The Soviet Union observed the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in a myriad of ceremonies designed not only to commemorate the past, but also to serve modern political aims. The climax of the effort was a major military parade through Red Square at which, for the first time, the Soviet Union publicly displayed SS-21 short-range nuclear missiles.
But the Red Square ceremony was not so much a display of modern firepower as an attempt to invoke the patriotism of a bygone era. In Red Square, as in countless other smaller observances, this country's leadership claimed that it was the Soviet communist system that forged the victory over Nazi Germany, and that support for communism today equates with a love of peace.
It is a deliberate attempt to harness the power of memory to modern political allegiance. And in a country that lost 20 million people during the war, it can stir powerful emotions.
Soviet Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov, standing atop the granite Lenin mausoleum in Red Square, said, ``The whole world knows that it was the Soviet Union that made the decisive contribution to victory, to the liberation of the peoples of Europe from fascist captivity, to the saving of world civilization.''
It has now fallen to the Soviet Union, he said, to become the modern defender of peace against ``aggressive imperialist forces'' -- code words for the United States and its NATO allies.
``This has been a time of passing on to a new generation the feelings of those who fought in the war,'' says one Western diplomat, while at the same time ``passing on the legitimacy of the [communist] regime.''
The triumph of World War II was ``this country's high point -- its finest hour,'' says another Western diplomat. And the Communist Party, he says, is not about to let anyone forget.
``The Soviet people remember all,'' said a tall veteran, as he walked out of Red Square at the end of the parade.
He recalled that the US and the Soviet Union were allies in the war, ``comrades in arms against fascism.'' He clasped his hands together, and said that spirit of cooperation should be revived.
But the Soviet government says it is solely US truculence that prevents cooperation today.
And many Soviet citizens loyally echo that sentiment.
``We don't trust Reagan,'' said one Soviet veteran, his chest bedecked with medals. He had turned out for what has become an annual rite of remembrance here -- veterans reunions and celebrations in parks across the length and breadth of the country.
An implicit message in much of the recent Soviet propaganda is that the forces of capitalism and imperialism engendered the Third Reich, and that they are once again encouraging militarism and endangering peace in the world.
The Soviet news media stop short of branding members of the current US administration as fascists -- but just barely. For some, the distinction is lost.
World War II came about, said a brown-haired 10-year-old in Gorky Park, because ``German fascists attacked us.''
And from where is the current threat toward the Soviet Union? ``From the USA, of course,'' he said.
His father quieted him, admonishing him for being a ``silly boy'' and embarrassedly explaining to his American questioner that he is ``only a child.''
Nevertheless, his father said, the current world situation is ``complicated'' and it is difficult to determine how -- or whether -- US-Soviet relations will improve.
And, he added, there is no reason that the US and Soviet people should not get along well. The problem, he said, is the US political leadership.
``Excuse me,'' he said, with his now contrite son listening intently, ``but Reagan is a fascist.''