MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart from Belarus on Tuesday unveiled a monument honoring fallen Red Army soldiers who fought in one of the most bloody battles of World War II.
Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko traveled to the village of Khoroshevo, just outside Rzhev, about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northwest of Moscow for a somber ceremony that involved goose-stepping troops laying wreaths to the towering figure of a soldier.
The battle of Rzhev, in which the Red Army launched a series of offensives in 1942-1943 to dislodge the Wermacht from its positions close to Moscow, involved enormous Soviet losses from persistent, poorly prepared attacks against well-fortified Nazi positions.
Putin said that 1.3 million Red Army soldiers were killed, wounded in combat or went missing in action during the fighting around Rzhev that raged for more than a year.
The battle, which became known as “the Rzhev meat grinder,” was largely neglected by Soviet propaganda and official historians because of the Red Army’s huge losses and its generals’ blunders.
“It’s impossible to think without pain about the colossal losses that the Red Army suffered,” Putin said. He added that “not so long ago, official history didn’t consider it proper to talk too much about the fighting near Rzhev.”
The Russian president, who takes a deeply emotional attitude to World War II history, said that “we will always remember the high price the Soviet people paid for the victory.”
The Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people in what it called the Great Patriotic War. Victory Day, which is celebrated on May 9, is the nation’s most important secular holiday.
The Red Square parade, postponed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, was held on June 24, marking the day in 1945 when the first parade was held on Red Square after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Putin’s insistence on holding the ceremony reflected not only his desire to showcase Russia’s military might but also to boost patriotic sentiments before a constitutional vote that could allow him to remain in office until 2036.
The nationwide plebiscite on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday after a week of early balloting.
Speaking in a televised address to the nation with the towering war monument behind him, Putin invoked the heroism of Red Army soldiers to urge people to cast ballots, describing the vote as a landmark step in the nation’s history.
“We are continuing on that unstoppable, millennium-long journey,” Putin said. “And we know that when we are together we can tackle the most difficult tasks even in a critical situation.”