George W Bush was given a seat of honour today in a reviewing stand next to Lenin’s tomb to watch goose-stepping soldiers and flags adorned with the Soviet hammer-and-sickle that recalled days of communist might.
Russia’s 60th anniversary celebration of its Second World War victory with other Allied forces over Nazi Germany offered a rosy picture of the USSR’s war legacy, and has been accompanied by increased nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s wartime tyrant, Josef Stalin.
That poses some difficulty for a US president who has made democracy’s spread the singular foreign-policy cause of his second term.
Nonetheless, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand victory party went forward, Bush allowed him his day in the global spotlight. The two put aside their public sniping of recent days over post-war Soviet domination and present-day democratic backsliding in Russia.
White House counsellor Dan Bartlett said Bush was totally comfortable amid the trappings of communist power. It demonstrates “how far we’ve come in the world”, Bartlett said.
Ten years ago, then-President Bill Clinton visited Moscow on the 50th anniversary of VE Day but boycotted the military parade to protest Moscow’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya.
On Tuesday, Bush delivers an ode to democracy in an ex-Soviet republic on Putin’s doorstep.
Right after the Moscow ceremonies, Bush travels to Georgia, which is trying to turn away from the Kremlin and toward the West.
It’s not often that Bush goes anywhere without being the top attraction. But in Moscow, Bush was merely seen alongside dozens of other world leaders who were treated to columns of soldiers in Second World War-era uniforms, fighter jets screaming over Red Square, and troops belting out patriotic wartime songs.
There was to be no public word from Bush all day.
The lavish events, in which old allies and foes marked the end of war in Europe, were very different from the solemn VE Day commemoration Bush observed the day before.
Accompanied by few dignitaries and little pomp, Bush spoke briefly at a cemetery of American war dead in the Netherlands.
Bush said he decided to attend to honour the war’s staggering cost in Soviet lives; nearly 27 million soldiers and citizens in the Soviet Union died before victory was secured.
“The people of Russia suffered incredible hardship, and yet the Russian spirit never died out,” Bush said.
Though the triumph over Hitler is treasured in Russia as an unvarnished achievement, others see it differently.
Bush has been trying to get Putin to acknowledge some of the darker wartime actions by the Soviet Union, such as its post-war occupation of the neighbouring Baltic nations. Before coming to Moscow, Bush travelled to Latvia to deliver that message pointedly and in person.