Russia Beckons, West Visits To Honor Soviet Sacrifice

NOBODY knows exactly how many people are buried in Piskarovskoye Cemetery here. Nobody was counting when they dug the mass graves, urgently, one after another.

But this city -- then called Leningrad -- lost more people during a German siege in World War II than all of the US and British war losses combined.

''No one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten,'' reads the somber memorial that looks over 186 long, low rectangular mounds, marked only with the year they were filled.

Never have those words been truer as Russia this week celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The cemetery illustrates why it matters to Russian leaders that President Clinton is joining them for tomorrow's anniversary.

Russians feel the Soviet Union's role in the Allied victory is too often undervalued in the West. As if to compensate, celebration of Moscow's victory became a Soviet cult, indulged each year with an orgy of official self-congratulation.

But the Soviet Union has since shattered to pieces. Russians doubt whether their enormous death toll was inevitable. And they compare Germany's fate with their own.

The 50th anniversary of victory in the ''Great Patriotic War,'' as it is known here, is nonetheless being celebrated with a flood of flags and banners, parades, fireworks, concerts, speeches, reunions, and conferences that would be unusual in any other Allied nation.

From one end of the cultural spectrum to the other, Russians are bending to the task.

While St. Petersburg's world-famous Mariinsky opera house stages a special performance of ''Prince Igor,'' Alexander Borodin's stirring opera about a medieval Russian prince's battle with and escape from his pagan enemies, the soft-porn cinema up the street interrupts its standard repertoire to screen war movies.

The country's TV channels recently have given themselves over to war-related programs, and newspapers have devoted front-page stories to the anniversary for the past week.

''Memories of the war are very much alive,'' said Dmitri Lyubich, a St. Petersburg businessman who was not born until after the war ended. ''Because for us this war didn't happen far away, like it did for Americans, it happened here, in our homes. And that's why it is in our hearts.''

The appalling scale of Soviet losses has also amplified the war's echo down the generations: Eleven million Red Army soldiers and 6.7 million civilians were killed, according to reliable Western sources. By comparison, the US military lost 405,000 men, but almost no American civilians.

In every workplace and village, monuments to those killed in the war always honor more names than seem likely to eyes accustomed to Western memorials.

Visiting Piskarovskoye cemetery, as she does every year at about this time, Yevgeniya Lifanova was showing her seven-year-old granddaughter, Tanya, around last week, handing down memories of the dreadful 900-day siege of Leningrad.

''I'm telling her that her great-grandfathers Fedya and Petya are buried here; so is my mother, babushka Lisa, and my father; but that we endured and we didn't give our city to the Germans,'' Mrs. Lifanova said.

If veterans of all the victorious Allied armies take pride in their achievements, none go to quite the lengths of the Russians, many of whom wear their medals pinned to their civilian clothes all year round.

''This was the one event we can be proud of in Soviet history,'' explains social psychologist Leonid Gozman. ''It was the only time when our state did something that won moral approval from the rest of the world, and it is very important for our veterans that they can be proud of those years.''

At the same time, Dr. Gozman suggests, memories of the war are especially comforting to older Russians today because ''during the war we were a great, large, strong country and we were united. This was not just the Soviet Union, it was the best manifestation of the Soviet Union.''

The Soviet Union's finest hour is marked by ''the selfless, sacrificial, almost unparalleled heroism of the people,'' according to John Erickson, professor of history at Edinburgh University in Scotland.

As such, World War II ''is part of the national consciousness,'' says Roy Medvedev, the dissident Soviet historian who wrote a daring expose of Stalin 30 years ago. ''This victory will be evaluated in our national history as highly as the victory over Napoleon, or over the Mongols on Kulikov Field [in 1380],'' Dr. Medvedev adds.

But its very importance makes the triumph easily exploitable by political forces, observers say.

With President Yeltsin's administration at a low ebb in popular esteem, adds St. Petersburg sociologist Leonid Kesselman, ''the Great Patriotic War is one of the last tools that the government, which is completely devoid of any ideology, can use to consolidate the population.''

At the same time, Russian nationalists are ''trying to use Victory Day for their own ideological purposes, turning it into the holiday of the great empire,'' says Gozman, an aide to former acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar and a leading light in his liberal Russia's Choice party.

But Gozman is unwilling to surrender the anniversary to the nationalists.

''For them it is a celebration of the Soviet empire, for me it is a celebration of heroism, of individual human rights, and of human dignity,'' he says.

For post-Soviet Russians celebrating the triumph of a people rather than a system, the full extent of the system's crimes is only now emerging.

And as scholars reveal Stalin's conduct of the war, more and more Russians are coming to the once-heretical conclusion that their fathers and grandfathers won the war despite the Kremlin, not because of it.

Purges robbed the Red Army of its best officers just before the war broke out; generals showed callous disregard for their men's lives, which led to staggering casualty rates; and terror squads ranged behind the front, shooting soldiers who tried to retreat.

''One's pride in victory is always mixed with bitternesss and despair at how the war was organized,'' laments Medvedev, who served in the Caucasus.

Today, for all Russians, that pride is also mixed with hard feelings about how they live compared with the people they defeated, the Germans.

''It is completely unclear what we won in that war,'' says Kesselman, ''when we are begging for humanitarian aid from the country that we vanquished.''

''Victory Day is a great day, of course,'' Medvedev adds. ''But it's hard to get into the holiday mood.''

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