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9 May, 2010 04:45

Parade of glory and painful memory

For 65 years Victory Day has been marked with tears. This time Russia is marking May 9 with a traditional parade in the heart of Moscow, together with allies and former Soviet republics, now independent states.

Pouring rain, mixed with tears, endless joy, and one thought, “We made it!” That's what 86-year-old Stanislav Lapin, remembers of that day, in June 1945 – the first time Soviet war heroes like him marched triumphantly through Red Square.

But then – and now – being on Red Square reminds him of his friends who gave their lives for a victory they never lived to see.

“2,000 men from my neighborhood went to war, only 30 came back. But whatever the cost, we knew we had to win,” says Stanislav.

Stanislav was in the infantry during one of the deadliest battles of the war, Stalingrad. He was shot three times.

“You rush into attack, you see your comrades fall to the right, to the left, in front of you. You're almost sure it's going to hit you too,” he recalls. “But there was no fear. Your senses get numb. All you think about is how to hit the enemy.”

And defending the Motherland was a duty nobody doubted:

“Some say that most soldiers were forced to fight – that's rubbish, people didn't fight under the thumb. If we had done so, we would have lost the war.”

Watching footage of the 1945 parade, Stanislav catches a glimpse of himself, driving through Red Square on a Zis-5 truck that was used to transport goods, ammunition and people.

All the weapons of war that had been used to fight the Nazis paraded through the square – men, horses, cannons, rocket launchers and the terrain-busting T-34 tanks. While Nazi swastikas were tossed at the foot of Lenin’s mausoleum in a show of contempt

Stanislav – then still only in his early 20s – says all eyes were on the commanders standing on top of the mausoleum: Stalin, Zhukov, Rokossovsky and others. The participants, soldiers and officers, had been soaking in the rain for hours before the parade even started, but they say none of them cared, so big was the honor to be here and march before their commanders.

A year later, Zhukov, who led the Soviet military machine, was falsely accused of planning to overthrow Stalin. But he was never arrested, protected by his widespread public popularity. Instead, Stalin humiliated him by posting him to a remote region.

Scores of other decorated generals were arrested; some were executed. A wave of repression swept through the army command.

Marina Gordova's feelings about the 1945 parade are mixed. It was shortly after taking part that her father, army General Vasily Gordov, was arrested.

“Stalin was afraid of the army, especially after the war. Those commanders came out of the war so self-confident,” Marina explains. “Stalin, being an overly-suspicious and vindictive man, wanted to tame the force, and he did. In the most infamous way.”

Vasily Gordov was stripped of his medals and eventually killed. His crime? To voice concerns over Stalin's military command clampdown – even though he successfully led an army through the brutal Battle of Stalingrad and all the way to Berlin. But it counted for nothing.

In fact, the 1945 parade's motto told people it was a one-man victory. “We won thanks to the genius command of Comrade Stalin.” That message was ingrained in people's minds for years.

Today, war heroes like Stanislav Lapin are getting the recognition they deserve. Their living history gives an accurate picture of the Soviet people, who stamped out the tyranny of Nazism.

Political analyst Dmitry Babich says it is very significant that the festivities are being joined by leaders of more than 30 countries.

“The Second World War was the last existential threat to humanity. It was not the problem of colonies or markets. It was the question of whether humanity will exist or not,” Babich says.

We should remember that Nazism was not only limited to Germany – just like Stalinism was not limited to Russia. And I think it is very significant that the presence of Angela Merkel as a representative of modern Germany at the festivities shows that modern Germany has nothing to do with what the country was doing in the 1930s and the 1940s.”

“It symbolizes a new era in European relations between Russia and European nations. It also symbolizes that the bitter legacy of the Cold War is gradually disappearing nowadays,” says Seregey Kudryashov, a historian with Mother magazine, about the Parade in which foreign troops of Allied countries took part for the first time.

“We’re living in a new era, which shows us that we’re in a new world, which was created by that particular Victory Day,” he added.

Francis Gary Powers Jr., founder of the Cold War Museum in Washington DC, has come to Moscow to witness the jubilee parade.

He says keeping the memory of the most devastating war in history is essential for all nations.

“The relationship between our two countries is like a marriage – there are good times and there are bad times. We try to make the best of it. People in America have not celebrated the end of WWII as strongly as Russia. But this is a memory that needs to be commemorated and remembered unless we’ll repeat it again. We must continue to work together.”