"This is my day," the sturdy old man said emphatically.
On this day each year, he said, he puts aside his profound dislike of his country's leaders and in an act of patriotism, pins to his chest once again the ribbons and medals he won in battle against the Germans more than three decades ago.
This is an extraordinary act for this man, who-served valiantly in World War II and then spend years in a Stalinist prison. It is a measure of the emotional power that the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany still triggers here, 33 years later.
There is no exactly comparable day in the United States, one that contains within it the sentimentality and mellowed sense of exultation as this day brings to Russians. The reaction seems especially deep among European Russians, whose lands west of the Urals took the brunt of the Nazi invasion that began early on the morning of June 22, 1941.
More than 20 million Russians are thought to have died, although no one can say with certainty. A foreigner who bothers to make a personal survey can hardly find a perosn of middle age whose family did not suffer in some way.
The well-known Russian penchant for sentimentality seems to soften the sharp burdens of the past, however, and perhaps nothing with more evocative of this than the scene at the flower mart next to Byelorusskyi train station Monday. There, veterans haggled with peasant women for bunches of tulips, daffodils and lilacs to present to comrades-in-arms they were to meet at reunions yesterday.
More than May Day, and even more than the November celebrations of the Russian Revolution, victory day of what is officially called "The Great Patriotic War" seems to have a meaning that eclipses all the others. It is a time for reminiscences over vodka and cognac, for phone calls to men who never hear from each other from one year to the next, for old soldies from the provinces to seek old friends under their regiments' old standards, drawn up the night before the Bolshoi Theater.
We drove yesterday for about 75 miles along the Moscow-Leningrad road, the bloodied corridor down which the Germans fought after pulling the panzers away from the siege of Leningrad. In the center strip of the highway, 14 miles from the central telegraph office in the heart of Moscow, sits a large metal memorial: Huge rust-red three-dimensional X's, it is an enlarged version of a tank trap and marks the nearest point to the Kremlin taken by Germany's Wehrmacht.
The base of the memorial was carpeted in wreaths and an honor guard of children, dressed in the white shirts, blue pants and red scarves of the Young Pioneers, paid tribute. The scene was repeated almost identically at six other war memorials along the roadside. The children hear at school, at their Pioneer clubs, and from television and the movies of the sacrifices of the generation who are now becoming grandparents.
For the government, there is heavy political meaning in the efforts to instill in the newest generations a spirit of sacrifice for the motherland such as the country experienced during the war.
But for individuals in a society where families are small and children especially revered, the war now has another meaning.
The grizzled veteran, wearing his medals, raised his glass of cognac yesterday and murmured: "For the children . . . for the children."
For the government, which often uses the war to rationalize many of the unpleasantries in Soviet life, this is a time to try to explain why the standard of living here is so far below that to be found in the rest of Europe.
The Kremlin explanation, repeated throughout the society by officials at all levels, is that the Soviet Union suffered far greater damage than other countries, did not receive massive reconstruction aid from the capitalist countries and thus still has a long way to go.
Thirty-three years after the war, however, this does not explain all the shortcomings in Soviet life and a yound translator who had been stationed with the Red Army in East Germany for two years recently voiced his own frustation about the higher living standard he found there. After describing the comfortable housing he had found there, he blurted out: "You'd think they had won the won."