May 9th 1945: Russia celebrates the end of the Great Patriotic War

With 30 million dead, cities in ruins, its economy wrecked, the day the war ended has a special meaning for Russia. This is the most sacred public holiday, but its meaning changes with each generation, says Andrew Osborn in Moscow
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In London they danced in the fountains but in Moscow they were too shell-shocked, too exhausted and too battle-weary to manage such high jinks. Up to 30 million soldiers and civilians were dead, the Soviet Union had lost a third of its national wealth, cities such as Stalingrad had been reduced to lunar landscapes, and an entire generation of men had been decimated.

In London they danced in the fountains but in Moscow they were too shell-shocked, too exhausted and too battle-weary to manage such high jinks. Up to 30 million soldiers and civilians were dead, the Soviet Union had lost a third of its national wealth, cities such as Stalingrad had been reduced to lunar landscapes, and an entire generation of men had been decimated.

That is not to say there was not euphoria though. Sixty years ago today, searchlights illuminated a city that a few years earlier had almost fallen to the Germans, cannon-fire and fireworks exploded over the Kremlin and relieved citizens crowded into Red Square to share their enormous collective relief.

A large and apparently grateful crowd gathered outside the US embassy in Moscow and revellers on Red Square danced, kissed, sung and chatted excitedly. One Soviet captain was overheard saying, "Pora jit" (It's time to live).

But Josef Stalin was not in celebratory mood and reportedly became annoyed when his then underling, Nikita Khrushchev, telephoned him to congratulate him on his victory. "Why are you bothering me?" he is reported to have snapped. "I am working." The night before, one of the USSR's most respected radio announcers had reported the German surrender.

"This is Moscow. On May 8th, 1945, the representatives of the German High Command signed in Berlin the Act of the Unconditional Surrender of all German troops. The Great Patriotic War waged by the Soviet people against Nazi invaders has been victoriously concluded. Germany has suffered a total defeat. Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in the battles for the freedom and independence of our Motherland. Long live the victorious Red Army and Navy!"

It would not be until 24 June 1945, that the USSR held a proper victory parade, in torrential rain. On that day, one by one, soldiers lined up to toss the defeated German army's banners and standards, including Hitler's own personal standard, into a sodden mess at Stalin's feet beneath Lenin's tomb.

The parade was particularly poignant because just a few years earlier, when it looked as if Moscow itself might fall to Hitler, soldiers had marched straight from Red Square to the front. The circle was complete. Today another parade will march in Moscow. It may vary in style and substance but it will take its cue from that momentous, rain-soaked day in 1945.

Admittedly, Lenin's tomb will be tastefully camouflaged when President Vladimir Putin hosts a modern victory celebration. He does not want to upset invited world leaders when it comes to the photo opportunity, let alone leave himself open to yet more accusations that he is recreating the Soviet Union. Equally, Josef Stalin's bones are unlikely to stir from their resting place at the foot of the Kremlin Wall.

Nor, if weather-obsessed Russian scientists have anything to do with it, will it rain today as it did 60 years ago, with such complete bleakness since the clouds have been "seeded" with dry ice by the Russian air force to encourage them to drop their precipitation before they reach the capital. Stalin, a man who believed that nothing was stronger than his own iron will, would have approved.

But the ideology he defended - communism - and the state he saved from the clutches of Adolf Hitler - the Soviet Union - have been buried along with his own reputation as "the father of the people" and a brilliant wartime leader. But there is something about today that will bring down the curtain on a ritual he inaugurated only to later ban because he feared the growing prestige of his military commanders.

Today, 9 May, is the traditional day when first the USSR, and now its principal successor state, Russia, marks "Victory Day", the most sacred of all public holidays. Moscow celebrates victory over Nazi Germany 24 hours later than the other Allies because the German high command surrendered to the Soviets one day later than they did to the Americans and the British.

They hoped they would get better treatment at the hands of the Western Allies and they were right. But Stalin's ghost is not as disturbing and threatening as some Western observers contend. Though some claim Russia is in the throes of a Stalinist revival, pointing to a handful of towns and cities keen to rename streets after him, or erect a modest bust to a man whose power was built on the bones and blood of the people he ruled the reality is starkly different.

Yes, there is nostalgia among older people for the stability and order he guaranteed at a time when many ordinary Russians are still struggling to make ends meet after the 1991 demise of the USSR. Yes, what is left of the Russian Communist party believes that a new Stalin is now needed to save Russia from money-grubbing oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats. And yes, opinion polls show a large number of Russians are of the opinion that his wartime role was crucial.

But that is not the same as supporting the orthodoxy of Stalinism, and is countered by a very real understanding among large swaths of the population of the crimes he perpetrated against his own people, the purges, the disappearances in the night, the gulag, the mumbo-jumbo show trials and lunatic conspiracies.

Is Vladimir Putin milking the occasion to bolster his own position, increasingly assailed as he is by the West for his lack of democratic credentials? Yes, of course he is, but even he is ready to publicly call a tyrant a tyrant. Veterans may recall the most tumultuous years of their youth when they fought in Stalin's name but, above all, today for them is about sacrifice, heroism and human suffering devoid of dogma. Mention the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, the Blitz or D-Day to a Soviet veteran and they will politely raise an eyebrow and form a wry smile before rattling off the USSR's own finest hours.

The Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad, the Kursk tank battle, the Defence of Moscow, the Battle of Berlin, the Defence of Smolensk and so the list goes on. Then conjure up Britain's iconic images of its own wartime prowess, debonair pipe-smoking fighter pilots, a defiant cigar-toting Churchill, a sand-blasted Montgomery, groups of troops wading ashore at Normandy or a "plucky" armada of fishing-boats and pleasure craft evacuating the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and you can bet that the Soviet veteran holds something entirely different in his mind's eye.

A Red Army soldier raising the Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag over the captured Reichstag in Berlin, troops marching straight from Moscow's Red Square to the frontline, the rubble of what used to be Stalingrad, Dmitri Shostakovich composing his seventh symphony in an encircled Leningrad or a self-satisfied Josef Stalin sitting beside Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt at Yalta.

Curiously, the Soviet veteran will not refer to "the Second World War". For Russians and the citizens of the former Soviet Union the conflict is known dramatically as "The Great Patriotic War," a phrase which in a Russian mind conjures up immediate associations with Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812. Sixty years may have elapsed but victory over Hitler and fascism remains modern-day Russia's proudest moment and still plays a significant role in contemporary life. It may have been a Communist tradition but young newlyweds still visit their local town's war memorial after they have been married to lay flowers and remember those who died so that they could live in peace. It is unquestionable that Soviet history is far from unsullied. The Baltic states and Poland have a point when they argue that the end of the Second World War signified the beginning of almost half a century of Soviet occupation.

Nor, as some of Britain's most eminent historians such as Anthony Beevor have documented, was the behaviour of the victorious Red Army above reproach. Atrocities were perpetrated and German women were raped by a revenge-hungry army on a terrifying scale.

But all that should not prevent us from recognising the Red Army's immense contribution, a contribution that dwarfs that of Britain and, indeed, the United States. The Soviet Union lost more soldiers and civilians during the war than any other country.

It is estimated that between 25 and 30 million died and that the Red Army did more of the fighting than anyone else, single-handedly destroying 80 per cent of the German army. If you were to compile a list of the war's most significant battles, many of them would have been fought and won by the Soviets, notably the Battle of Stalingrad which reached its bloody culmination in 1943 and is widely regarded as one of the key turning-points in the entire conflict.

As historian Norman Davies wrote recently, the Red Army's Marshal Rokossovsky destroyed a collection of Wehrmacht divisions equivalent to the entire German deployment on the western front in one single operation in 1944. To Stalin's delight the Red Army was also the first to reach Berlin.

Today will see the Red Army's survivors puff out their chests with pride. Thousands will parade across Red Square in Second World War-era vehicles as fighter jets roar over Red Square tracing the Russian tricolour flag in the sky. Looking on will be 53 world leaders including President George Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. John Prescott is also expected.

Wreaths will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the foot of the Kremlin Wall before a celebratory evening banquet hosted by President Putin and his wife Lyudmila. Moscow has been spruced up with 50,000 flags, 125 miles of coloured lights, every cobble on Red Square has allegedly been individually cleaned and the city's streets have been purged of stray dogs and prostitutes.

Security will be tight as 9 May is a favourite day for Chechen separatist rebels to strike. Last year they used the opportunity to blow up Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed president of Chechnya, as he reviewed a victory parade in Grozny, the republic's capital, and this year, rebel warlord Shamil Basayev is threatening further terror.

Some will see today as a hideous stage-managed attempt to glorify the USSR, Stalin and even President Putin. But for many veterans it will simply be an opportunity to unite around one of the dwindling number of constants in their lives and to recall one of the few things that modern-day Russians still feel proud of. It is likely to be the final occasion for such men and women to feel as though their sacrifice had made a real difference to the world.