His father wounded, an elder brother he never knew dead, his mother abandoned and left for dead and millions of his countrymen killed. All of this and more must have been going through President Vladimir Putin's mind as he laid a large flower wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow on June 22, 2001, the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia.
Putin is by far not in the minority when it comes to personal sorrow and pride on this anniversary. In the pre-dawn hours, old veterans appeared at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to place flowers, light candles and remember fallen comrades and innocent victims. At this same hour, sixty years ago, Nazi troops passed onto Soviet soil to commence a siege that caught most citizens by surprise.
While Stalin had numerous warnings from his military advisors that Hitler's attack was eminent, he did not heed their advice. When it was all said and done, over 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.
In addition to these deaths, countless more perished at the hands of Joseph Stalin. On June 14, 1941, Stalin had thousands of Estonians herded off to Siberia because he suspected their disloyalty to the Soviet Union. Countless perished. Hitler managed to take a large number of Soviet prisoners during his siege on Russia. When those who survived the Nazi camps were returned to Russia, Stalin put many in Soviet prison camps where countless died.
For most of the world and according to many high school history books, WWII lasted from 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor to 1945 and the Japanese surrender. The Soviet Union, in fact, entered the war in 1939 when, under their Nonaggression Pact of 1939 with Germany, they invaded and overcame Poland. Secretly, an addendum had been added to the Pact. In it, Poland and the whole of Eastern Europe was divided up between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets received Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Poland east of a line formed by the Vistula and San rivers. Hitler became greedy and was determined to take over the Soviet Union as soon as he obtained control of Europe, regardless of the pact that he had with Stalin. He lost a critical attempt to control Britain and feared that the British would seek help from the Soviet Union.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union set off the Patriotic War, Russia's name for WWII. Soviet participation and membership in the Allied forces was for the purpose of defending its own borders and Russia itself. It has been speculated that if Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union, Stalin may well have never entered WWII and would have continued to supply the Nazis with the materials of war. A worse scenario would have been if Stalin had added troops to Hitler's forces. The outcome of WWII in Europe might have been very different.
Hitler, initially, managed to take large portions of the Soviet Union, west of the Urals, with sweeping panzer movements. His goal was to take down the Soviets, gain control of Moscow and proceed over the Urals to where Stalin had positioned the bulk of his manufacturing plants. Ironically, Napoleon tried to take Moscow, beginning in mid-June of 1812. His attempt was much more short lived than Hitler's and just as unsuccessful.
After tremendous suffering, loss of life and bloodshed, the Soviet Union managed to turn the tide with victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942 and 1943. Hitler was run out of the Soviet Union and, like Napoleon, was followed by an army of determined Russians with a blood debt to settle. The Red Army pushed Hitler back to Berlin and captured that city in the early days of May 1945. Allied forces entered Berlin from the west and the end of WWII in Europe; the Patriotic War; was declared on May 9th. This is celebrated in Russia as Victory Day.
June 22 is a date that means little to the rest of the world and is acknowledged only in other nations effected by Hitler's siege, namely Ukraine and Belarus. Russians see the eventual victory over Hitler as a testament to their strength of endurance and tenacity of determination. They, also, see it, especially the victory at Stalingrad, as a decisive turning point in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.
Today's commemoration is a bitter-sweet one. Russia is seen as a mere shadow of its former super-power self. It continues to struggle to establish its place in the post-Cold War world community. The past ten years have been marked with economic and political upheaval; internal problems characteristic of a huge nation adjusting to democracy and capitalism for the first time in its long history. Russia and its people are possibly the most misunderstood of the world's major nations. President Putin has stated that he welcomes meetings with U.S. President Bush and other Western leaders for the opportunity to explain, albeit over and over, the Russian people and the reasons behind Russia's attitudes and positions on various international issues.
The slaughter of millions of ones countrymen on their home soil by an occupying force is something most Americans cannot imagine nor understand the impact such an event has on the heart and soul of a nation and people. Knowledge and appreciation of today's anniversary and the events of the following years of the Patriotic War will go far in understanding Russia.
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