2002-06-02 10:28 PM

It's June, my last month in the States. I bought my ticket to Moscow a few days ago. I'm leaving Los Angeles on June 30th (happy birthday, Dad), and flying to New York, where I'll be spending a couple of hours between flights at JFK. I'm hoping my brilliant programmer friend Ranjit Bhatnagar will come and pass the time with me before I make the connection to Sheremetyevo, just outside of Moscow, where I'll deplane on July 1st (happy birthday, me).

There's a war monument between Sheremetyevo airport and the city, within circa-1940s artillery range of Moscow itself... the monument consists of a sort of minimalist sculpture, an arrangement of oversize replicas of steel "hedgehogs" -- simple antitank devices used to discourage the progress of German Panzers -- and it marks the place where the Red Army finally turned back the German push towards the capital during World War II. To most Americans, quite an obscure little event... a footnote, really, in the grand history of the War we fought and won to save our European friends from Fascism.

Of course, it wasn't really that way. We Yanks have a rather kneejerk habit of seeing ourselves as having more or less singlehandedly beaten the Axis and saved the world. This is endlessly reflected in and perpetuated by Hollywood's highly revisionist genre offerings of the last fifty years. Our British cousins, naturally, would beg to differ, and might opine that they were doing quite a competent job on their own of waging a war of attrition vs. Mr. Hitler et al. In fact, the British, more like the Americans than they care to admit, also have a bit of an automatic tendency to see themselves as having singlehandedly saved the world from Nazi oppression, and thrive on endlessly recounted tales of brave gentleman warriors with stiff upper lips holding the dread Hun invader at arm's length with one hand while calmly sipping from a teacup in the other. Just ask an Englishman, and he'll tell you: Winston Churchill practically did it all by himself, slugging it out with Adolph for years before we Yanks finally deigned to abandon our isolationist navel-gazing and join the party (which we did only after being sent an RSVP from Tojo that we couldn't possibly decline).

The truth of the matter is, the defeat of Fascism was a joint effort that probably could not have been accomplished had either the British or the Americans remained neutral... and, to be fair, we mustn't forget the admittedly less costly, but still important, contributions of the other Western nations involved (my own grandfather, anxious to see Hitler defeated, and too impatient to wait for Uncle Sam to throw his hat into the ring, joined the Canadian armed forces and volunteered for combat duty in Europe). Even France's lamentably meager resistance to German conquest and occupation must be acknowledged, in spite of the temptation to dismiss the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys for their pre-war cowering behind the "impregnable" Maginot Line and their disturbingly early capitulation once the Line had been breached (it might also be said that the French created the environment in which Hitler was able to fluorish in the first place, but I'll leave the finger-pointing for another day).

In the East, even where the necessary brute force to resist the Nazis was lacking, key blows were still gallantly struck against the Axis -- witness the Polish workers who took immense risks in passing an intact Enigma decoding machine to British intelligence, or the courageous Czech paratroopers who assassinated Reinhart Heydrich, an iron-fisted, weirdly androgynous, frighteningly efficient and draculaic character who was reportedly even creepier than Heinrich Himmler.

And then there is Russia. Credit being given where credit is due, we would be seriously remiss in failing to point out that Russia can reasonably lay claim to having played a greater role than any other nation in the struggle against the Axis.

Colonel-General G.F. Krivosheev's stunningly meticulous 'Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century' lists a grand total of 26,629,205 Soviet casualties of the Great War (Red Army troops and civilians combined). According to Krivosheev's breakdown of that mind-numbing figure, the loss of Soviet platoon commanders alone was greater than the total loss of British or American servicemen.

Skepticism comes easily to me, but I believe Krivosheev's numbers, mainly because the Soviets suppressed the data he culled from countless obscure archives so relentlessly (before Krivosheev's work was made public in Russia, even that country's top generals had to rely on the West for reliable statistics on wartime losses)... and rightly so, to the Soviet way of thinking. Awareness of such a staggering loss of men and materiel would have put the lie to Stalin's wartime propaganda, and severely demoralized the general populace... thus, if the Soviet-era Kremlin had been inclined to fiddle with the numbers that Krivosheev eventually managed to uncover, they'd have done their revisionist dirty work in the opposite direction, downplaying the glorious Red Army's losses in the same manner with which they habitually declared crushing battlefield defeats to be crushing battlefield victories. Under Stalin, to do otherwise would have been treasonous, and punishable by the gulag and/or death.

The Soviet Union is gone, and most people, both inside and outside of Russia, are glad... but each year on May 9th, the Russian Federation celebrates Victory Day, a national holiday marked by the odd site of the old Red flag bearing the hammer and sickle fluttering anachronistically in the hands of many a proud Russian in Red Square. Western newspapers and news broadcasts invariably thrust these images under the noses of the American people, and not only fail to explain the reason for the holiday and its attendant Soviet flag-waving, they actually encourage Americans to believe that what they are seeing is a threatened return to Communism in Russia.

26,629,205 dead. That's approximately one tenth the population of the United States. Ponder that number until the annual trotting out of the flag under which those people died stops being scary and starts making perfect sense to you.

Was Soviet propaganda any slyer than our own?