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Russia: Victory Day A Bitter Holiday For Many Veterans (Part 1)

Russia today celebrates Victory Day to commemorate the millions of soldiers and civilians who perished in World War II. Veterans mark the day by wearing their military orders and medals, and public respect is still high for those who served in the war. But a veterans' spokesman says the lives of millions of servicemen and women are scarred by disappointment at what they see as a lack of gratitude for the sacrifices made in defeating the German army 57 years ago. Moreover, the growing prevalence of neo-Nazi gangs in Russia has only added to the woes of the veterans, who say the skinhead presence mocks their achievements in the fight against fascism.

Moscow, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL)) -- Their chests bristling with medals, hundreds of aging World War II veterans gathered today on Moscow's Red Square to commemorate the Soviet Union's role in the allied victory over the Nazis 57 years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, addressing more than 5,000 military personnel gathered for the event, used the occasion to liken the fight against fascism to the current global fight against terror. Putin pointed to the reappearance on Earth of "forces of evil" that have the potential to become "as dangerous as Nazism." Putin called on the Russian people to join forces in battle against a common enemy, much as they once did against fascism.

"Today, we will once again unite, and we are uniting against a common threat. Its name is terrorism," Putin said.

Victory Day remains one of the most significant public holidays in Russia, where even young people are raised to respect the memory of the 1941-45 struggle, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

The Soviet Union entered the war after a nonaggression pact between Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler was broken and German troops attacked the country in June 1941. Some 34 million people were mobilized for service during the war. Today, nearly all Russian families have at least one relative who served.

The Red Army was instrumental in securing an Allied victory over Hitler's forces and are credited with liberating much of Europe from Nazi oppression. But the victory came at a high cost for the Soviet Union. Some estimates put the number of Soviet deaths during the struggle at a staggering 27 million. Even today, the war remains a deeply emotional issue for many Russians.

Russian television this week marked Victory Day -- also called "the holiday with tears in its eyes" -- in traditional style, broadcasting well-known war films and performances of popular war songs.

Viktor Gaevskii is the deputy chairman of the Moscow Veterans Committee of World War II. Gaevskii, a retired colonel, took part in the capture of the Austrian capital, Vienna, in April 1945. He said his memories of the war are still vivid. He remembers it as a time when the Soviet people were truly united in a single cause: to defeat the Nazis.

"The most significant thing was the harmony and the friendship among people of different nationalities: Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Georgians. Everybody fought under one banner, against fascism," Gaevskii said.

Gaevskii said Victory Day, however, has evolved into a bitter occasion for many veterans, who say their meager state pensions are inadequate compensation for the tremendous hardships endured during the Great Patriotic War.

Although retired servicemen do enjoy certain benefits, such as free public transportation, their pensions fall well below livable standards. A retired colonel may receive a maximum of 3,000 rubles a month -- about $100 -- and former frontline soldiers receive even less -- between 1,200 and 1,500 rubles, or $40 to $50.

"[Veterans] don't have a good life in Russia. It has been almost three years since our government last increased servicemen's pensions. Civil pensions have been increased, but not the military ones. [The government] pledged to increase the salary and pensions for the military on 1 July. But we doubt that will happen. We've been promised that the [minimal] pension will be increased to 1,800 rubles [$60] or even doubled. But the retired servicemen will be deprived of their main benefits," Gaevskii said.

In remarks to veterans yesterday, Putin reiterated the pledge to raise pensions by 1 July and guaranteed other benefits as well. But Gaevskii said that even if pensions are doubled, they still will not be enough to meet the cost of living in Russia, which is becoming increasingly expensive.

Gaevskii spoke bitterly about Russia's transition to democracy, saying the past decade of reforms has done little, if anything, to improve the lives of average citizens. Under the Soviet system, he said, the country was able to rebuild from the devastation of World War II in just five years.

"After World War II, in five years' time, we were able not only to rebuild what was destroyed during the war, but also to make some sectors of our national economy surpass pre-war levels. If before the war we were the second industrial world power, after the United States of America, now we have rolled down to 57th place," Gaevskii said.

This situation, Gaevskii said, has left many people believing that the Soviet Union -- and now Russia -- would have been better off if it had surrendered to the Nazis. That way, he said, the country would have at least been able to have enjoyed the benefits of U.S. aid offered to Europe under the Marshall Plan.

"People say: 'If we hadn't won the war, we might be living better now.' Look at Germany. We destroyed it, but now they live better than we do. Perhaps it wasn't worth the lives of 27 million people and 30 percent of our national wealth. [People say: 'It would have been better] to surrender to the enemy and then to use the help of Uncle Sam and others to quickly recover,'" Gaevskii said.

Gaevskii said that in addition to low wages and pensions, the ongoing military operation in Chechnya has contributed to a growing disenchantment with the army in Russia. Moreover, he said, many veterans feel humiliated by the recent rise of neo-Nazi gangs in Russia, who they say mock their achievements in World War II and the battle against fascism.

Pavel Dyuzhev, a 19-year-old student in Moscow, said that, although he appreciates what the veterans did for the country, he feels they were not successful in defeating Nazism for all time.

"Half of my relatives died because of [World War II]. For that reason, I respect our veterans. They fought, after all. But if we still have Nazi groups, it means that [the veterans] were unable to defeat [the Nazis] once and for all. They didn't fully destroy them," Dyuzhev said.

World War II officially ended on 8 May 1945 with the surrender of the German Supreme Command. The news was broadcast in the Soviet Union with these words: "The Great Patriotic War has ended triumphantly. Germany has been fully defeated."

The announcement was rebroadcast by television stations throughout Russia this week.