April 25 was “Elbe Day,” when Russian and American soldiers met and shook hands over the Elbe River in Germany, marking a major step toward ending that bloody and wasteful war. The impact on the Russian memory of World War II must be understood—yes, even today. When you mention “The War” to an American, depending on his age, he thinks of Vietnam, Korea, or if over 70, World War II. If under 40, he may think you mean Iraq or Afghanistan.. But to a Russian “The War” can only be “The Great Patriotic War.”
The American public, far from the action and involved only in what the media brought us in those black and white newsreel days, to this day still do not understand what a cataclysmic happening World War II was for the Russian people and the sacrifices they made. Over 20 million Russians died to help turn the war into victory for us all. History is slowly setting this right. For them the color of the war was the color of the blood of their men, women and children.
On a Friday afternoon, it was the 50th Anniversary of the war’s end, I was surprised to find I was a featured speaker for a celebration party of the security guards in the basement of my old Moscow office building, still bullet scarred from the events of October, 1993. These security guards, all in their 70s, offered little security in fact, except smiles and greetings to most of us and a few questions to strangers. There they were in their drooping gray suit coats, the bemedalled Russian veterans, sitting with their beer and blini, looking at me to say something patriotic. I told them that although I was a 13-year-old kid playing soldier in the sands of Texas while they were dying in the mud of Europe, I kept a map on the kitchen wall and knew who generals Zhukov and Timoshenko were, and that made the old men smile. When I told them I drove a tank in Korea, they called me brother. When I said that wars were not started by soldiers like us, but stupid politicians and greedy dictators, then they cheered.
There was a parade the next day as we always saw in the past on TV, with thundering newly painted tanks and rocket launchers, and flybys of SU-27s and MIG-29s, but everyone knew it was a charade. Untrained Russian soldiers were dying in Chechnya without truck parts, ammunition, food, or even maps. The VIPs, ironically, rode in new black Mercedes, making one wonder who really won The Great Patriotic War.
I met a hero of that war on that Victory Day. It was May, 1995. Sitting proudly across from me on the Moscow subway was a wrinkled veteran with a kindly face, his threadbare oversized suit coat burdened with medals, including the red-ribboned gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union. As we stood to leave, he asked, “Aren’t you Russian?”
“No,” I answered, “I am an American.”
He stopped in the push of the departing crowd and faced me. With firm hands, he grasped mine and shook them hard. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Americans are brave soldiers. I met them on the Elbe River.” He was there at that historic meeting of the two allied armies 50 years before. We congratulated each other warmly for being allies fighting a common enemy and went our different ways—as did our countries after that time long ago. I felt small, and yet honored. I remember the feel of his hands, firm, smooth, and warm, friendly hands. He stood and walked straight as an arrow. There was a hero.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.