Where once they celebrated together their World War Two victory as allies, Russia and the West are now staying from each other’s ceremonies. This post reflects on past VE Days in Moscow, and on a journalistic hero, Vassily Grossman.
That May, as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, I stayed in the Rossiya hotel. Said then to be the largest in Europe, it sat solid on the banks of the Moskva River. On the evening of May 8th, the corridors filled with a tinkling sound. Thousands of medals chimed against each other as their owners, sometimes unsteady with age or ancient wounds, made their way along the hotel corridors. The decorated veterans had come to Moscow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their country’s victory over Nazi Germany.
Western leaders came to the Russian capital, too. The half century of hostility which had followed 1945 was over. It was a time for celebration, reflection, and belated recognition. The then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, ‘the Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today.’
Twenty years on, much has changed. Russian and Western leaders will not be celebrating together. Their views on the world today, especially Ukraine, differ too strongly for them to stand side by side. The Rossiya Hotel is gone: its brutal concrete ugliness too grim even for a modern Moscow which takes pride in its Soviet past. Gone too are the veterans, or most of them. I remember talking then to Tom, from Belarus. Of ten boys from his village school who left for war, only he returned. When I heard Mr Clinton’s words that week, I thought of Tom.
Russia was fighting then, too — against separatists in Chechnya. Grozny, the main city of that rebellious southern region, looked then uncomfortably like pictures of Stalingrad: city of suffering and extraordinary courage half a century earlier. It had been the scene of astonishing reporting, too — of which more later.
The war in Chechnya then drew the West’s disapproval, but not attending the Victory Day celebrations would have been out of the question. The hope and optimism which had come with the end of the Cold War were simply too valuable to put at risk.
It has not lasted, of course. In 2008, the West looked on with a mixture of fear and fascination as tanks rolled across Red Square on Victory Day for the first time since the Soviet era. Cold warriors in London and Washington perhaps enjoyed the guilty pleasure of nostalgia as they sensed the thrill of looking once more at what was on show.
That day, I was on Red Square, part of a group of foreign correspondents, close enough to the few remaining veterans to offer in person our congratulations on the national holiday.
Three months later, the army which rolled past us that day was at war with its smaller southern neighbour, Georgia. I was soon back in the Caucasus, writing about the consequences of a conflict which largely destroyed what relatively little remained of the 1990s goodwill between East and West.
Relations now are even worse: a source of sadness for those, especially of my generation, whose childhoods were overshadowed by Cold War, and who were relieved at its end.
So this weekend, as I, like countless others across Europe and beyond, reflect on the suffering and ‘extraordinary courage’ of the Second World War, I will also take the time to look again at the work of one of my journalistic heroes: Vassily Grossman.
I have written about him on this site before, at greater length in the academic journal ‘Media, War & Conflict’, and in my first book, Reporting Conflict. His war reporting — published in English as A Writer at War — is peerless. His account of travelling to the front in the early days of the Nazi invasion; his interview with a Stalingrad sniper; his witnessing the liberation of Treblinka: all are striking even today. If you have not read them, you should. Like the sacrifice of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, his work not well enough known in the West.