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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Veterans Bask in the Glory of Their Day

MTVladislav, left, and Nikita Dolgikh kissing veteran Alexei Dolgikh, 80, near the Bolshoi Theater on Victory Day. The boys' hats read: "I want to be like grandpa."
Natalya Mochalova may not have been one of the 4,500 World War II veterans chosen to take part in Monday's Victory Day parade on Red Square. But she was not feeling left out at all as she soaked up the sun in Victory Park that morning.

"They've had all kinds of preparations to worry about. They've had to train. Who needs that?" said Mochalova, 81. "Those of us who aren't in the parade just come here."

Hundreds of them did -- many in uniforms that literally rang with medals. They were joined over the course of the day by as many as half a million people who came to watch concerts and dance performances, lay flowers at memorials and personally thank the veterans for their service in the war. Smaller gatherings took place at Gorky Park, Yekaterininsky Park and other locations.

Mochalkova spoke freely about her experience in the war, gesturing with a handful of flowers she had been given by strangers that day. "I served in the signal communications unit supporting the Soviet Airborne Brigades on the First Ukrainian Front," she said. "We liberated all of Ukraine."

She laughingly dismissed the notion that women did not have a significant role in combat. "We had a 83-millimeter [mortar cannon] to fire on embedded troops. Believe me, our girls knew how to shoot," she said.

A family stopped to take Molchalkova's photograph. "Wait, wait!" she said, straightening herself in her chair and smoothing down her medals before she let the family shoot.

Victory Park's main entrance on Kutuzovsky Prospekt was protected by rows of police officers and a line of metal detectors where thousands of people gathered in line as the day wore on. Inside, the park's main plaza was alive with sound. A Red Army band played on a stage with a video screen showing documentary footage from the war. On another stage, Valery Gergiev led the Youth Orchestra of the Member Nations of World War II in a program of Russian classics.

Veteran Leonid Sukhovsky, 79, said more well-wishers were stopping him than in years past. "No one is simply walking by," he said. "They congratulate me. Children walk up and give me bouquets and wish me good health. It's a good sign. Many years have passed, but the memory [of the war] has survived and will survive."

Roman, a 24-year-old employee of a software company, and his friend Andrei were handing out a carnation and card to every veteran they saw. Roman explained that a personal connection had inspired his generosity. "My grandfather served in an artillery unit during the war," he said.

In a quieter corner of the park, veteran Ivan Yakovlev strolled through a display of World War II-era military vehicles. "I was called up to the Army in 1941 and served during the whole war," he said. "I worked as a guard at the Crimean conferences in Yalta and Pottsdam, which was no small thing. I saw Churchill and Stalin several times."

Yakovlev believed he knew what had kept him safe through a war that saw some 27 million Soviet casualties. "When I was born, they said that St. John sent two angels to watch over me," he said. "They were always there, following me very, very quietly. During the war I wasn't wounded once."

Former Soviet artillerist Pyotr Krasnov, 79, remembered the horrors of the war vividly. "Young people today are free to live however they like; they still don't understand what the war truly was," he said. "Maybe if they saw the villages burning with their own eyes, heard the voices, saw the chaos -- everything we saw -- then they would know."

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Vladislav, left, and Nikita Dolgikh kissing veteran Alexei Dolgikh, 80, near the Bolshoi Theater on Victory Day. The boys' hats read: "I want to be like grandpa."

He said he had been encouraged, however, by the number of world leaders who had accepted President Vladimir Putin's invitation to join the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. "They understand that politically it's important to recognize the victory of the Soviet Union," he said.

As for the Baltic leaders who refused the invitation in protest of 60 years of Soviet occupation, Krasnov said, "If they want to separate themselves from us, they should be allowed to live their own way. ... You shouldn't try to change that by force."

Back on the park's main plaza, visitors filled a 50-meter-long wooden wall with handwritten messages that ranged from the political to the personal. "Thank you for our freedom! Thank you for the chance to consider ourselves a great country!" read one message. Another said: "Dad, I'm sorry that you didn't live to see this day. I wish you health, elderly veterans!"

That afternoon in Gorky Park, veterans mixed with the usual springtime crowd of young people drawn by carnival rides and game booths with stuffed bears as prizes. People stood in line at a stall to sample free slices of the gritty bread that Leningrad residents survived on during the siege. Two concert stages featured Victory Day entertainment. The attendance was only a shadow of that at Victory Park, but that was just why veteran Tamara Pronina was there.

"I went there last year, but I didn't like the crowd," said the 85-year-old former communications technician. "Gorky Park has always been my favorite for a stroll."

She, too, had noticed the extra attention this year, and not just from those in the park.

"I got a nice postcard from [Mayor Yury] Luzhkov. Then one from Putin and another from the [State Duma] deputies," Pronina said. "I still work as an attendant in a cooperative apartment, and today my boss gave me a nice gift. Last year he didn't, but this time around he remembered me."

Vladimir Serenkov, 79, was one of a handful of veterans waiting to make a free phone call -- a service offered to them at both parks by the cellular phone provider MTS. "It's absolutely marvelous," he said of the day. "I feel like people honestly understand now all that the victors did to make it possible for me to meet with you today, for everyone to live and work together."

Serenkov recited a poem he had written that seemed to speak for many as the day drew to a close. "Don't wait for the next Victory Day," it said in part. "Go to those who still remember. / Make haste to them while there's still time."

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report.