“Вместе мы лучше” − together we are better, said the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, head of the joint Soyuz-Apollo flight, at the opening of the 2016 sculptural composition “Meeting on the Elbe” in central Moscow. Today, 75 years after the victory over fascism, it is more important than ever to remember the events of that era and the meaning that they carry for the modern world.
This meeting of Soviet and American troops took place on April 25, 1945 near the city of Torgau on the Elbe River. It marked the final stage of hostilities of the anti-Hitler coalition in Europe, when troops of the First Ukrainian Front, under the command of Ivan Konev, met with troops of the First Army under Gen. Courtney Hodges. Photographs of Soviet and American military men shaking hands while fraternizing with Allied troops on a bridge over the Elbe River went into publications around the world.
Moscow saluted this event with 24 volleys of 324 guns; the same festivities were held in Times Square in New York.
Seventy-five years have passed since this legendary meeting, but, unfortunately, after all this time, the manifestation of such feelings and moods in the relationship between the two countries has been observed less and less. Moreover, according to a growing number of international experts, cooperation between Russia and the United States is now at its lowest point since the Cold War. Some even talk about the looming likelihood of direct armed conflict, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons.
So far, these sentiments do not go beyond rhetoric. However, in the current situation, so-called popular diplomacy assumes a special role. As politicians and the media continually instill hysteria, social contacts become an important factor in stabilization and detente.
Thus, a large group of activists from many countries, including Russia and the U.S., prepared all year to carry out a historical reenactment of the “Meeting on the Elbe” on April 25, and to discuss the most important problems in world security at a conference held in Berlin on the eve of the event. In addition to historical memoirs and honoring veterans, they planned to propose some ideas and specific projects to involve Russia and the U.S. in a long-awaited dialogue, which is so necessary now.
It’s clear that, under the current conditions of the pandemic, these measures were impossible in Germany. Fortunately, modern technology, which incidentally has been frequently used by world leaders in recent months, allows conferences to be held online. This will occur on April 24, the day before the 75th anniversary of the meeting of the Allies.
Among the event’s participants are veterans, professors of leading universities, representatives of international organizations, journalists and public and political figures from Russia, the U.S., France, Great Britain, Germany, India, China, the former republics of the Soviet Union and other countries.
It is extremely important that the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the planet does not destroy the plans of the reenactment’s organizers, but merely adjust the format itself. Indeed, in a situation where wave after wave of mutual distrust and tension cover relations between Moscow and Washington, every effort must be made to preserve the historical memory and lessons of World War II. This, in turn, should contribute to the expansion of mutual cooperation and the development of joint initiatives and humanitarian projects.
There are specific proposals: for example, the use of new communication technologies for dialogue between representatives of public and, especially, youth organizations, including joint discussions on the educational process. Some Russian and American universities already practice such dialogue, but it clearly needs to be significantly expanded.
Conference participants will also remind President Donald Trump of his promise, at the Davos forum and before the U.S. Congress, to support the idea of planting a trillion trees to deal with the catastrophic effects of climate change and extreme weather events. Why shouldn’t the Americans make the planet greener alongside the Russians − given the essence of the matter, there are hardly any opponents of such cooperation.
There are many other proposals − in particular, to hold the annual “Spirit of the Elbe” conference in April in Berlin. This phrase could become a synonym for international cooperation in combating the threats of the 21st century.
In the influential American newspaper The Hill, one of the participants in Friday’s teleconference, retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, former military attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said such public events dedicated to the meeting on the Elbe present “a rare opportunity to recall serious and effective cooperation between Moscow and Washington during dangerous times.”
Another participant, American general and current Harvard research associate Kevin Ryan, said: “[S]eventy years ago, our fathers and grandfathers fought together against a common enemy. That war killed millions and destroyed nations. … Today we not only need brave lads like Terkin who are ready to defend our nations, but we also need brave leaders who will climb out on broken bridges in order to avoid shooting at each other.”
Unfortunately, there are still many in the world who do not want to remember the Elbe, urging their leaders to use these difficult times to obtain geopolitical benefits instead of finding friends. But today I would not wish to engage in a debate with them. More important to us is the greeting received from the International Space Station crew members in outer space, who also recall Leonov’s words that “we are better together.” Perhaps this is the fairest and broadest saying that we must follow.
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