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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Lengthening Shadow

Washington, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three out of every four Russians today recall that they or their relatives fought in World War II. This is remarkable testimony to that conflict's continuing importance in Russian lives -- especially since fewer than three million Russians are still alive who actually fought in that war.

The enormous Russian contribution to the allied victory over Hitler in World War II -- marked today as it has been every year since 1945 as Victory Day -- is not only one of the defining experiences for all Russians, including those born long after the war's end, but also the most important touchstone of Russian national unity.

Even when they have been unable to agree on anything else or even on how that war was fought, Russians have been unanimous in their assessment of the decisive Russian contribution to victory in the European theater of World War II. And they still view their role more than a half century ago as having continuing significance.

That attitude sets Russia apart from most other combatant countries that took part in World War II and indeed from virtually all other countries in virtually all other wars throughout history. And that distinction inevitably raises the question as to why this should be so.

The answer must begin with what that conflict cost the Russian people -- and also what it gained them. The German invasion led to the deaths of more than 25 million Soviet citizens, Russians as well as non-Russians. It laid waste to the Soviet Union. And it left a generation united by the suffering it had undergone.

Few have suffered as greatly as did the people of the Soviet Union under the Nazi onslaught. But at the same time, that war made significant contributions both to the Russian people and to the Soviet state, unifying the one and elevating the other in ways that might never have happened had there never been a conflict.

The German invasion and even more the resulting atrocities on Soviet territory unified Russians long divided by the policies of their own government. Faced with the evil of Nazism, Russians ceased to be split by class and came to view themselves as a nation in arms.

Many Russians both then and later have recalled that after the horrors of the Soviet system, the war for a time restored them to a kind of normal and moral existence, one in which they could act against evil and not just be subject to it.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was only too willing to sponsor this new feeling of national unity as a means to defeating the Nazis, but ever sensitive to challenges to his power, he and his successors moved against it almost as soon as the guns were silent.

And at the same time, the end of the war found the Soviet Union not only recognized as one of the "Big Three" or "Big Four" countries in the world, a status very different from its outcast role of only a decade earlier, but also as a major power in control of half of Europe and with pretensions to much else.

Indeed, it was precisely the Soviet victory over Germany that created the conditions for the rise of the Cold War competition between East and West that lasted for most of the succeeding 50 years.

But the full answer for why so many Russians continue to observe Victory Day must be sought elsewhere, in three other realities with which all Russians must wrestle.

First of all, Victory Day serves as a continuing testimony of what the Russian people can do as a people, not as an ideological construct of one kind or another.

As even Stalin acknowledged to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill near the end of the war, Russians had not fought for him or for communism, they had fought for Russia and for themselves. And because they could do so then, celebrations now suggest, they may be able to do so again.

Second, Victory Day serves as a bittersweet occasion to recall Russia's lost power in the world. No country that has suffered the kind of decline Russians have experienced over the past two decades can view such a process with dispassion. Victory Day thus becomes the occasion for remembering a more glorious past.

And third, and almost certainly most important, Victory Day for most if not all Russians is an opportunity to reassert their own moral authority. Given all the horrors of Russian history in the past 100 years, Russians can be proud that they fought and helped to defeat a regime even more obviously evil than their own.

For all those reasons, Russians seem certain to mark Victory Day not only this year but for many years to come, recalling an ever more long-ago time when they or their ancestors reclaimed some of the moral authority their own regimes had striven so hard to take from them.