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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Gifts for Winning a Big War

Pensioners Ivan and Natalia Kulakov sat in a dusty schoolroom in southern Moscow, grinning proudly, arm in arm, as they waited to receive tokens of appreciation for their part in World War II.

Soon they would each be awarded a medal showing fireworks over the Kremlin, a certificate from the mayor, a thin floral bath towel, a wall-clock set in a ceramic plate and 50,000 rubles.

"What beautiful, beautiful presents," murmured Natalia, who worked in a truck factory during the war, as she admired her clock. On it was a transparent sticker with the words "50th Anniversary of Victory," stuck off center among the transfer-glaze flowers.

The Kulakovs were among the 1,293,000 pensioners all over Moscow who have been recognized over the past 10 days for their contributions to the war effort. The awards are part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. Of those honored, 263,200 are ex-soldiers; the rest are ordinary citizens who supported the war effort on the home front. All those who were old enough to work during the war are eligible for a medal and veteran status.

"At the beginning of the war I was 14," Ivan said. "I worked with lathes on the night shift, 12 hours a day, making armaments. It was a great struggle. Then everybody worked together, cried together. The kids today don't understand."

A steady stream of war veterans, most of them women, shuffled into School No. 770 throughout the day. "It's been like a zoo around here," said Zoya Domacheva, head of the local Kantemirovskaya District Veteran's association. Six highly polished medals were pinned carefully on her threadbare sweater, including one for being a blood donor, one commemorating the centennial of Lenin's birth and one with a portrait of Stalin awarded for exemplary service.

"I was a fire-spotter on the roof of the Central Telegraph during the bombardments. It was a very dangerous job. Those were difficult times, very difficult; I was only 18. I'm very proud of my medal, of course. We all are..." She turned away, choking back tears.

Many, including Ivan Kulakov, have also been invited by their wartime employers to attend May 9 veterans' parties, where they will receive a few kilograms of food. "It will be a feast," said Natalia Kulakova. "They will give us butter and cookies."

The average war veteran's pension is around 150,000 rubles ($30) per month; the disability allowance is 100,000 rubles more.

"Things are hard for pensioners now," said Domacheva, clutching her clock. "People used to have much more respect. It's hard to be old anywhere, but to be old and poor is terrible."

Local veterans' associations regularly hand out coupons for free haircuts, clothes and staple foods provided by Moscow city council.

"The anniversary gifts will vary from district to district," said Colonel Yury Klishevsky of the Moscow military command. "They will be getting televisions, radios, crockery and watches." For most pensioners, the special anniversary handouts of butter, money and cookies will be as welcome as they would have been in 1945.

As the old men and women received their mementos, a crowd of adolescents chattered and flirted in the lobby. Some members of the student choir who had sung for the occasion huddled furtively outside, smoking.

Some of the smokers in the yard were indifferent to the proceedings. "Let them have medals if it makes them happy," said Boris, 14, whose ambition is to become a biznismen in America. "I don't care."