V-E Day in Moscow: Soviets embraced Americans

MOSCOW'S V-E Day celebration in 1945 was possibly the only entirely spontaneous demonstration that city has seen. It had neither parades nor prearranged banners, slogans, marchers, or music. It turned into a jubilant demonstration of friendship between Russians and Americans.

The conflicting reports May 8 left me confused. Shortwave broadcasts from London described victory celebrations, but Moscow radio was reporting continued fighting.

I was in Moscow as field representative of Russian War Relief, the United States public agency that provided food, clothing, and medical supplies for civilian survivors in the war-devastated zones. During two years of the war I had covered the battlefields around Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk-Orel, and the southern Ukraine in the wake of the fighting.

I went to bed that night in the Hotel National puzzled by the contradictory reports. What was what?

Muffled street noises awakened me shortly after 2 a.m. When I switched on the radio, Yuri Levitan's rich baritone, which had announced all the war communiqu'es, was proclaiming the end of the war -- a national holiday.

Lifting the heavy blackout curtain, I peered out of my hotel room. A trickle of young people, in twos and threes, was drifting down the center of Gorky Street.

I watched the crowd thicken. People milled about aimlessly: laughing, talking, linking arms. They began to stream toward Red Square. I watched, entranced.

At daybreak the approaches to the square were filling up. The radio poured forth the Soviet anthem, ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' and ``God Save the King.'' Bunting and flags were mounted on the walls of buildings and soon were draped from balconies.

As day came on, groups broke into song. Here and there some started to dance. A squadron of planes roared across the sky, and cheers went up from the swelling throng, which spilled over into Man`ege Square. The US Embassy, which then occupied the building next to the National, fronted on this square, across from the Kremlin.

Hastily I dressed and set out to roam the town.

I started out by car. As soon as the street crowds spotted the small US flag on my car they surrounded me, pulled me from the car, and hauled me into the center of a cheering, laughing cluster. People fought to shake my hand, kiss me, embrace me. Never had I felt such a burst of warmth and friendship. It was enough that I was an American. I felt as proud as the happy Russians surrounding me.

I gave up the car. Struggling along on foot in the crowds, I managed to reach the square in front of the US Embassy. It was packed solid. Several times the press of people broke through the row of policemen who sought to hold them back from the entrance to the embassy courtyard. Several times the crowd spilled into the inner yard.

George F. Kennan, US minister and charg'e d'affaires, appeared on the balcony and spoke briefly. Then Mr. Kennan sent Thomas P. Whitney of the US Embassy staff next door to the National. Mr. Whitney returned with a Soviet flag, which Kennan ordered paired with the US flag flying above the balcony of the embassy. The crowd roared.

In New York, London, and elsewhere in the Western world crowds celebrated victory one day earlier, May 8, after German generals surrendered at the little red schoolhouse that was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims, France.

For Americans this was the end of one war but hardly marked a pause in the remaining war in the Pacific. For Russians it was to be the end of ``the'' war, their Great Patriotic War, as they called it, after four years of much of the worst fighting and worst devastation in the world's worst war.

Today some of those who embraced and cheered one another on that V-E Day in Moscow 40 years ago, as well as American and Soviet veterans who met on the Elbe in 1945, are meeting for a Soviet-American telecast linking audiences in Moscow and San Diego by satellite.

The joint telecast, with Sovietologist Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, as host at the University of California-San Diego, will be aired by San Diego's KPBS May 11 and soon thereafter by Moscow television. There are plans to air the program this autumn on the Public Broadcasting System.

In Moscow, people had milled about joyously all day long that May 9. Like other Americans and other allies whom they spotted in their midst, I was tossed in the air. They did not need a blanket -- the hands that tossed us caught us. I lost all the change from my pockets and never regretted a kopeck of it.

That evening a thousand guns fired a 30-round salute, and fireworks lit the sky. It was dawn again before the last groups, in twos, threes, or more -- arms linked -- began to drift homeward.

I could appreciate the ecstasy with which the Russians greeted the victory. The somber official estimate of 20 million Soviet lives lost had not yet been announced, but I had seen the cost of this victory in terms of villages and towns wiped out, families decimated, and legless and armless veterans.

That day I wandered into several churches, more crowded than the streets outside. Patriarch Alexei of the Orthodox Church had ordered special services in honor of the fallen. The churches were packed with women, weeping, weeping.

As an American visiting the wounded and the homeless in the war years, I had often encountered a bitterness, usually politely concealed but sensed nevertheless, at what Russians thought to be Western tardiness in opening the second front in Normandy.

The mood changed after the Normandy landing in mid-1944 and grew steadily more friendly until it climaxed in that joyous V-E Day when the crowds roared, ``Long live the Allies! Hurrah for Roosevelt! Long live Truman! Hurrah for the Americans!''

As friendly as Russians and Americans have been on many occasions, never was there such a mass outpouring of affection.

The warmth of that day lingered until August. There was growing friction between the Allies over Poland and the other East European countries where the Soviets were establishing satellite regimes.

The breaking point was the atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6. For the Soviet people the bomb meant that, after sacrificing for a generation to build their industry only to have much of it wiped out during the war, they were even further behind the US. Once more they faced the ordeal of sacrificing to catch up with the industrial age while, at the same time, racing to catch up with the atomic era.

Not until the Soviet Union had its own bomb, four years later, did the Soviet people get an explanation of the terrible new weapon and its significance or see the image of the mushroom cloud that had become a familiar symbol in the West.

I was among the many Americans who left at the end of the war, but not before I, along with a group of US Russian War Relief officials, received a medal at the hands of then President Mikhail Kalinin in the Kremlin. Mine was a medal for civilian labor distinction.

There was a better award in store for me.

Twenty-seven years later, when I returned to Moscow as correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Anatoly Tulainov, my Soviet interpreter, asked me where I had learned Russian. I told him I had represented Russian War Relief in the 1940s.

His eyes lit up, and to my surprise the usually quiet, reserved Anatoly shook my hand warmly, hugged me, and kissed me on both cheeks, Russian-style.

``What was that for?'' I asked.

``You don't know it,'' he said, ``but your American war relief practically saved my life. Both my parents died in the war. I was evacuated to an orphanage far behind the lines. I arrived in winter, wearing summer clothing. It was bitter cold.

``One day a shipment arrived -- clothing from America. I was issued a warm winter coat. When I got it, it hung down to my ankles. When I left off wearing it, the hem was above my knees. Inside the collar was a label displaying the American flag and the words `Gift of the American people to the brave Russian people, from Russian War Relief.' So I knew Americans appreciated what we went through.''

I had rarely felt happier or prouder.

Leo Gruliow, editor emeritus of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press at Ohio State University and former Moscow correspondent for the Monitor, is currently a visting professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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