MOSCOW – It was awkward theater for President Bush, given a seat of honor Monday in a reviewing stand next to Lenin's tomb to watch goose-stepping soldiers and flags adorned with the Soviet hammer-and-sickle that recalled days of communist might.
Russia's 60th anniversary celebration of its World War II victory with other Allied forces over Nazi Germany offered only a one-sided, rosy picture of the U.S.S.R.'s war legacy, and has been accompanied by increased nostalgia for the Soviet Union's wartime tyrant, Josef Stalin (search).
That poses some difficulty for a U.S. president who has made democracy's spread the singular foreign-policy cause of his second term. Nonetheless, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's (search) grand World War II victory party went forward, Bush allowed him his day in the global spotlight. The two put aside their public sniping of recent days over postwar Soviet domination and present-day democratic backsliding in Russia.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was totally comfortable amid the trappings of communist power. It demonstrates "how far we've come in the world," Bartlett said. Ten years ago, then-President Clinton came to Moscow on the 50th anniversary of V-E Day but boycotted the military parade to protest Moscow's brutal military campaign in Chechnya (search).
Continuing the chummy exchanges that marked their discussions and dinner the evening before, the two smiled broadly when Bush arrived for the parade. As Bush lowered his umbrella, despite the rain, for a snapshot, Putin laughingly did the same. Putin reserved the seat next to him for Bush — whom he called his guest of "special importance" above all others. Later, Bush remained glued to the Russian leader's side as they strolled, red carnations in hand, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The public niceties might not last long.
On Tuesday, Bush delivers an ode to democracy in an ex-Soviet republic on Putin's doorstep. Right after the Moscow ceremonies, Bush travels to Georgia, which is trying to turn away from the Kremlin and toward the West.
It's not often that Bush goes anywhere without being the top attraction. But in Moscow, Bush was merely seen alongside dozens of other world leaders who were treated to columns of soldiers in WWII-era uniforms, fighter jets screaming over Red Square, and troops belting out patriotic wartime songs.
There was to be no public word from Bush all day.
The lavish events, in which old allies and foes marked the end of World War II in Europe, were very different from the solemn V-E Day commemoration Bush observed the day before. Accompanied by few dignitaries and little pomp, Bush spoke briefly Sunday at a cemetery of American war dead in the Netherlands.
Bush said he decided to attend to honor the war's staggering cost in Soviet lives; nearly 27 million soldiers and citizens in the Soviet Union died before victory was secured.
"The people of Russia suffered incredible hardship, and yet the Russian spirit never died out," Bush said.
Though the triumph over Hitler is treasured here as an unvarnished achievement, others see it differently. Bush has been trying to get Putin to acknowledge some of the darker wartime actions by the Soviet Union, such as its postwar occupation of the neighboring Baltic nations. Before coming to Moscow, Bush travelled to Latvia to deliver that message pointedly and in person.
Quietly continuing his campaign for democratic progress in Russia and beyond, Bush met privately with local civil society leaders before the parade. Causing open irritation from Putin, Bush has also expressed concerns about Putin's commitment to democracy at home.
The president broached the subjects in his talks with Putin Sunday, but national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the emphasis was on areas of agreement and the need to move on to many other important elements of the U.S.-Russia relationship. To that end, the leaders found wide agreement on the need to support Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) and fight terrorism.
The evening at Putin's dacha produced a happy picture of the two presidents — with Bush and Putin trading jokes, waving happily at reporters from Putin's prized 1956 Volga and extending their evening far beyond its allotted time. Bush even complimented Putin on a speech that had raised eyebrows in Washington last month when the Russian leader said the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
"Russia is a great nation, and I'm looking forward to working together on big problems," Bush told his host.
But Bush aims to close out his five-day, four-country European trip Tuesday on a note that leaves talk of Stalin and Soviet oppression far behind — and may arouse Putin's anger again. In Tbilisi, Georgia Bush intends to hold up the freshly democratic nation as an example for other countries — in Putin's neighborhood and elsewhere.