With so many world leaders gathered in Moscow and commentators debating the geopolitical consequences of World War II, it's easy to forget that this holiday honors the veterans who fought in humanity's bloodiest conflict. Thirty million men and women -- many barely out of their teenage years -- were mobilized into the Soviet military from 1941 to 1945. Millions perished in battle. Today, the survivors are in their 80s and 90s. The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe is a last chance for many of them to share old memories, impart advice, and be feted for their service.
Moscow, 9 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is late morning in Moscow's Gorky Park and a military band is playing patriotic tunes on this 9th of May. In a country that is so fond of gigantic war monuments -- where larger-than-life posters celebrating victory this week adorn so many buildings -- meeting actual veterans is a humbling experience. They are frail now, gray and bent over with age as they shuffle toward the entrance to Gorky Park. Rows of medals clink on their lapels with every step. But their dignity, their strength of spirit, and the stories they have to tell speak louder than any heroic statue. The veterans who are gathering today at Gorky Park and scores of other locations around the Russian capital come from cities and villages near and far. Many fought on different fronts but share the comradeship that is forged in times of war. And, like all veterans, they have one wish for the future -- never again. Here are some of their stories. Lydia Konopleva is 83 years old. When the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941, she had just graduated as a trained nurse. She was soon sent to the front lines near Moscow. "I served as a surgical nurse, in the medical battalion, on the Kalinin front. I was made a young lieutenant in the medical corps, on the orders of Commander (Andrei) Yeremenko. It was near Rzhev. There was a terrible battle there. All of Rhzev was bombed, shot up. It was horrible. Two million people perished at Rhzev. More than at Stalingrad," Konopleva said. As Konopleva remembers, the fighting was so intense at times that the field hospital worked around-the-clock. "At times we had to work without sleeping, even without eating, because I was servicing two operation tables at the same time. The doctors conducted the operations and I would hand them the instruments," Konopleva said. For Anton Budagov, war struck just as he was looking forward to hanging up his service rifle, having served his military duty. "I am 86 years old. In 1939, I was called up for my military service and in November 1941, I was due to be demobilized. But war came and on the second day, I was already in battle. We stood on the border with Romania. German and Romanian forces crossed the Prut River and took the town of Leova. And we were ordered to retake the communications lines of the town. That was June 23rd," Budagov said Budagov was wounded the first day of battle. But he soon returned to the front and found himself on the edge of Berlin at war's end in 1945. It was the happiest day of his life. "We met up on the Elbe. The Americans came on their Harleys. It was beautiful. Six Americans rode up, as if to say: The job is done. They drove up and we shook hands, we hugged each other. We talked and drank a glass of vodka to celebrate victory," Budagov said. For Budagov, the unity among generations and among nations created by the war is the most precious legacy that he would like to rekindle. "I came with my children and grandchildren to mark this great holiday. It is a great holiday. And I have to say that this victory was forged through everyone's efforts -- the efforts of the whole coalition: the Americans, the British, the French. We all united. We all felt we were friends. That feeling can't be described," Budagov said. Vsevolod Kaplun did not have time to do his military service before the war. He was 18 years old at the start of the conflict. He fought in -- and survived -- some of the deadliest battles of the World War II. "We fought near Moscow, then all of the [siege of] Leningrad -- from start to finish. Then the Battle of Kursk, on the central front near Orel. And then, it was near Smolensk, the taking of Belarus in Operation Bagration," Kaplun said. For Boris Kolchin, who marked the Allied victory in Europe 60 years ago in Prague, the horror of war is what he wants to impart to younger generations. Never mind the glory, he says. It is the blood, hunger, death, and destruction that must be seared in human minds. "I would have one request: Do not forget. And remember things as they really were -- without prettifying, without embellishments," Kolchin said. Whether embellished or not, in Russia -- as in most of the former Soviet Union -- there is little chance of the war being forgotten. Thirty-year-old Natalya, who came to Gorky Park to hand out red carnations to the veterans, describes what the anniversary means to her and her generation. "It is a sacred day for us. It's probably the brightest holiday, even better than New Year's, because it's not just a victory of our nation but of justice over evil. And people are always glad to see good triumph," Natalya said. Like most younger Russians, Natalya has heard first-hand about the war. Her grandfather served in the artillery units that helped liberate Leningrad from its 900-day Nazi blockade. She says her grandfather told her some wartime stories before he died. She wishes he had recounted more. But he couldn't. It was too hard for him to talk about the horror, Natalya says -- even after all those years.