By Jan Sherbin
May 9 in Moscow sends a poignant message.
It’s a shame that many Western leaders, including President Obama, will not attend the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Seventy years has not patched relations between Russia and its wartime Allies – the United States, Britain and France – that banded with the USSR to fight Hitler’s Germany, but aligned with it on little else.
Seventy years post-war, hostility raging over the Ukraine crisis in no way diminishes the suffering of the Soviet Union’s people from 1941 to 1945. A staggering 27 million of them died in the war, half civilians, a striking number juxtaposed with 300,000 Americans dead.
Everyone in the former USSR knows wartime stories, says Valentina Kazachenok of Minsk, in Belarus, 70 years ago a Soviet republic where one in four people died in the war. Hearing these stories, “one cannot remain indifferent,” she says. She offers the story of her grandmother, with her newborn the only survivors after German troops shot all other residents of her village.
“Not everyone today understands the true cost of these horrifying events,” says Zumrud Kerimova, a 20-something in Dagestan, in Russia’s unstable Caucasus. She worries that young people do not appreciate the magnitude of wartime tragedy. “Dagestan sent 180,000 men to the war. Half never came back.”
Victory Day hits a nerve with Russians rather as 9/11 does with Americans. “We will never let anybody forget the millions of victims,” says Alexander Markov of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. As children, he and his brother begged their grandfathers, both wounded in the war, to tell their stories. Both refused. “We spent a lot of time with them in silence, in reflection. I remember the tears in their eyes.”
For today’s children, Russian cities are staging Immortal Regiment parades in which they can march carrying pictures of their wartime ancestors. Though children know about the war primarily from books and movies, says Yuri Boiko of Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, respect for the war should be as sacred to them as to their elders.
Moscow’s Victory Day parade is a solemn commemoration of a tragedy. Ordinary Russians hope we hear the message they intend to convey. As Oleg Vereshchagin of Astrakhan, on the Volga River, tells it, “As the nation that sacrificed more than anybody else on the victory altar, we remember what a world war is about. More than anything, we want peace.”
Jan Sherbin co-owns Glasnost Communications, a Cincinnati organization that facilitates communication and understanding between Americans and the people of the former Soviet Union.