MOSCOW – MOSCOW (AP) — American, British and French troops are preparing to march across Red Square for the first time on Victory Day, a holiday so crucial to Russia's identity that even parade rehearsals are broadcast live.
By bringing foreign troops to take part in Sunday's annual display of military might, Russia is trying to underline its claim to be the main force behind the defeat of Nazi Germany 65 years ago and to vanquish what it perceives as foreign attempts to diminish the Soviet Union's role in the war.
The move also underlines Russia's keenness to show itself as a confident world power willing to work with the West — although its leaders sometimes have used the day to take sharp slaps at Washington. In 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin obliquely compared U.S. foreign policy to that of the Third Reich.
Victory Day is Russia's most important and emotional secular holiday, commemorating the valor and astonishing suffering of the war, in which more than 26 million Soviets died. Observances are especially elaborate this year and Russians have been inundated for weeks by a campaign to build interest even higher than usual.
Rehearsals for the Red Square parade led some TV news programs, announcements backed by stirring music blared on subways and buses, and ubiquitous banners and billboards proclaimed the holiday.
Russians are highly sensitive to any perceived disrespect to its war actions and suspect the West deliberately gives the country short shrift.
"Everyone is trying to contest the role of the Soviet Union, so I think this is a big breakthrough," a cadet named Dmitry said at a recent ceremony at a military academy.
Foreign troops marching on Red Square "is a sort of recognition of that," he said, asking to withhold his surname because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
But the commander of the 75-man British unit to march in Red Square disputed the perceived disrespect.
"There's always been enormous recognition of the Soviet efforts within the Second World War. No one is under any illusion about the effort the Soviets put in," said Maj. Dai Bevan, commander of No. 2 Company of the Welsh Guards' 1st battalion.
Russia has complained that Estonia's relocation of a monument to the Soviet army from the center of the capital, Tallinn, to its outskirts amounts to promoting fascism.
But Estonia and other nations that fell behind the iron curtain after the war say they were occupied by a totalitarian Soviet regime, so they don't regard the Soviets as liberators.
Analysts say the fanatical Russian celebrations are a sign the country is overcompensating for its relative lack of historical achievements, and that the Kremlin is capitalizing on a rare point of national unity.
"There's no doubt the victory in World War II was the greatest achievement of the Soviet Union," said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "On top of that, this is a rare subject that enjoys almost universal consent among the Russian people."
"It can be said that the victory helped shaped the Russian identity as a nation, especially in the absence of other achievements," she said.
Russian liberals, meanwhile, are concerned that national pride is being exploited to rehabilitate the image of Josef Stalin, who as Soviet dictator was commander in chief of the Red Army.
A splinter communist group in St. Petersburg bought advertising space on the outside of a city bus and placed Stalin's image there; it also is putting up Stalin posters throughout the city.
"We decided to do so because the role of Stalin in the victory of the Second World War was undoubtedly great," said group leader Sergei Malinkovich.
"This action is a real insult to the people on the eve of Victory Day," said Maxim Reznik, the head of the city's branch of the liberal Yabloko Party. The bus carrying Stalin's image was vandalized on Wednesday night.
Moscow authorities had planned to put up posters of Stalin during Victory Day. But the idea was criticized by the Kremlin committee organizing the national celebrations and posters so far have been limited to the interiors of some museums.
Sunday's military parade is set to involve more than 10,000 troops from 20 countries and cost 1.2 billion rubles ($40 million). The U.S. unit, from Charlie Company 2/18th Infantry, 170th Brigade Combat Team, has arrived from Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Chinese President Hu Jintao are among 25 foreign leaders set to attend. The United States is sending Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.
The highlight of the parade is a flyover of about 160 planes and helicopters, including Tu-95 "Bear" bombers, and Su-27 fighters. Putin in 2008 restored military hardware to the parade for the first time since 1990.
Associated Press reporter Irina Titova contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.