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Putin's tribute to make history

By Associated Press
Published May 24, 2004

MOSCOW - Who did more to defeat Adolf Hitler: the Soviet Union or its Western allies?

Through the Cold War and beyond, each side has clung to its own narrative icons: the Soviets to the battle of Stalingrad 1942, and the West to D-day 1944. But next month President Vladimir Putin will become the first Russian leader to travel to Normandy for a D-day anniversary - and in so doing he will turn a new page in the history books.

"It's a sign of the new relations between Russia and the West," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. "The importance of D-day has always been downplayed in Russia. Putin's intention to pay tribute to it shows a new vision."

Every 10 years, leaders of the countries that took part in D-day gather on a Normandy beach for a memorial. No Soviet leader was ever invited, nor was Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president. This year, however, French President Jacques Chirac has invited Putin and Gerhard Schroeder, the first German chancellor to attend a Normandy memorial.

Soviet generals and many military historians argue that D-day, the largest amphibious invasion in history, was of secondary importance to World War II - that the German military machine had already been broken beyond recovery in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.

In the Soviet Union and Russia, D-day is widely known as the opening of a "second front" that came only after millions of Red Army soldiers died to turn back the Nazis.

From June 1941, when Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Moscow and attacked the Soviet Union, to the end of the war in May 1945, an estimated 9-million Soviet soldiers were killed - three times more than all the other Allies' military losses combined.

"It would be wrong to say that the Allies weren't helping us, but it would be equally incorrect to say they were helping us very actively," Marshal Dmitry Yazov, a former Soviet defense minister who fought throughout the war, told the Associated Press.

"They only opened the second front less than a year before the victory."

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, historians and news media have paid more attention to the Western allies' contributions. In a 1995 speech on Russia's Victory Day holiday, Yeltsin praised "the courage and wisdom" of the Soviet Union's wartime allies.

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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