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World War II -- 60 Years After: For Some Central Asians, 'Great Patriotic War' Is More Controversial Than Ever

The 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany is a time for celebration -- but also for controversy. The participation of some Central Asian leaders in Moscow's Victory Day celebrations might indicate that they are backing down from their traditional reluctance to honor the Great Patriotic War. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's and Uzbek President Islam Karimov's trips to Moscow are seen as significant because they mark the first time those two have officially acknowledged the holiday.

Prague, 9 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Controversy over the Great Patriotic War heightened in the countries of the former Soviet Union following the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

While the global conflict is commonly known in many of those states as the Great Patriotic War -- many began to distance themselves from Soviet celebrations -- and official name -- of the war.

Uzbekistan prefers to use the term World War II; it is also the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that officially canceled the 9 May holiday known as Victory Day -- renaming it Memorial Day.

However, many of the 30,000 war veterans living in Uzbekistan appear to be unhappy with the official attitude toward what they see as the Soviet Union's greatest hour.

Sirojiddin Musaev is one of them.

"Undoubtedly, the Stalingrad and Kursk battles were the most important events in World War II," Musaev says. "They changed the course of the war. However, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't mention [the Great Patriotic War] when we speak about those battles. Even though we [Uzbeks] were on Russian or Ukrainian soil, we fought for Uzbekistan, for the Uzbek people."

Musaev, and many other veterans, were deprived of the right to wear publicly their medals and orders when Uzbekistan became independent and Victory Day was renamed. No parades or wreath-laying ceremonies have been held in recent years to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany. Pictures of war veterans in local newspapers are retouched to cover up their regalia.
In Central Asia, people who are now middle-aged learned about the history of the Great Patriotic War from elderly relatives who contributed to the victory either in the Red Army or by working for the many plants and factories moved to Central Asia from the European part of the Soviet Union during the war.

"They told us: 'Don't wear your [Soviet] orders, wear only those you got from [independent] Uzbekistan,'" says Olim Ortiqov, a war veteran from Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent. "No one seems to remember that the victory was one of the greatest events in world history. Just because of what one or two persons said, we stopped mentioning the victory."

In Central Asia, people who are now middle-aged learned about the history of the Great Patriotic War from elderly relatives who contributed to the victory either in the Red Army or by working for the many plants and factories moved to Central Asia from the European part of the Soviet Union during the war.

Movies about the Great Patriotic War were another source of information.

For Uzbeks, "Apples of 1941" and "You Are Not An Orphan" are just two of the many well-known films that recount the war years.

The first focuses on the contribution Uzbeks made by providing apples to Red Army soldiers during the harsh winter of 1941. The second tells the story of an Uzbek couple that adopted war orphans -- in all, 14 children of different ethnicities -- giving them shelter, food, and care during the war.

In Turkmenistan, Soviet history has also undergone significant revision since the country became independence. However, the country still celebrates Victory Day on 9 May -- the day after Memorial Day. Mention of the Great Patriotic War is welcome as long as greater focus is given to Turkmens' contribution to the victory.

This year, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov honored war veterans -- ethnic Russian and Ukrainians.

"Representatives of other ethnicities are attending today's ceremony. Upon the request of Russia's president, [Vladimir] Putin, I award medals to five Turkmen war veterans who are ethnic Russians, and also five Ukrainians upon the request of Ukraine's president, [Viktor] Yushchenko," Niyazov announced at an official ceremony in the country's capital on 6 May.

In other Central Asian countries, attitudes toward the Great Patriotic War do not seem to have changed much.

The countries' officials celebrate Victory Day by giving speeches and laying wreaths at tombs of unknown soldiers.

In Tajikistan this year, veterans received a 300-somoni ($100) bonus on Victory Day in recognition of their contribution to the defeat of the Nazis. The award is a significant windfall in a country where the average monthly salary is the equivalent of about $16.

Sattor Mukhtorov, a well-known Tajik historian and author of several books on Tajik Soviet history, says that since the country obtained independence, the history of the Great Patriotic War has been taught more extensively as part of school curriculum:

"We used to have one or two lessons on the Great Patriotic War, but now we teach this topic for five to eight hours [of the course]," Mukhtorov says. "Interpretation [of historical events] also changed. Before we didn't talk about the role of Tajikistan and the Tajiks in the war, but now we devote much more time to this."

In the late 1980s in Central Asia, people for the first time people began to publicly discuss the Turkestan Legion -- a Muslim division formed by Nazi Germany that was composed either of Soviet soldiers of Turkic origin who defected to the Nazis, or Central Asians who left before the Bolsheviks came to power.

During the Soviet era, the Turkestan legionnaires were viewed as "traitors of the motherland." Only after independence, when members of the former Turkestan Legion visited Central Asia, was more light shed on the situation.

In Kazakhstan, only on rare occasions is the Turkestan Legion mentioned.

Legion member Baymirza Hayit visited his native Uzbekistan in 1992 but was immediately deported -- and has not been allowed to return.

In Kyrgyzstan, however, Hayit and Azamat Altay and Tolomush Jakypov -- who was captured by Nazis and put in concentration camps but faced imprisonment in Soviet camps upon his return -- attended the 1,000th anniversary of the national epic "Manas" in 1995 and were received as dear guests by then-President Askar Akaev.

As time goes by and controversy over World War II continues, veterans of the war continue to face hardships. While some who fought for their homeland face economic difficulties and struggle to receive benefits, many of those who sided with the Nazis and fought against the Red Army long simply to return to their homeland.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)

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