Members of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team at a parade rehearsal
Tuesday in Moscow.
By Ellen Barry
The New York Times
MOSCOW — There is a lot about Red Square these days that would make Khrushchev squirm. Three-hundred-dollar Italian negligees pool in the windows of the State Department Store, that showcase of proletarian output; a 20-foot Mercedes-Benz symbol glints on the skyline across the Moscow River.
But it is still worth considering how the irascible Soviet premier would react if he were treated — as all of Russia will be on Sunday — to the sight of American infantrymen marching through the gate toward Moscow’s great fortress, the Kremlin. He might do something with his footwear; the question is what.
Never before in history have active-duty American troops been invited to march in the Victory Day parade, according to the United States military. The occasion is the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, a date that carries an almost sacred meaning in Russia. Russian leaders have taken pains to explain that the Americans — along with contingents from Britain, France and Poland — were invited as representatives of the “anti-Hitler coalition.”
Not for nothing are they explaining. While more than half of Russians greeted the invitation with approval or enthusiasm, according to an April poll by the independent Levada Center, the sentiment was not universal. In a country that still regards NATO as its primary security threat, 20 percent of respondents said they disapproved and 8 percent were dead set against it. Communist and nationalist leaders have latched onto it as a rallying cry, organizing rallies on the theme, “No NATO boots on Red Square!”
There is ambivalence, even for those in the first category. Most Russians say they believe that the Red Army would have defeated Hitler without any assistance from Western allies, Levada’s research shows. Many say the Allies held back until it was clear which side would win.
“I think it’s good, though many, many are against it,” said Fyodor G. Bortsov, an 83-year old veteran, with a smile. “I see any action on their part as a form of vindication. Invite bin Laden or Arafat. Invite Ramses the Second! Let them vindicate themselves, too.”
The Victory Day parade has always presented the Kremlin with a battery of symbolic choices. Boris N. Yeltsin broke from tradition by reviewing the troops from the foot of Lenin’s mausoleum rather than from its roof. But he climbed back up in 1996, when he was desperately in need of Communist votes. In recent years, the mausoleum has disappeared behind large posters of the Russian flag, but the Kremlin reintroduced the display of tanks and nuclear missile launchers, a show of muscle that was phased out after the Soviet collapse.
Russian sailors waited Tuesday for a rehearsal of the Victory Day parade
scheduled for Sunday. American troops were invited to march in the parade.
Embedded in this year’s parade is a symbolic challenge to generations of Soviet textbooks, which cast the conflict as an exclusively Soviet-German one, said Dmitri V. Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Mr. Trenin said that President Dmitri A. Medvedev had taken a political risk by inviting troops from the United States, Britain and France, but not a big one, and that he did it, almost certainly, after consulting with pollsters.
“The interesting thing about this government is that they are listening very intently and closely to what the public thinks,” he said. “They wouldn’t do things that would be wildly unpopular.”
Even five years ago, the reaction would have been more negative, said Polina Cherepova, a sociologist at the Levada Center. Russians’ relative equanimity, she said, reflected two things: trust in the current government and a softening of opinion toward the United States that followed President Obama’s election.
The resistance, she said, comes less from veterans, many of whom view the foreign presence as a tribute, than from Russians ages 40 to 55, those most powerfully imprinted by Soviet education.
Dmitri S. Petrov, who joined about 7,000 Communists at a May Day march last weekend, said in an interview that he had noticed the generation gap.
“Younger people think NATO is a fabulous group of people, kind uncles with drums and shiny uniforms,” said Mr. Petrov, 40, who carried an anti-NATO banner. “They don’t realize there are tanks lined up right behind them.”
Indeed, his fellow marchers varied from cranky to outraged on the subject of the parade. One man was distributing fliers characterizing the foreign participation as “a military operation, not some diplomatic step,” though the contingents of about 70 soldiers apiece will be flanked by roughly 10,000 Russian soldiers. Nadezhda Guriyeva said the reaction had been muted because Russians were presented with the decision a month ago as a fait accompli.
“People aren’t going onto the street about it,” said Ms. Guriyeva, 51, whose grandfather died in the war. “But it is a humiliating thing when your opinion is simply ignored.”
It has fallen to the leading pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, to fend off accusations of going soft on NATO. During parliamentary debates last month, Konstantin I. Kosachev, head of Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, cast the foreign participation as acknowledgment of Russia’s decisive role in beating Hitler, something he said “fully corresponds to Russia’s national interests.”
“They will come to us, to our parade, thus acknowledging our contribution in the great victory,” Mr. Kosachev said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency. He added, for good measure, that “we see NATO’s claims to global dominance in the world as the main threat.”
Red Square was already bathed in darkness at 10 p.m. Tuesday, when American troops from the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team marched through the Resurrection Gate for a rehearsal. Behind them were Britain’s First Battalion Welsh Guards in their tall bearskin caps, French troops from the Normandie-Niémen air force squadron, a division from Turkmenistan led by a prancing white horse — and waves upon waves upon waves of the Russian Army.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Hoffman, 32, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, said the experience almost took his breath away.
“It was almost overwhelming to be able to march into Red Square that first night,” he said.
“Just seeing the American flag crest over the cobblestones by St. Basil’s. I won’t say it was tear-jerking. But it was overwhelming.”
OFFICIAL SAN FRANCISCO VETERANS MEMORIAL CAMPAIGN 2010
Narrated by Mike Rowe. Video Production by Antonio White.
He could remember, as a child, watching old film of tanks rolling over the same cobblestones, not conceiving that he could ever be here as part of the Army. Or that the enmity of the cold war would seem entirely beside the point.
“It hasn’t really come into play at all,” he said. “What we’re here for — the victory in World War II — it kind of transcends all that.”
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting.
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