It is a raw April day, and the war is all around. I have driven a half hour out of the city into a landscape painted from a monochromatic palette of gray and beige.
To my left a tall grove of white birch trees hovers over lines of gray tombstones. In front of me, huge rectangular mounds of earth stretch out in rows, only identified by a discrete granite marker with a number: 1942, 1943. In each mound are buried 10,000 people.
In all, there are 460,000 Soviet dead in this vast, haunting place, the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery. They are men and women and children killed during the Nazi's 900-day siege of Leningrad, killed during what the Soviets call the Great Patriotic War. As my guide tells me in morbid one-upsmanship, there are more Russians buried in this one place than the total number of Americans lost in the war.
For the past week, I have watched this country preparing to celebrate May 9, the 40th anniversary of victory. It is not being commemorated coolly as some distant historic event here, but emotionally, with all the immediacy of a recent and nearly fatal wound. Every night, on television, there is another war movie. Every morning, the newspapers carry another story: Today it is the tale of a woman who lost nine sons.
The theme of war is as somber and relentless as the Russian music broadcast from the loudspeaker over the cemetery. It is so heavy, so constant, that I am tempted to dismiss the war as a relic resuscitated for holidays, waved in front of the people for current needs rather than past. The Great Patriotic War, after all, forged a nation out of its diverse nationalities. The war still impresses Soviets with their vulnerable place on the European map. The war still subliminally persuades many that sacrifices have to be made for defense.
But here, before me, is another reality. A small sample of death. Twenty million Soviet people died -- one out of every nine citizens. The figure translates into spouses, parents and now grandparents. Of all the men born in 1922 and sent to the front, only 3 percent survived. The figure translates into a generation of 20-year-old widows, now 60-year-old widows.
Among the older people, these memories are indeed vivid. Just this morning, Vasilisa- Kulik Emezova, a warm, engaging Leningrad grandmother who lived through the siege, talked to me in the rhythmic cadences of a practiced storyteller about the winter of 1942. For seven months, she remembers, people lived on a ration of 125 grams of bread a day. Young girls brought food rations to people too weak to get their own. Some of these girls brought back the live babies they found in the arms of their dead parents.
The middle-aged Soviets, postwar-born, talk about what it was like to grow up with shortages of everything, especially fathers. Even the teen-agers, who confess -- rolling their eyes to the heavens -- that they are turned off by war movies and have overdosed on this spring's portion of history, pay their respects. As a 17-year-old high school student said: "I don't like to talk about it with my grandparents. But it's important to remember. To forget means to forgive."
It's an article of faith with the Soviet people that Americans don't really understand war because it hasn't touched American soil for so long. Even a young Jewish scientist and refusenik whose own parents fought on the front echoed the common refrain, "Americans do not understand what Russia went through in the war."
It is also a successful prop of propaganda that convinces the Soviet people that the experience of war has made them more diligent in pursuit of peace. As a professional America- watcher at the USA Institute in Moscow tells me pointedly, "One of the main dangers in the world is that you lack firsthand experience with war." Ironically, this man was born in 1947.
In the last week, Arthur Hartman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, tried to counter some of this feeling. In a letter published here to commemorate the meeting of Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe, he wrote: "Our sacrifices remain as real and as vivid to us as those of the Soviet Union are to its people. We hold them no less sacred. And we learned no less from them." But his message was erased by reports of Reagan's plan to visit Bitburg. In or out of government, the Soviets I met found that trip to lay a wreath in a Nazi cemetery incredible, insensitive, even sacrilegious.
Walking down the pathway between these common graves, counting by the tens, the tens of thousands, I am struck by how far the two powers have traveled from the Elbe, from the time when war made us allies. What a cemetery this would have been for a presidential visit -- a place to side with victims, not aggressors. It's the victims who inhabit these grounds now, hundreds of thousands of them.
And on this damp and dismal day, at the nadir of relations between my country and this one, those great humps of common graves seem less like a memorial to the distant past and more like a warning about the future.