Remembering a great war

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Fireworks explode above Moscow's Red Square on May 9 during celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. Photo: AFP

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary. Photo: REUTERS

Russian soldiers are pictured on top of the Reichstag building in Berlin in this undated photo taken in May 1945. Photo: REUTERS

Western leaders boycott the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, which ended in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but signal a willingness to work with Moscow as crises erupt all over the world.

World leaders gathered in Moscow on May 9 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, which ended in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Russian soldiers, on that day, hoisted the red flag on top of the German Reichstag in Berlin. Russia, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, played a crucial role in the victory of the Allied forces against the Axis powers led by Germany in the Second World War. More than 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union died in defence of their homeland, the vast majority of them civilians. Two million soldiers lost their lives. Most historians acknowledge that it was the Soviet military response to the forces of fascism led by Nazi Germany that changed the course of the War. The battles of Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow and Kursk were epic conflicts that turned the tide of history. The battle for Europe was basically won by the Red Army after the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been saying for some time that there have been attempts by “Russia’s enemies” to rewrite history and play down the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi Germany. “The goal is obvious: to undermine Russia’s power and moral authority—to divide peoples and set them up against each other and use historical speculation in their geopolitical games,” he said in a speech in April. The Cuban leader Fidel Castro, writing on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, was among many statesmen who paid tribute to the heroic Russian people. “The Soviets who died in the Great Patriotic War also did so for humanity and the right to think and be socialists, to be Marxist-Leninist, communists, and leave the dark ages behind,” he said.

However, instead of commemorating the event along with the Russian government, Western leaders instead chose to churlishly boycott the 70th anniversary celebrations. By orchestrating the boycott, the United States wanted to signal the West’s collective displeasure over the events in Ukraine. But many Western leaders were seemingly reluctant to join the boycott. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow a few days later to pay her respects to the War dead; most of the Russian casualties during the War occurred during the brutal confrontation with German forces. Czech President Milos Zeman and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic were among the few European leaders who chose to attend the celebrations despite pressure from Washington and Brussels. Putin had said during a nationally televised programme in April that “some” Western leaders wanted to attend the celebrations but were “not allowed to come by the Washington apparatchiks”.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in Russia in the second week of May. It was his first visit to Russia since it gave the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden political asylum in May 2013. Relations between the two countries deteriorated further after the Western-instigated putsch in Kiev that led to the installation of a pro-Western government in Ukraine. Kerry had a meeting with Putin in the Black Sea city of Sochi. The visits by Western leaders are an indication that the West may be preparing to do business again with Russia despite the persistent differences over Ukraine.

The West needs Russia’s help in dealing with the multiple crises that have erupted all over the world. Both Russia and the U.S. are concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. Also, the U.S. does not want Russia to break ranks on Iran. Even though the West has yet to lift the sanctions on Iran, Russia has agreed to provide potent S-300 missiles to that country. If the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran collapses, Russia may no longer adhere to the international sanctions on Tehran. There are already signs of an emerging Russia-Iran-China strategic alliance. Russia and China are expected to hold joint maritime exercises for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea this year. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a statement issued after the meeting between Kerry and Putin, said that all attempts to pressure Moscow through sanctions would only lead to “a dead end”.

Among the 30 heads of state who stood with Putin during an impressive military parade to mark the 70th anniversary were the Presidents of China and India, Xi Jinping and Pranab Mukherjee. The Chinese President and his wife were given pride of place and seated alongside Putin. The other leaders occupying front row seats were Cuban President Raul Castro, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, South African President Jacob Zuma and his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe. The young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, was also invited but he excused himself at the eleventh hour; the Kremlin spokesman said he was preoccupied with “internal matters”. Countries such as Serbia and Korea had also played a role in the War, siding with the anti-fascist alliances. Some in Ukraine and Croatia chose to side with the Nazis. In Ukraine, pro-fascist figures like Stepan Bandera, who fought alongside the Nazis, have acquired cult status, while fascist parties like the Right Sector and Svoboda have a presence in the government and have their own militias. In his speech, Putin warned that fascism was once again on the rise in Europe.

Stating that the “Great Victory will remain the heroic peak in the history of our country”, he acknowledged the role played by the U.S., the United Kingdom and France, Russia’s allies during the War, “for their contribution to the victory”. At the same time, he indirectly criticised the West. “In recent decades, we have seen the basic principles of international cooperation being increasingly ignored. We’ve seen attempts at creating a unipolar world and how bloc thinking is expanding. All this undermines the expansion of global development,” he said. On view during the parade, the biggest witnessed in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, were 16,000 troops along with 200 tanks, armoured vehicles and other state-of-the-art weaponry. There was an impressive fly-past by the Russian Air Force in which 143 military planes participated. Also present on the occasion were 2,000 veterans of the War. After the parade, more than half a million Muscovites marched on the streets with portraits of their close relatives who lost their lives in the War. Putin also participated in the march, carrying a portrait of his late father, who was seriously injured in the War. His elder brother died very young during the blockade of Leningrad. Putin recalled the terrible deprivations his family had to suffer, like all Russians did after the German invasion.

Stalin’s proposal

Despite the commemoration of the War, the Kremlin remains loath to openly give credit to Stalin for his pivotal leadership role in defeating Hitler. Stalin continues to be popular with the Russian public. According to a poll taken by the Carnegie Foundation in 2013, 42 per cent of Russians found Stalin to be the most influential historical leader of their country. Putin has avoided public praise or criticism of Stalin, but Russian school textbooks have started to portray the Soviet leader in a more positive light once again. Recently discovered papers, kept secret for the last 70 years, have revealed that Stalin had proposed an alliance with the U.K. and France in 1939 itself. According to a report in the U.K.’s The Telegraph, a retired Russian foreign intelligence officer, Lev Sotskov, has gone through 700 pages of declassified information and come to the conclusion that if London and Paris had accepted Moscow’s proposal, the Nazi war machine could have been derailed at the outset. The Soviet leader had offered to send a powerful military force to join French and British forces as war clouds loomed over Europe. The offer was made on August 15, 1939, and was evidently rebuffed by the French and British foreign offices. The previous year had seen Britain agreeing to allow Czechoslovakia to be gobbled up by the Nazis as part of the Munich Agreement. It was only after being rebuffed by London and Paris that the Soviet Union signed the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Germany, which was an act of diplomatic and political expediency by the Kremlin.

“Had the British, French and their European ally, Poland, taken this offer seriously, then together we could have put up more than 300 or more divisions in the field on two fronts against Germany—double the number Hitler had at the time,” Sotskov said.