It was Soviet propaganda that tended to forget about the people, and the common soldiers who won the war.
Father told me that, when he first visited Czechoslovakia after the war, the attitude towards the Soviets was quite positive: we were seen as liberators. When I was living in Prague, I found a speech by the post-war mayor of the city, Petr Zenkl: “Our city was saved from ruin and destruction, torn from the Nazis’ grasp, first and foremost by the heroic Red Army! My dear Slavic brothers! The unprecedented heroism and unequalled self-sacrifice of Soviet troops in this horrific world war have gone down in history. But not only history—they have also found places in the hearts of all the citizens of Prague and all the Czech-Slovak people.“
Then came 1968, and Soviet soldiers arrived as occupiers with the very same tanks. Not only Soviets arrived, of course, but everyone understood who had the deciding vote in the Socialist bloc.
It may appear that the occupation of 1968 does not invalidate the heroic acts of the liberating armies in 1945. This is so in theory, but not in practice. People remember the most recent event, especially if it involves pain and crushed hopes, insult and disillusionment related to those who were previously seen as saviours.
Many things have come to pass in the interval between 1945 and the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism, but the latest is the Ukraine conflict and the Russian annexation of the Crimea, an event that was celebrated with festivities and high hopes in Red Square. Various sources have reported that of the 68 heads of state invited to the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, only 25–30 have agreed to attend.
An American or British war veteran may come to visit a Russian veteran, but many heads of state who have traditionally attended the celebrations commemorating the end of World War II will not come to Putin on 9 May 2015. It is not that they will not be coming to Russia, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or to the few remaining veterans of the war. They will not be coming to Vladimir Putin.
The attempt to interpret this refusal in highly ideological terms as a conscious or subconscious insult towards the people of the former USSR, over 20 million of whose lives were sacrificed in the war, is not even foolish—it is a case of confusing concepts. Like claiming Stalin won the war. The war was won by soldiers. The refusal of, say, David Cameron, to stand next to Putin on 9 May 2015 means only that and nothing more. And it most certainly is not proof of a disrespectful attitude towards the memory of the fallen or towards the people whose fathers and grandfathers fought against Nazism.
It was Soviet propaganda that tended to forget about the people, and the common soldiers who won the war. The Soviet government shamelessly packed away the war-wounded to the Valaam archipelago, so that they would not spoil the big picture with their unpresentable appearance. 9 May was never really the celebration of the simple soldier, who survived, walked, or limped back to their home, or the burned wasteland that was left of it. Or the thousands that collapsed from exhaustion and hunger working in the rear to support the front lines. Many of us went to the Bolshoi Theatre or Gorky Park to see those people, that ever-diminishing group of people who truly won the war, to whom half of the world owes a debt of gratitude. Sincerity, tears and truth were always present in those places. Each of the leaders standing on the tribunes was usurping this celebration.
There have always been two realities on that day. That of the people, who were not good-looking, had survived with difficulty, and struggled owing to the pittance of support allocated to veterans. And that of the tribunes, with yet another head of state and his guests. The tribunes were always about the might of our weapons, our unconquered and legendary state. The streets were about the amazing older generation who had had a very difficult and generally tough life, and from whom one always wanted to ask forgiveness.
The presence of foreign heads of state in Moscow on 9 May is not a trifling matter from the Russian state’s point of view. They see this day as the only potential occasion upon which the world is indisputably required to respect Russia. And since the leaders identify themselves with Russia, this means respecting them. There is more politics than sentiment in that. Even after the last veteran dies, the tribunes will not be going anywhere, and yet another Russian head of state will be expecting visitors and feel like a victor. Even though almost all of the true winners have already departed from this world, and the best thing we can do to commemorate them is to take the photograph of a grandfather or great-grandfather, grandmother or great-grandmother to the streets. Nowadays, we have to stand in front of the Bolshoi Theatre or in Gorky Park with the portraits of those who will never return there; memories of them are truly priceless—the same cannot be said about remembering the leaders.
I will not be personally offended if Obama, Cameron or Hollande do not come to Moscow on 9 May. The event is also about politics for them—and there are no coffee breaks in politics. It is difficult for them to forget for that single day that, 69 years after the end of the last great war in Europe, the current leader of the liberating country personally decided to take away a part of a foreign state’s territory in that very same Europe, surrounding it with a maze of lies and hypocrisy. It just seems like the Western leaders have shifted their focus towards the stabilisation of the situation in south-east Ukraine, forgetting about the Crimea. They have neither forgotten nor turned a blind eye, and are not willing to accept this. And how are they supposed to stand next to Putin, who just recently discussed in detail in the documentary Crimea: The Way Home (Крым. Путь домой) how he made decisions and lied to the whole world about events in the Crimea? How could they applaud the 15,000 “polite people” in Red Square on 9 May? How are they supposed to feel in Moscow, in Red Square, where people only recently chanted: “Olé, Olé, Olé! The Crimea is ours! Poland and Finland are next!”
I suppose that, unlike the Kremlin, the general public do not care who will come or not come to Moscow on 9 May. Everyone has someone to commemorate at home, and that is far more important. As for disrespecting the people … I do not want to disappoint anyone, but nobody ever insulted, mocked, destroyed or humiliated our people like the party and government did—in this century and the last, anyway.
Let me remind you that the unspiritual West, with whom the highly spiritual Russia has lately been in constant dispute, actually commemorates the soldiers lost in war. Imagine that it was decided to plant red poppies in Moscow in honour of every soldier who fell in the Great Patriotic War, as was done in London? In London, there were 888,246 poppies: the total number of fatalities in World War I, the “Great War”, as they call it. Imagine over 20 million red flowers in and around Red Square, to honour every soldier who fell in the Great Patriotic War. A sea of “blood” instead of tanks, rockets and “polite people” … This gesture would be painful, but strangely consoling, and pacifist: we would be showing that we do not want this to be repeated. I hope this will happen one day. And people will fall on their knees, both on the tribunes and in the streets. And there will be no leaders, guests, nationalities, countries, common or uncommon folk. There will be only citizens of the world who know the price of war and victory. I truly hope that Russia will have a leader who will celebrate 9 May just like that one day.