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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

De Gaulle's Spirit Returns to Red Square

MTA band welcoming guests to the museum, decorated with a portrait of de Gaulle.
Huddled under umbrellas in a heavy downpour, the French and Russian foreign and defense ministers opened a historic exhibit Tuesday dedicated to French leader Charles de Gaulle that celebrates six decades of close ties between Paris and Moscow.

The Soviet Union recognized General de Gaulle as the leader of France in September 1941, three years before the United States and many other countries. De Gaulle showed his gratitude the next year by sending Josef Stalin a squadron of 100 French pilots to fight alongside Soviet troops against the Nazis.

The last existing Yak-3 plane flown by the Normandy-Niemen squadron is the centerpiece of the exhibition unveiled Tuesday at the State Historical Museum on Red Square. A giant portrait of de Gaulle taken in 1943 was hung on the facade of the museum, which rarely dedicates exhibits to foreign leaders.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said at the opening ceremony on Red Square that the exhibit was a sign of the "profound and long-lasting relationship" between Paris and Moscow.

"Charles de Gaulle is once again in Moscow, and this is a good sign of the relationship between our two countries," Historical Museum director Alexander Shkurko said.

A light drizzle that was falling when Shkurko started his speech turned into a downpour by the atime he finished, sending about half of the several hundred people attending the ceremony scurrying into the museum. De Villepin and French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, seated beside Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, gamely stayed through the rest of the speeches.

De Gaulle visited the Soviet Union twice, in 1944 and in 1966. The second trip was for the signing of a cooperation agreement in aerospace aimed at preventing the United States from dominating the field.

The French general's foreign policy of promoting France by rivaling the United States was echoed in a statement issued by French President Jacques Chirac for the exhibit's opening. He said France will fight with Russia for a multipolar world instead of one dominated by the United States.

"We understand each other a lot better, the Russians and the French. We have the same temperament, unlike with the Anglo-Saxons," said Captain Georges Masurel, 82, who served in the Normandy-Niemen squadron as a mechanic when he was 19.

"I have a lot of friends among the English and the Americans, but it's not the same thing. Russians are like the French: When they give their heart, they give it all," he said.

Masurel attended Tuesday's ceremony with two former Normandy-Niemen pilots and three other mechanics.

The French pilots flew 5,240 sorties, took part in 869 battles and shot down 273 enemy planes.

"We came to Russia during a very difficult time for its army, and we were welcomed as part of the family," Masurel said. "They shared everything with us, something we will never forget."

Masurel said French-Russian relations remain as strong as ever, pointing to the two countries' joint opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

"It was stupid to start the war," Masurel said agitatedly, as his fellow veterans nodded in agreement. "This was a big mistake, and I hope that everything will end well, which is in everybody's interest. But unfortunately this is difficult to ask of Mr. Bush, who has never ventured outside of Texas. He is just a cowboy."

President Vladimir Putin, meeting with de Villepin and Alliot-Marie earlier in the day, praised the close ties between Russia and France.

"Our views on many key issues ... practically coincide," Putin said.

He also heralded defense cooperation. Russian and French submarines will conduct joint exercises in the Norwegian Sea later this week.

"This is the first such experience for our armed forces, as we haven't had joint exercises with any other NATO country," Putin said. "This is the first step of building up security based on a multipolar world."

On the business side, French engine maker Snecma Moteurs signed an agreement with its Russian partner NPO Saturn to invest $22 million in the SM146 engine, which will be fitted in a new family of civil regional aircraft built by Sukhoi.

"This is a concrete example of our cooperation in the aerospace industry. It will be further enhanced," said Alain Juppe, a former French prime minister and the mayor of Bordeaux, home to Snecma and Thales Avionics.

Thales Avionics on Monday clinched a deal with St. Petersburg-based Aerokosmicheskoye Oborudovaniye to jointly develop avionics for military aircraft, including the MiG-AT trainer jet.

The exhibit starts with a photograph of de Gaulle as a boy and follows him through his years in military school, his career as a soldier and through to his presidency. On display are his baptismal shirt and saber, as well as the BBC receiver and microphone he used in 1940 to make the speech that gave birth to the Free France movement. Nearby is the original copy of the constitution of the Fifth Republic.

The exhibit was put together by Russian and French historians and financed by French businesses. It runs until Oct. 15.