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In Moscow's Red Square, Putin recalls World War II glory as Ukraine conflict drags on

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russia marked the 79th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II today. In a ceremony with winterlike weather on Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again drew parallels between the USSR's victory over Fascist Germany and Russia's current fight in Ukraine. NPR's Charles Maynes attended the event and sent us this postcard.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Russian).

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Even from Moscow, snow and freezing temperatures in May are rare.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: But so too is a chance to attend Victory Day celebrations on Red Square, when Russians honor the some 20 million Soviets who died fighting Hitler's army.

ELENA KHIMICHKINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I've always dreamed of attending this parade," says Elena Khimichkina, who said she braved the cold to come see the marching soldiers, the weapons and Vladimir Putin.

KHIMICHKINA: (Through interpreter) Our president is always wonderful. He knows what to say, what to do and how to make decisions.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Minutes later, Putin addressed soldiers, veterans and a few foreign dignitaries, nearly all from former Soviet Republics, accusing the arrogant West of forgetting the immense Soviet sacrifices.

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Today we are witnessing attempts to distort the truth about World War II, a truth that is uncomfortable for those who have a habit of duplicity and lies.

MAYNES: Putin also accused the West of turning a blind eye to fascism's return in modern-day Ukraine. They claim Western governments say the Kremlin is used to falsely justify the invasion of its neighbor. Yet Zakhar, a 21-year-old soldier who declined to provide his last name due to military protocol, tells me history is repeating itself.

ZAKHAR: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Then and now, we're in a critical period that could change the direction of the world," says Zakhar. He went on to compare the Nazi siege of Leningrad, during which more than a million and a half Soviets perished, to what he called Ukraine siege of the Donbas.

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In his speech, Putin insisted Russia sought to prevent the global clash over Ukraine but warned Russia would not tolerate threats. Underscoring that message, Putin noted the country's nuclear forces were always on alert. Minutes later, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile rolled across Red Square, a rare showpiece with most other military hardware currently deployed in battle. Yet the Russian leader also acknowledged the country was going through a difficult period even as he praised the heroism of all those currently fighting in Ukraine.

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We are humbled by your fortitude and self-sacrifice. All of Russia stands with you.

ELENA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Yet not everyone is so sure. Elena is part of a movement of families of civilians who were drafted - sons, fathers, and husbands. They're demanding a complete demobilization and the return home of their loved ones. We're withholding Elena's last name out of concerns for her safety.

ELENA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Elena says her son and others like him were pulled into the war not as heroes but slaves, enduring never ending service on the frontlines.

ELENA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "In these times, it's dangerous to call for peace," she tells me. "But my son wants to go home. They all do."

ELENA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.