Russians Recall That Soviets Beat the Nazis

THE Soviet Union rose briefly from the ashes on May 9 to greet world leaders on the 50th anniversary of World War II's end with a riot of red flags and military parades reminiscent of an earlier era.

On Red Square beneath the red-brick Kremlin walls, veterans of the war marched past Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- who was atop Lenin's mausoleum -- slabs of medals on their chests glinting in the sunshine.

A few miles west, nearly 10,000 soldiers flew red flags embroidered with hammers and sickles as they staged a traditional Soviet military show -- complete with tanks, rockets, and a thundering flyby.

Western leaders, including President Clinton, stayed away from the display of military hardware, protesting the way the same weaponry has been used in Russia's brutal campaign against separatists in Chechnya, where thousands of civilians have been killed in five months of fighting.

But on May 9, the Army put aside thoughts of its ignominious work in Chechnya and basked in the glory the military used to enjoy in Soviet times.

The sun shone brightly -- rain was kept at bay by a $200,000 operation to precipitate showers elsewhere -- as onlookers cheered the marching soldiers. In keeping with the official mood, Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev praised the Red Army, which he said had ''freed half of Europe and saved world civilization'' by its valor in the war.

He also called for a stronger Russian Army today. ''In the complicated tangle of political conflicts, we must strengthen and modernize our armed forces,'' General Grachev said in his speech.

Mr. Yeltsin struck a softer note, saying ''memories of the war should be a guiding force, bringing people closer together.''

Hanging over the parade in Red Square was a giant poster of a Soviet soldier and an American GI, clasping shoulders in victory. Swags of flowers and foliage discreetly veiled Lenin's name on his tomb.

Homage to heroism

Mr. Clinton took a similar tone, speaking at the opening of a new memorial museum on the ''Hill of Tributes,'' where Napoleon waited in vain in 1812 for Muscovites to hand him the keys to their city.

The Soviet Union lost nearly 1 in 8 of its people during the war, he told his Russian audience, but ''the cold war obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people suffered. Now we must all say, you wrote some of the greatest chapters in the history of heroism.''

Memories of that heroism mixed with memories of the Soviet Union as a great power in the minds of many Russians, provoking widespread nostalgia attacks.

''The Soviet system may have had its negative points, but .... we won the war under the Soviet system,'' said Nikolai Neyelov, who took part in the Red Square parade.

Not interested in Bill

But even the heavily Soviet overtones of the official celebrations, the first in their style since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, were not enough for some people.

Communists, nationalists, and other opposition forces staged an alternative rally, complete with portraits of Lenin and Stalin, attracting 20,000 people by a conservative police estimate -- comparable to the number at the official parade.

''The official ceremonies are artificial, and the veterans who participate in them are just props,'' said Anatoly Romanov, a veteran who marched with the Communists.

''We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the victory, they are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the occupation'' said another marcher, nostalgic for a Soviet era free from Western influence.

''There will never be capitalism in our country -- what is happening now is just a temporary mistake,'' insisted Col. Valentin Sezov, a military engineer. On May 9, amid paraphernalia of the past that had seemed discarded for good, it almost seemed as if he was right.

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