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Russia: Estonia Row Clouds Victory Day Ceremonies

Russian soldiers training for the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow (epa) MOSCOW, May 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia marks Victory Day on May 9, the day 62 years ago Russians remember as the end of WWII and victory over Nazi Germany.

This year the event has been marred by a dispute between Russia and Estonia over the relocation of a Soviet memorial in Tallinn.

From Moscow To Germany

Boris Ochkin fingers the long line of medals on his lapel and remembers the day 62 years ago when the Soviet Army claimed victory in Berlin.

"Of course we feel very indignant about [the Estonian monument removal]," one veteran says. "They shouldn't have done it. To remove it -- that was like spitting at us veterans on our souls. "

"We celebrated with gun shots and with anything else we could lay our hands on," Ochkin says. "With submachine guns, with everything we could find. And of course we drank to victory. We drank toasts, but not to the extent that we lost our wits."

Ochkin joined the Red Army as a cadet in 1941, and over the next four years he fought from the outskirts of Moscow westward toward Nazi Germany. He remembers how the Soviet troops fought against German tanks with only small arms and grenades.

"And then Berlin," Ochkin says. "And those were not easy battles either. Then, after the war, I was made assistant to the Soviet military commandant in Berlin, in charge of the Citizens' Assembly. That was how I spent the war."

The Wrong Way, The Wrong Time

On May 9, Ochkin will join thousands of other veterans on Moscow's Red Square to remember the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. But this year the occasion has been overshadowed by the removal of a Soviet war memorial in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

The dispute has led to demonstrations in Tallinn and Moscow and a war of words between the two governments. The Estonian Embassy in Moscow has temporarily closed, after protesters from youth groups sponsored by the Kremlin camped outside for days, throwing stones and intimidating embassy staff. The demonstrations drew criticism from NATO and EU leaders.

Ochkin says moving the memorial in Tallinn has upset many war veterans in Moscow.

"Of course we feel very indignant about this," he says. "They shouldn't have done it. To remove it -- that was like spitting at us veterans on our souls. That was wrong. They could have discussed it gradually, and then moved it to a different place in a decent way, not in the way the Estonians have done. It's like swearing at our military. But now it's become politics."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Western organizations of desecrating the memory of Soviet soldiers killed in World War II, and rewriting history.

Mikhail Borisov, another Soviet veteran, agrees. He recalls a story told to him about a grandfather and grandson in Eastern Europe.

World War II veteran Mikhail Borisov (RFE/RL)

"The little boy says: 'Grandfather, what's this monument?' and the old man says: 'That was put there by the Russian occupiers,'" Borisov says. "How were we occupiers when we were met with flowers? I myself had my boots kissed. I was on horseback and an old man came up to me [and kissed my boots]. No one was forcing him. [It was the same in] Czechoslovakia, Romania, everywhere. And in the Baltic States, too, when Russian troops came in 1940 -- just look at the history books."

Borisov agrees the Estonians chose the wrong time to move the memorial.

"The worst thing is that they did this just before Victory Day," he says. "If they'd waited, the noise would have died down. They could have talked to the Russian community there, moved it to a cemetery with a proper ceremony. You need to observe international conventions."

But Ochkin says today's generation has a poor understanding of what went on 62 years ago. He regularly gives "lessons in courage" at schools in Moscow.

"All they want to know is how deep Hitler's bunker was," Ochkin says. "But when you ask them: 'Do you know who was the greatest Russian general?' They're silent. They don't know to answer [Marshal Georgy] Zhukov or [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin."

Estonian leaders have asked for cooperation with Russia over the monument row. But there are fears Victory Day in Russia could reignite the anger felt by many Russians at the relocation of the war grave.

World War II: 60 Years On

World War II: 60 Years On

A microsite devoted to RFE/RL's coverage of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May 2005.

See also:

60 Years Later, Nagasaki Bomb Witness Is Finally Heard

For One Hiroshima Survivor, A Journey From Hate To Reconciliation