Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

V-Day Sacred to Few Who Remember

On Sunday, for the 54th time, Pavel Luskin will try to make Victory Day something special.

"We always try to make this day different - better food on the table and vodka and wine," Luskin, 79, said with a smile. "I really like smoked beef tongue. During the course of the year, I often run to the calendar to check how soon Victory Day will be."

Though Sunday will be a day of official pomp and parades, most of the dwindling corps of World War II veterans will celebrate the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 as Luskin and his wife, Tatyana, will - simply, and at home.

Nonetheless, the day remains an important one - perhaps the most truly meaningful of Russia's many official holidays, recalling the sacrifice of the 27 million Soviet citizens who died in the war.

Frail and thin, Luskin still wears the marks of combat - a scar on his chin and missing fingers on his left hand. He isn't much for medals and doesn't wear them on his jacket. The only one he chose to get out to show was the Order of Great War for the Fatherland, first class.

Despite injuries and old age, Luskin still maintains his Victory Day celebration ritual. "I like to go for a walk in the days around May 9. I love looking at Moscow and how it's changing," Luskin said.

Luskin and his army friends used to gather on Victory Day, "but now there is nobody left to meet, they have all died," he sighed.

Luskin is a member of an even smaller subgroup of vets - those old enough to remember the terrible days at the very beginning of the war, and lucky enough to have survived them.

"Many, when talking about the war, like to talk about taking Berlin. For me the war was different," Luskin said. "For me the war started right at 4 a.m. on June 22, 1941."

He had been called up in 1939 to his anti-aircraft unit on the Soviet-Polish border in western Ukraine, an outpost on the Soviet-German demarcation line created by the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact.

When the alarm was sounded, waking Luskin, German planes were already dropping bombs. "The first bomb went into the artillery armory storage, then mo re armory was destroyed, then the tank unit and air squadron were wiped out," he said.

The destruction continued throughout the day, at the end of which Luskin's division was left without supplies. "And then we began retreating into the depth of the country," Luskin said.

Near Poltava in Ukraine, Luskin's division was encircled. He and his friends spent days hiding from Germans and trying to make their way to friendly territory.

"It is a horrific feeling to be encircled," he said. "It's like you are on your own territory, but not quite so, with danger coming from any direction. There were thousands of our soldiers and officers who died there. Many were not even buried."

With the help of local people, Luskin made it through. But he was one of a minority of lucky soldiers.

"While there, I saw Germans escorting a convoy of captured soldiers. There where so many of them that Germans had to guard them not only with guard dogs, but with tanks," he said.

Luskin's horrific memories are not unique. The Soviet forces suffered huge losses in the first two years of the war, undermined by dictator Josef Stalin's pre-war purge of the military high command.

"Sometimes we were hungry for days because the supplies were irregular. And ammunition, too, was poor," Luskin said.

However, he said the will to win was there from the first days. There were some exciting moments, too.

"Once, in 1942," he said, "I was on night duty at our division headquarters near Stalingrad. I took a walk and in the dark, to my surprise, I saw a German officer marching toward me. When he came closer I simply arrested him."

"It turned out that the German had gotten lost. But more importantly, he came from a fresh German replacement unit. He was on the way to the neighboring German position to report, and thus had the newest maps of German positions," Luskin said.

According to Luskin, although the German officer himself proved to be rather bad at reading maps, the maps were a huge help for Russians.

"I still think that catching this German was the most important thing I did in the war," Luskin said.

On Aug. 30, 1942, Luskin's war ended when a bomb from a German plane blew three fingers off his left hand and crippled his right hand. On May 8, 1945, when the news of the German surrender arrived, Luskin was in Moscow studying at the Institute of Foreign Trade.

"The spirit of victory was in the air. A few days earlier, the blackout was finally lifted. I was doing some college work, and my wife was sleeping together with our baby daughter when the announcement came over the radio."

"My wife jumped on the bed and for some reason screamed happily that there will be a day off next day and she will be able to spend a day with the baby," he said. "I just had to scold her. How could she think of having days off, when the war, ***this*** war had come to an end!"

Luskin finished his studies and worked in the custom's service for almost 40 years. His baby daughter grew up, and now he has two adult grand-children. But the war days are still fresh in his mind.

"I simply wouldn't have been able to respect myself had I not participated in the war. This was the most manly thing one could ever do," Luskin said.

In Soviet times, Luskin used to visit schools to tell the children about the war. "Back then I was able to tell a long, detailed story in one breath. But now I'm a bit worn out," he said with an apologetic sigh.

Luskin and his wife, whom he met before the war, live in a small apartment in Southern Moscow.

Like many elder Russians who lived through major upheavals, Luskin takes Russia's current economic and political turmoil in stride. "We probably live better than many others," he said. "Our pensions are the highest possible, so we don't complain. But I desperately want to know how it will all end up."