Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen emphasizes that while V-E (Victory in Europe) Day—a major American holiday, on May 8, when he was growing up in Kentucky—is no longer observed, Victory Day, on May 9, remains the most sacred Russian holiday, a “holiday with tears.” And so it was this year. The day was marked by commemorations across Russia, not only by the military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. The annual events are sponsored by the government, as US media unfailing point out, but the “holiday with tears” is embraced by an overwhelming majority of the Russian people, and for understandable historical reasons.
Most Americans today believe that “we defeated Nazi Germany,” as President Obama wrote on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a misconception promoted by Hollywood films that portray the US landing at Normandy in June 1944 as the beginning and eventual end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. In truth, America won the war in the Pacific, against Japan, but the Soviet Union fought and destroyed Hitler’s war machine on the “Eastern Front” almost alone from 1941 to 1944, from Moscow, Kursk, and Stalingrad, and eventually to Berlin in 1945. Some 75 to 80 percent of all German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. By the time US and British forces landed at Normandy, Hitler had relatively few divisions available to withstand the successful invasion, many more still embattled against the Soviet Union.
Soviet losses were almost unimaginable. More than 27 million Soviet citizens died, 60 to 70 percent of them ethnic Russians. Some 1,700 Soviet cities and towns were all but destroyed. Most families lost a close or extended member. Perhaps most tellingly, only three of every hundred boys who graduated from high school in 1941–42 returned from the war. This meant that millions of Soviet children never knew their fathers and that millions of Soviet women never married. (They were known as “Ivan’s widows,” many doomed to lonely lives in the often-harsh postwar Soviet Union.) This is an enduring part of Russia’s “holiday with tears.” This is in large measure why so many Russians, not just the Kremlin, have watched with alarm NATO creep from Germany to their country’s borders since the late 1990s; why they resent and fear Washington political claims on the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia; and why they say of NATO’s ongoing buildup in the Baltic states and Poland that “never has so much Western military power been amassed on our borders since the Nazi invasion in June 1941.” All of this history and living memory underlies Russia’s reaction to the new Cold War.