Soldiers carrying banners in the Sunday, May 9, parade for Victory Day.
Yelena Jo Van Der Burgt, a Dutch citizen of Russian descent who attended Victory Day celebrations with her husband, said May 9 should become a day of reconciliation for all nations of the former Soviet Union.
“We have all fought shoulder to shoulder, not against Germany but against Nazism, so it is sad to watch how all of the common memory is stomped on,” she said.
But this call for unity rang a little hollow on Sunday, when troops from NATO countries marched on Red Square for the first time but many world leaders shirked the ceremony and one post-Soviet nation was not invited.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only prominent European leader to attend the grandiose parade celebrating the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Merkel was joined by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose country, home to a large Russian community, also celebrates Victory Day on May 9. Other foreign dignitaries included Wojciech Jaruzelski, a war veteran and Polish president during the Communist era, and Poland's acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi canceled their trips to Russia, citing the economic crisis in the European Union.
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declined invitations to attend, citing other obligations. Some media reports suggested that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally rejected their proposals to be represented by Vice President Joe Biden and Prince Charles, respectively, because of Biden's vocal support of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Britain's refusal to extradite Russians sought by Moscow.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the allegations are “so absurd and far from reality that they require no comment,” Interfax reported Monday.
Saakashvili was not invited to the parade.
About 20 heads of state attended Sunday's festivities, a far cry from the 50, including then-U.S. President George W. Bush, who attended the 60th anniversary celebrations five years earlier, during Putin's presidency.
Meanwhile, more than 17 million Russians, including 4 million Muscovites, took part in the celebrations nationwide that concluded with a 15-minute fireworks display, police said. No serious accidents were reported.
The parade, broadcast live on state television, showed off tanks and Topol-M strategic rockets and was followed by a military air show.
Troops from four NATO member states — the United States, Britain, France and Poland — marched on Red Square for the first time as part of what observers called a token of Russian political goodwill toward former war allies.
Britain was represented by a battalion of Welsh guards who marched in traditional bearskin hats.
Foreign guests also included veterans of the Normandie-Niemen air fighter squadron, a group of French pilots who flew Soviet planes as part of the Red Air Force.
President Dmitry Medvedev praised the allies for their war efforts, including Lend-Lease programs that supplied aid to the Soviet Union, but he also said the Soviet resistance to Nazism was “unparalleled in terms of bravery and power.”
Troops from many post-Soviet countries, including Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus and Azerbaijan, also took part in the parade.
Turkmen soldiers were led by a commander on a prancing white horse with golden hooves. The horse, from the famous Akhal-Teke breed, is a descendant of the steed that Red Army commander Marshal Georgy Zhukov rode during the first Victory Day parade in June 1945, a presenter said during the television broadcast.
The presenter also reminded viewers that Meliton Kantaria, a native of Georgia, was among the three Soviet soldiers who raised the conquering force's flag atop the German parliament building in 1945.
But Georgia was not officially invited to the parade because of its 2008 war with Russia.
More than 700,000 Georgians fought in the Red Army during World War II, and 300,000 of them were killed, Georgian parliamentary speaker David Bakradze said Sunday, RIA-Novosti reported.
Medvedev did not mention the absence of Georgians in his Red Square speech, focusing instead on the overall efforts of the Soviet people.
“We will never forget the soldiers fighting on the front, the women and children working in the factories,” Medvedev said.
In an interview with Izvestia on the eve of the celebrations, Medvedev said those who place “the Red Army and the Nazi invaders” on the same level “are committing a moral crime.”
In the interview, Medvedev harshly criticized Josef Stalin, the country’s leader during World War II, saying the dictator, still a popular figure among many Russians, “committed many crimes against his own people.”
Yury Gnatyk, an 84-year-old war veteran who attended the parade with his family, did not take kindly to Medvedev’s decision to downplay Stalin's role.
“How can we say that the war was won without a commander? We all admire Kutuzov, but he abandoned Moscow to the enemy, while Stalin did not,” Gnatyk said, referring to the 19th-century Russian commander who burned Moscow in a tactical maneuver during the war with Napoleon Bonaparte's invading French army.
Gnatyk’s sentiments were echoed by another decorated war veteran, Colonel Vladimir Korzh, 85, a former military doctor. “Hitler wanted to destroy the whole country and turn us into slaves. The victory was achieved by the Communist Party and by Josef Stalin personally,” he said.
Korzh dismissed the repressions that took place during Stalin's rule as unavoidable mistakes, saying that although “some people were repressed illegally,” Stalin “acted in very difficult period.”
Those too young to remember Stalin's crimes were ambivalent about his role as the country’s leader. “Would we really have been able to achieve the victory without Stalin? It's a difficult question, and it remains to be answered,” Vladimir, 20, a Moscow student, said as he watched the veterans march past on Tverskaya Ulitsa.
Vadim, 21, who was on Tverskaya with his girlfriend during the celebrations, had found the answer for himself. “My relatives were fighting on the frontline, and I know that they were fighting for me," he said. "If I were sent to war like they were, I would fight not for Putin or Medvedev but myself and my loved ones.”