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Russia Holds WWII Remembrance; Western Leaders Stay Home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Today, Russia marked the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany with a massive military parade, the biggest in Soviet times.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

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SIMON: The Victory Day holiday is always an opportunity for Russia to honor its veterans and display its military might. But today's event also said a lot about Russia's current place in the world. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Moscow. Corey, thanks for being with us.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Give us a sense of what this means to Russians.

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, it's a tremendous spectacle to start with. You've got more than 16,000 troops there drawn up in tight formation. They march with all their banners flying. You see the very latest in military weapons paraded. And then there's a precision flyover of combat helicopters and warplanes. So the message here is really Russia is a military power. Don't mess with us. But it's also a way of asserting Russia's place in the world order, you know, one of the great powers because President Putin issued invitations to most of the world's leaders to join him on the reviewing stand here.

SIMON: Yeah, and they're not there. Of course, Britain, United States, Canada to say the least played a role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. I mean, Britain was fighting Nazi Germany while the Soviet Union was still allied with Germany. Why didn't they show up?

FLINTOFF: Well, this time they're staying away to show their displeasure over Russia's aggression against Ukraine. And in some ways, that's a humiliation for Putin. You know, 10 years ago, there were more than 50 heads of state at the celebration, including President George W. Bush. Today, there are fewer than 30. You know, China's president is here. Otherwise, there aren't many major powers. You know, you've got the leaders of Cuba and Vietnam and that sort of thing. The state-run news media here are casting this as an affront to the Russian people, you know, especially to Russia's veterans. And that, of course, plays on a very sensitive point with people here because the Soviets lost about 27 million people in that war. You know, many people here feel that the world was never properly grateful for the sacrifice. So Putin's actually reaping some domestic propaganda benefit from the absence of the world leaders. He's been portraying himself as standing up to the West the way the Soviet people stood up to the Nazis.

SIMON: And Mr. Putin made some remarks?

FLINTOFF: He did. First, he thanked the Western allies, including the Americans, for their contributions to the victory in World War II. But then he said this...

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: What he's saying here is the basic principles of international cooperation have been ignored in recent decades. And he went on to complain about what he calls efforts to create a monopolar world and military block mentalities. And that seems to be a very clear reference to Russia's friction with NATO and Russia's claims that the NATO alliances encroached on Russia's sphere of influence, especially in Ukraine.

SIMON: This is an event that salutes the military achievements of a country that no longer exists - the USSR. Has the Kremlin used the event to glorify the old Soviet system in other ways?

FLINTOFF: Well, the run up to the Victory Day celebration has just been sort of nonstop celebration of Soviet power. There are TV channels here that just endlessly replay Soviet war movies and documentaries. There's even been a recent law that makes it a crime to denigrate Soviet achievements during the war so, you know, that makes it dangerous to even discuss historic battles in a critical way. Some commentators see this as a way to revive Soviet-style thinking - you know, the acceptance of total authority by the state over the individual. Other people see it as a kind of unifying principle - you know, the idea that people have to be willing to sacrifice for their country the way their grandparents did.

SIMON: And the number of grandparents is, of course, dwindling after 70 years.

FLINTOFF: Yes. And the theme of honoring them is still very strong for people here. And this is an especially poignant time because it's probably the last major celebration where there will be many living veterans of the war.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Thanks so much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.