COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE/MOSCOW – Ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day drew thousands of visitors to the cemeteries, beaches and villages of Normandy this week, including some of the few remaining survivors of the largest sea-borne invasion ever mounted.
World leaders and dignitaries including U.S. President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II were to gather to honor the more than 150,000 American, British, Canadian and other Allied D-Day veterans who risked and gave their lives to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
In Moscow, however, 77-year-old Galina Makarenko, sitting in the shade on a bench, paused for several seconds before delivering her blunt opinion on the Allied D-Day landings of June 6, 1944.
“It helped us a little. But only a little,” said the sprightly physicist, who was evacuated from Moscow to Kazakhstan to escape the conflict that Westerners call World War II and Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was to join the leaders of France, Britain, the United States and Germany to mark the 70th anniversary on Friday of the Normandy landings that opened the Western Front against Hitler’s forces, catching them in a giant pincer movement as Stalin’s Red Army pushed them back in the east.
But while many in the West see D-Day as the decisive turning point in the conflict, conversations in the Russian capital on Thursday reflected a widely held view that the Soviet Union had already changed the course of the war, in which it lost more than 20 million people, and would have prevailed on its own.
“That is absolutely clear, there’s no doubt about that. It would have won because the people were desperate, they had gathered their strength and learned to wage war. The war would definitely have been won by the Soviet people,” said pensioner Nikolai Kosyak, 64.
The timing of the second front was a vexed question between the wartime Allies: Soviet leader Josef Stalin had urged British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open it as far back as August 1942.
According to the interpreter’s record of their tense encounter that month in Moscow, Churchill argued this would be premature, insisting that “war was war but not folly, and it would be folly to invite a disaster that would help nobody.” A “restless” Stalin retorted that “a man not prepared to take risks could not win a war.”
For the eventual D-Day assault, the Allies mustered more than 150,000 British, Canadian and American troops, and preceded their offensive with months of intensive bombing of targets in German-occupied France.
But many Russians are convinced to this day that the delay was a deliberate ploy. While D-Day “helped us a great deal,” Kosyak said, Churchill “wanted the Russians and Germans to destroy each other in this war, and to enter it at the right moment when both were weakened.”
Communications worker Igor Tolkarev, 48, said: “I think he just waited for us and decided to do it only when our troops started an offensive. Only then he joined the side of those who were stronger.”
For retired engineer Lyudmila Krylova, 67, the timing had to do with political ideology.
“Because the West had a very bad attitude toward the communist Soviet Union at that time and was interested in preventing communism from spreading across Europe — that’s probably why political leaders in the West were not interested in such a triumphal victory of the Red Army and a swift end of the war,” she said. “And then they were sparing their people, their army, their casualties.”
Her grandson, Maxim Krylov, 11, chimed in: “If not for our Red Army and for all our troops we, Russians, would not be standing here now.”
In a schoolchildren’s encyclopedia on sale in central Moscow, the opening of the Western Front is dealt with in just half a sentence, in a four-page entry on the Great Patriotic War: “In the meantime, the Allies had opened a second front in Europe, but Soviet forces had captured the initiative in the offensive on Germany.”
At a time when Russian authorities have denounced the rise of what they call “fascism” in neighboring Ukraine, elderly physicist Makarenko is skeptical about attempts to invoke the wartime spirit in Moscow’s dispute with its neighbor. But among those interviewed, she is not alone in seeing parallels between Western mistrust of Russia then and now.
“Everyone wanted to strangle the Soviet Union — and they want to now,” she said. “The whole of the West is jealous of Russia. . . . Russia is a unique country.”