a columnist with the Moscow-based newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. "You have to be ignorant or a liar to deny that our country took the biggest blow in World War II. And that it was Russia that made the fundamental contribution to defeating the Nazis."
A Growing Divide Between East and West
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that, despite the European boycott, she will visit Moscow a day after the military parade to join Putin in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a smart move, even if Russian state television reframed her decision as a gesture against the rest of Western Europe. Even Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Merkel's trip to Moscow had special significance in terms of "defeating the anti-Russian campaign" of the West.
As Moscow sees it, the decision by the United States and much of the EU to steer clear of the festivities on May 9 is intentional and malicious. The Russians argue that it has little to do with Ukraine, but instead is part of a long-term strategy to neutralize Russia as a major power and bring down Putin.
The holdouts among the Western leaders should never have been invited to Moscow, said right-wing populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Russian parliament. "That's because the NATO countries, which are controlled from a uniform center, are preparing a war against Russia."
The controversy over the Moscow victory celebration on May 9 illustrates how far Russia has distanced itself from the Europeans, and just how wide the gap between the two sides has grown. Russia accuses the West of even more malicious aims. It accuses the West of seeking to rewrite the history of World War II in order to downplay Russia's role in the victory over Nazi Germany.
This goes a long way toward explaining why the Kremlin reacted so irritably when Poland announced it would hold a victory celebration at the Westerplatte memorial in Gdansk, where the war began on Sept. 1, 1939 with shots fired by the German cadet training ship Schleswig-Holstein. What did Gdansk have to do with the victory, the head of the Russian presidential administration asked angrily? In January, the Polish foreign minister did in fact make an absurd statement when he claimed the Ukrainians had "liberated" the Auschwitz concentration camp. The remark triggered palpable outrage in Moscow, because the First Ukrainian Front, the first group to reach the concentration camp, was not made up primarily of Ukrainians.
The Kremlin promptly retaliated. In late February, it published archive documents intended to prove that Poland had stabbed the Red Army in the back during Europe's liberation. According to the documents, the Polish underground army killed at least 700 members of the Soviet military in Polish territory from the end of 1944 to May 1945.
However, some Russians are willing to bend the truth a little when it comes to historical details. When the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote about the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army in early April, it published two photographs next to each other. One showed the German Wehrmacht marching into Prague in March 1939, while the other, under the heading "American invasion of the Czech Republic in 2015," depicted a single American armored vehicle against a neutral background. Nevertheless, the paper claimed that the vehicle was in the Czech Republic and belonged to NATO, which now aims to protect Eastern Europe from Moscow.
A Celebration of War?
Seventy years after the end of the war, tanks, missiles and soldiers are ubiquitous in the Russian media once again. In the Soviet era, the newspapers reported on production successes, while under Putin they are reporting on the country's military buildup. Komsomolskaya Pravda recently devoted an entire page to a story about arms deliveries to the Russian army expected in 2015. "We will receive two brigades with 'Iskander' short-range missiles," the paper reported. "The armored brigades will get more than 700 tanks and armored vehicles. There will be 126 new aircraft, 15 modernized strategic bombers and two missile submarines. And the industry will supply the troops with 50 intercontinental missiles. A record!"
This enthusiasm, as naïve as it is clumsy, stands in sharp contrast to the many critical and even sarcastic commentaries on the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory.
The region of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, world-famous for the bloody battle of 1942 and 1943, is still home to 4,579 war veterans. Many are still living in inhumane conditions and the authorities are doing nothing for them, wrote Nezavisimaya Gazeta, providing a lot of evidence to support its claims. But the sharpest criticism was aimed at the government's handling of May 9. Many Russians say that Vladimir Putin has repurposed it into a day that celebrates war itself and, most of all, Russia's strength. For them, it is no longer a day of tears and commemoration.
"The war has been over for 70 years," a reader in the online forum of Radio Ekho Moskvy wrote. "It's history. All countries that fought on various sides of the front have turned this page in the book of history, and they now live in the present. But we are still trudging through the past, getting drunk on victory and seeking new enemies. The further back the victory is, the more pompously we celebrate it."