Wounded four times during the battle of Stalingrad, Yakov Kiselev spends his days on a cot in a dim corridor crowded with 10 other men.
He and the other impoverished veterans were too sick to join the former Russian and German soldiers who embraced and traded stories Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of Stalingrad, perhaps the decisive battle of World War II.The rundown Volgograd retirement home where Kiselev, 80, has lived the past eight years underlined the fact that Germany, which lost the battle and the war, is prosperous, while the victorious Soviets often live in misery.
Kiselev gets 900 rubles a month. Worth about $1.50, that is enough to buy a kilo of bad sausage in the new Russia or three packs of Marlboro cigarettes. Most of the pension goes directly to the home where he lives.
Kiselev's eyes brimmed with tears when the other old veterans congratulated him on the anniversary. They wept and sang Russian patriotic songs.
The Battle of Stalingrad ended on Feb. 2, 1943, with the surrender of Nazi Field Marshal Friedrich Paulaus to Soviet forces. The defeat crushed Hitler's hopes of isolating the Soviet heartland from the southern oil fields.
More than 1 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the fight for Stalingrad, renamed Volgograd after the death of Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of Germans also perished.
On Monday, President Boris Yeltsin used the anniversary to rally Russians who are enduring economic woes.
"Stalingrad is a convincing testament that however difficult it might be, our people can find the strength and the resolution to overcome harsh ordeals together," Yeltsin said in a statement.
He also sought to dissolve lingering hatred of Germans.
"Former enemies have become partners," he said. "We are brought together to the people of Germany by basic democratic and moral values, by a common striving for peace and stability in Europe and the whole world."
Russian flags flew overhead, but the ceremonies at Volgograd were characterized by the same Soviet-style pomp of years past.
Real emotion surfaced when German and former Soviet veterans - their chests covered with medals - met informally at the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad.
"Everybody has hugged me. Nobody has cursed us for being Germans. It's unforgettable," said Gerhard Dengler, a professor of international relations from Berlin.
Dengler, 70, was an artillery captain during the battle, which began with the German advance on the Volga River city in the summer of 1942.Comment on this story
He was one of 91,000 Germans left alive when the last Nazi unit surrendered. Only 6,000 German survivors from Stalingrad made it home after the war, many after spending years in Soviet prison camps. Of those, about 1,000 are still alive.
"I never experienced hate from the Russians. They had a lot of understanding for us," said Fritz Pindel, a doctor from the city of Coburg who speaks good Russian from his years in a Soviet prison camp.
Victory at Stalingrad was used by the Communist Party as a symbol of Soviet superiority. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, many veterans remain fiercely patriotic.
"We defended our homeland. Whether it's Russia or the Soviet Union, it's all the same to us," said veteran Ivan Zharkov.