Vladimir Putin’s first full day back on the job as Russian president was a time for paying tribute to the Soviet past. Russia and other formerly Soviet states mark Victory Day on May 9.
Putin laid a wreath May 8 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin’s walls, and then sent messages of solidarity to the leaders of members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. There was one notable exception -- Putin’s bête noire, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
In a message to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Putin suggested the shared sacrifices of World War II, when the Red Army beat back a Nazi German invasion, created the foundation for the strong bilateral ties of today. “The partnership between Armenia and Russia is characterized by old traditions of friendship and trust, close brotherly ties and deep respect for veterans,” Armenian Public Radio quoted Putin as writing.
In sending a congratulatory note to Georgia, Putin addressed the Georgian people, snubbing Saakashvili’s administration. “No matter how much time has passed since the end of WWII, May 9 will forever remain a day of pride and a common memory for the peoples of Russia and Georgia,” the Russian leader wrote.
For the dwindling number of veterans who remain alive, now in their 80s and 90s, the war remains a defining moment. As these of portraits of veterans by Jonathan Alpeyrie shows, the Red Army was an international force, not just a Russian army. Roughly a half-million Armenians and about 700,000 Georgians served during the war, and only about half of those who answered the call lived to return home.
Today, these veterans live in separate countries. Outside Russia, the Russian language, the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, is in decline, spoken mainly in large cities. They receive their veterans’ pensions in lari and drams, not rubles, though complaints that those pensions are not commensurate with the sacrifice they made may be one commonality throughout the region. Some had to endure civil strife that erupted in formerly Soviet states in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Surviving the war took a good bit of courage and a large dose of luck. The 67 years that have passed featured another set of challenges for veterans, including the need at a relatively advanced age to make a jarring transition from Communism to a market-based system. Thus, the veterans of World War II should not only be heralded as victors, they deserve to be saluted for adapting to the Soviet collapse.
Jonathan Alpeyrie is a freelance photojournalist based in New York.