Newspaper article International New York Times

Wars' Legacy Endures for Belarus City

Newspaper article International New York Times

Wars' Legacy Endures for Belarus City

Article excerpt

The memory of armed conflict is clouded again as an anniversary approaches.

There are many stops on the road from Moscow to Brest that bear witness to a history of war and death, treachery, surrender, victory and retreat, and occasional flashes of glory. Two armies took this road to invade Russia -- Napoleon's in 1812 and Hitler's in 1941 -- and both were forced to retreat along a similar route.

A week before the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany -- celebrated on May 9 in Moscow and Minsk, and on May 8 in the rest of Europe -- this blood-soaked road was showing signs of spring, less advanced in the unkempt Russian countryside than in the green, well-tended fields across the border in Belarus.

In both countries, there is little now to distinguish a battlefield from any other field. If it weren't for the markers and the monuments, the site of the Battle of Borodino, about 70 miles from Moscow, would yield little sign of the 70,000 men who died here in September 1812, when French invaders and Russian defenders fought to a draw. In Belarus, the Berezina River, swollen by melted snow, now flows peacefully through marshy grasses where, in November 1812, Napoleon's retreating army came under attack as it made a dash across hastily constructed pontoon bridges, eluding its Russian pursuers.

The history of World War II is fresher, and its memorials more evident along the roadside, now covered with flags ahead of the anniversary. In Belarus, the preparations are more muted and less bombastic than in Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin is planning a full-scale display of military might, using the Soviet victory to reassert Russian pride.

This year, leaders of France, Britain and the United States are staying away from the commemorations in Moscow to protest Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Last week, in an unexpected snub, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus announced that he too would not join Mr. Putin on Red Square, opting to host a May 9 celebration in Minsk.

The most imposing war monument in Belarus is a mammoth stone head of a glowering Soviet soldier inside the 19th-century fortress of Brest on the Bug River, now the border with Poland, which came under German attack on the night of the surprise invasion on June 22, 1941. …

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