Russia is preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with various events culminating in a grand military parade on Saturday from Red Square through central Moscow.
On a recent Saturday at Moscow's centrally-located Victory Park, construction workers erected a temporary stage for speeches and fireworks as couples, families, and tourists strolled, biked, skated, and scootered nearby. Large posters of Soviet military leaders in World War II, known officially as The Great Patriot War, bordered the main promenade leading up to the museum dedicated to the war.
At the entrance to the museum are dedications to those who suffered in the war, an eternal flame and a massive obelisk with a height exactly 141.8 meters, which is 10 centimeters for every day of the war.
The cost of war
The war cost Russia, under the Soviet Union, millions of casualties, leaving nobody without family or friend scarred by the years of fighting.
Car salesman Ivan Karpov says they died so that others could live in freedom and not so that people would cry over them.
"My grandpa fought in the war and, thank God, made it home alive,” he says. “It's the same for many. We shouldn't forget it."
Law student Ivan Makarov says Victory Day is not so much a holiday as a day to remember all the sacrifices, that they weren't in vain and that they have meaning. "It seems to me that the memory of these sacrifices should tell the younger generation, not only Russian, but young people from all over the world, that war is disaster of an enormous scale,” he says. “There's nothing good about it and we need to remember that."
Largest parade in Russia's history
This year's parade will be the largest in Russia's history with more than 14,000 troops and hundreds of military vehicles and heavy weapons.
The Soviet-style parading of military weapons was stopped in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But President Vladimir Putin revived the practice in 2008, as part of efforts to harness nationalist pride over Russia's powerful past.
Construction company chief Valery says the show of military might is for Russians, “so that our people know that we are strong and tough-spirited.” But, he says it is also for a foreign audience “so that the people who think poorly of us,” he says, “don't think that we are weak and defenseless."
The 70th anniversary parade is being overshadowed by events in Ukraine where Russia has been flexing its military muscle. Western leaders, including Germany and Russia's war-time allies Britain, France, and the United States, have snubbed the parade because of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and ongoing military support for pro-Russia rebels. Western sanctions against Russia, along with low oil prices, are pushing its economy into recession.
Moscow’s “Look East” policy
But Asian leaders are attending, including Chinese President Xi Jingping, in what some say is a demonstration of Moscow’s “Look East” policy bearing fruit.
Law student Makarov says the turn to the east is not surprising. “We have good historical ties with China, our communist past, and theirs,” he says. “And since we're not receiving any support from the West, due to current events, why not turn our attention to the East? Especially since it's politically and economically profitable."
Despite the snubs, computer programmer Viktor Fedoseev says he does not believe Western leaders have a bad attitude toward Victory Day. “I think they're in a difficult position,” he says. “But the Chinese leadership is not. They don't participate in sanctions. They haven't taken action against Russia. It's simple for them to come. I don't think it's evidence that Russia is turning to the East, or anything like that. I think it's just the situation right now. It's simple for some people to come, difficult for others."
North Korea's dynastic leader Kim Jong Un was planning to attend as part of his first trip outside the isolated nation, but cancelled at the last minute according to Russian officials, because of “internal issues.”
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be attending, after first stopping in Kyiv, along with leaders from most of the former Soviet states except Ukraine and Belarus.
Homage to the veterans
Sales analyst Natalia Matukhina says regardless of whether foreign leaders attend or not, Russia should focus its attention on veterans. “The first thing is homage to the veterans,” she says, “It's the day to call them, visit them, and remember them." "Of course,” she says, “it's too bad that Western countries are over-laying these events onto our history, that they are refusing to come. But the parade won't be worse for wear."
Western nations not sending leaders will be represented by their ambassadors to Russia. Russian officials say Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is expected to attend the parade, while Chancellor Angela Merkel will arrive in Moscow one day later to hold direct talks with President Putin about relations with the West and the situation in Ukraine.