For Soviet Union, our WWII ally, war's pains still fresh

May 15, 2013 

Little noted in U.S. media, Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting last week in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, referenced World War II when identifying opportunities for cooperation:

"I think many people in the United States ... are not fully aware of the enormous contribution of Russia, the amazing sacrifices and the great effort made as a partner, an ally, to win that war."

Kerry viewed Moscow's preparations for its May 9 Victory Day celebration and spoke with World War II veterans.

Veterans or not, virtually everyone in today's Russia, Ukraine and Belarus has a World War II story to share.

While our two nations won a common victory, our war experiences were vastly different.

Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union with the intent to annihilate it. Loss of life on Soviet soil was staggering; some 27 million Soviet people died, about half of them civilians.

That's 90 times the number of Americans lost in the war.

Some 13 million Soviet soldiers lost their lives, compared to about 400,000 American troops.

"We lost too many people, and it is difficult to forget it," said Yevgeny Martemyanov, who lives in Moscow.

In 1944, the Soviet army liberated his mother's village in the Ukraine and drafted all the boys in her class. "Only one of them came back and without an eye. The rest were killed in action."

Vladimir Sosnitskiy's mother left home in southern Russia at age 16 to go to the front as a reconnaissance scout. "She got wounded and carried to a roadside to be picked up by medical orderlies. She was unconscious for a month. When she came to, she learned that her entire battalion had been wiped out in one week."

"World War II is a living memory because in practically every family someone was killed," says Larisa Nikitenko of north central Ukraine.

Death occurred in residential areas as well as on the battlefield. The Germans bombed and set fire to thousands of cities and villages. They hanged civilians and left their bodies dangling on apartment buildings.

In a rural village in occupied Belorussia in 1943, Vladimir Holubev's grandparents were shot. "The saddest thing is that my mom's infant brother was killed with them. My mom, one-year-old, survived miraculously, hidden by her grandmother."

These memories, passed by war survivors to children and grandchildren, haunt the collective Slavic soul, which has never healed from the trauma of World War II. Tears flow on Victory Day, said Natalia Golovanova of Kupyansk, in eastern Ukraine. "Men, children — everybody — when they hear a speech or a song about the war or watch a movie about those who defended the Motherland or speak with veterans," she said.

Holubev, who lives in Minsk, capital of Belarus, but visits the site of his grandparents' death annually, knows why World War II does not generate the same emotional intensity in the United States: "Americans will never understand what it means to lose people by the millions."

"We do not want this kind of horror to happen ever again," says Valeria Rusyn of Uzhgorod, in western Ukraine.

Let's hope this thought is in Kerry's and Putin's minds as well.

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