A massive parade commemorating 70 years since the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany has evoked strong emotions on the streets of the Russian capital. DW's Jacob Resneck reports from Moscow.
More than a million people thronged into central Moscow for a glimpse of Russia's Victory Parade celebrating the end of the bloodiest conflict in modern history.
Nearly 200 vehicles including Russia's brand new T-14 Armata tanks rumbled through the central streets as waves of attack helicopters, fighter jets and strategic bombers streaked overhead.
Natalia Fedorenko, with her back to the parade, cradles a framed picture of her grandfather Sergei Vasilievich who was among the hundreds of thousands relocated to the Ural Mountains to build tanks to repel – and ultimately defeat – the advancing German war machine.
“I would want him to see this, he did it,” she says holding a bouquet of red carnations.
“I also have my great-grandfather here,” she motions to a second framed portrait in a shoulder bag. “He died in Leningrad in 1942 or 1943.”
The Soviet Union paid the greatest cost with upwards of 27 million killed, almost a quarter of the population, and for the past 70 years May 9 marked the end of the war and a day to pay tribute to the sacrifices to a now fading generation.
Western leaders boycott
Many world leaders opted to stay away this year following Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will arrive Sunday to lay wreaths, and is among leaders from the U.S., France and Britain who declined invitations in a pointed snub to Russian President Vladimir Putin to illustrate how isolated Russia has become in the past year.
The massive show of force – and the hype around Russia's newest T-14 battle tank – has alarmed leaders in former Eastern bloc countries where armored vehicles have long been a symbol of Soviet repression.
But in Russia's capital city today people here see the parade as respect for the millions who gave their lives to resist Nazism and are disappointed by the deliberate snub by its 20th century allies.
“It's unpleasant,” said Lev, a 27-year-old computer programmer, who stood with friends outside Moscow's Belorusskaya train station to catch a glimpse of the passing military columns. “They should do this in another way; it's disrespectful. Even if they did come it wouldn't mean they agree with all of Russia's policies.”
Overshadowing what should be a festival celebrating the end of the world's bloodiest conflict is the crisis in Ukraine. Among the throngs in Moscow, some flew separatist flags from Novorossiya “New Russia” which has been the banner of militias at war with Ukraine's central government.
Indeed, the orange and black ribbon of St. George – a Soviet-era ribbon commemorating the defeat of fascism – has become the main symbol of separatists fighting in Ukraine.
Local reports say 20 million of these ribbons have been distributed across Russia in recent weeks and the military ribbons has become a ubiquitous sign of patriotism as Russia becomes increasingly isolated from its European neighbors and the United States.
In a brief speech, Putin accused the West of ignoring 'basic principles of international cooperation'
A dark history repeating itself
Leaders from Eastern countries gathered in Gdansk, Poland for their own commemorations of the end of the war. Russia was not invited and leaders there darkly warned that history was repeating its past mistakes.
“Crimes are committed today in the 21st Century amid the aggression against my country Ukraine, despite the cruelest lessons of the past,” Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said Friday.
In a brief speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a swipe at “attempts to create a unipolar world” a criticism of hypocrisy over western powers flouting international law.
“The basic principles of international cooperation have been ignored more often in the last decades,” Putin said Saturday as rows of soldiers stood rigidly to attention. “The principles which were hard won by humankind following the global hardships of the war.”
China, Russia move closer
About 20 heads of state did attend including China's leader Xi Jinping as well as UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon who are in Moscow to pay their respects. In a rare gesture towards warming relations between Beijing and Moscow, Chinese troops marched in the parade.
“Today China is our strategic and key partner,” Putin said Friday after inking a raft of Russian-Chinese agreements over energy, transport, defense and aerospace.
India sent its head of state and uniformed Indian soldiers joined the international troops that marched through Moscow.
Nagaraju, a 30-year-old computer programmer, who moved to Moscow from the Indian city of Hyderabad less than a year ago, says close military ties between Moscow and New Delhi has existed since Soviet times.
“India has strong relations with Russia and stands with Russia every time,” he said.
Russian veterans ‘pray for peace'
Despite the triumphant shows of force – low-flying strategic bombers, mobile ballistic missile launchers and heavy tanks in the city center – many said the commemoration is recognition for past sacrifices as most people want peace.
“We pray for peace in the whole world and to everyone everywhere,” said 59-year-old Soviet military veteran Muminov Kurban Ali who traveled from Samarkand, Uzbekistan to watch the spectacle.
Bedecked in military medals from the Soviet-Afghan War in which he was wounded, Ali said he lost members of his family in WWII and that it's important to pay respects to veterans everywhere.
“Today we must commemorate it,” Ali said. “It's a major celebration.”
His sentiments were echoed by 27-year-old Alsou, a geologist from Moscow, who said her presence was out of respect, not a celebration of militarism.
“I pray for peace but I don't what the government does,” she said. “Simple people in every country don't know what their governments really do. People everywhere don't want war.”