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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Veterans Hop Aboard the Victory Train

MTA boy giving flowers to an 85-year-old war veteran at Park Pobedy during Victory Day celebrations on Wednesday.
Something stopped Vasily Tserulyov in his tracks. He paused for a long moment.

Tserulyov, a World War II veteran, was riding the Victory Train, which took 200 veterans from Kievsky Station to Poklonnaya Gora for a commemorative concert Wednesday. He was speaking about his war experiences on a Soviet train when he abruptly fell silent.

Igor Tabakov / MT
A railroad worker in a World War II-era uniform taking pictures on the platform by the Victory Train at Kievsky Station.
"The sound of the wheels on the track brought the memories back," said the 80-year-old veteran, a member of the Soviet Army's railway corps who was among the first Allied forces to enter Berlin in 1945.

"The train always reminds me of entering Berlin," he said.

He has ridden the Victory Train for the past three years on May 9, the holiday when Russia celebrates the fall of Berlin after a Soviet-led onslaught and the end of the war.

"It's not so much what this day means for me," Tserulyov said. "It's what it means for humanity: Fascism will not prevail."

The Victory Train was one of dozens of events that brought hundreds of thousands of Muscovites into the city's streets, parks and squares Wednesday. Tserulyov's remarks provided a rare, somber moment in an otherwise cheerful and festive day.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Dmitry Bondarev at Gorky Park
The veterans who arrived at Kievsky Station listened to a brass band playing upbeat marches and Soviet songs before the train set off. Russian Railways staff, dressed as World War II soldiers, added to the festive atmosphere by taking Polaroid photos of the veterans with their families.

The train itself was a hybrid, combining modern-day carriages with a wartime, coal-fueled engine. The engine was a newly painted, black-and-red Lebedyansky steam locomotive. A huge "May 9" poster hung on the front, and red flags were wedged into a gap above the wheels on each side.

"You know, this day is also about respect for older people," said the train's chief engineer, Igor Balashyol. "Trains inspire young people, and through this magical train, young people can realize the gift of freedom made by their elders."

Igor Tabakov / MT
Former sailor Mikhail Podgorny
As Balashyol spoke, a nearby accordionist switched back and forth between renditions of the popular war song "Katyusha" and Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

A blast from the train's whistle signaled its departure. Whole families packed into some carriages, passing around vodka and sandwiches. In other carriages, veterans wearing uniforms dripping with medals smiled at passersby.

Rudolf Danilchenko, 76, said he was 14 years old when he heard his first bomb fall. He was lying awake in his family apartment in Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine. "They missed us, thank God," he said.

Danilchenko joined the army four years later -- after the war had ended -- and spent the rest of his career there. "After the war, I felt it was my moral duty to defend the Soviet Union," he said.

In 1990, Danilchenko retired and was awarded the Order for Service to the Motherland medal.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Ilya Pukhlik talking with his grandson Yevgeny and great-grandson Georgy.
Asked whether there was anything he regretted about his life, Danilchenko said: "Yes. I wish I had killed Yeltsin and Gorbachev."

When the train pulled into Poklonnaya Gora 15 minutes later, many veterans had to be asked several times to alight.

As the group walked toward the concert venue, Alexander Shotrov, 82 and a member of the Red Army's 1st Belorussky Front, brushed off a question about the significant losses the army suffered.

"This is a pleasant day. We shouldn't spoil it with talk of fallen comrades. Let us rejoice in the freedom that they brought," said Shotrov, who helped push the Nazis out of Warsaw and served in the Navy after the war.

Concert performers included the Moscow Choir of Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, which sang numbers including "There Are Fewer and Fewer of Us," and a comedy duo who tore through popular hits.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Alexander Shotrov riding the train.
In nearby Park Pobedy, tens of thousands of people gathered to listen to a classical music concert and watch an evening fireworks display. Families poured into the park's central square, and teenagers handed flowers to veterans. "Thank you for the victory," one girl told an elderly woman before passing her a rose.

The scene was repeated in Gorky Park. A mother was overheard explaining to her children that the "gray-haired men and women with their medals on their uniforms are brave people who struggled for us."

Dmitry Bondarev, 80, was 17 when he was drafted into the war. Each year, he said, fewer and fewer of his former comrades come to Gorky Park to celebrate the victory with him.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Rudolf Danilchenko from Ukraine
"There were about 150 Muscovites from our division who used to meet here. But now, only 38 of us are still alive."

Ilya Pukhlik, a 98-year-old former tank driver, came to the park with his grandson Yevgeny, 28, and great-grandson Georgy, 7. "My great-grandfather is a hero," Georgy said, playing with the veteran's medals.

Mikhail Podgorny, 90, a former sailor, was a star attraction at the park. A young girl gave Podgorny a red carnation. He planted a kiss on her hand in gratitude.

Seconds later, five teenagers approached. "Thank you, father. We are proud of you," one of the teenagers said. All five gave Podgorny a hug.