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Churchill's reading of Russia still valid today

Russia's leader Vladimir Putin will be one of the statesmen attending Friday's 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the greatest amphibious assault in the long history of warfare.

I suspect that his thoughts may occasionally drift back east - and well might they, for what was happening on the Eastern Front was of greater significance than what happened on the beaches of Normandy.

This is not to belittle or diminish the extraordinary heroism of those who secured the beachheads, or indeed the brilliant planning (and deception) which preceded the landings. It is simply to remember that Hitler, and the grotesque evil of Nazism, would never have been vanquished had it not been for the sustained valour of the Russian people, and their colossal sacrifice (14 million troops killed or missing; another five million severely wounded, and around eight million civilians killed).

As the Allied forces landed in Normandy, the Russians were preparing for the vast battles that really turned the war. These began about a fortnight after D-Day. Around 1.3 million troops in 166 divisions, deploying hundreds of tanks and supported by 6000 warplanes, were about to give Hitler's armies a pounding from which they never recovered. These men, and indeed their generals, who fought so resolutely against Hitler's elite armies, are now largely forgotten in the West. They deserve to be remembered.

For example there was the exceptionally precocious general Ivan Chernyakhovsky. In the summer of 1944 Chernyakhovsky was just 38, yet he had already led the Russian Sixth Army in their significant victory at Kursk, and he was about to win more crucial battles in the great offensive that began on June 22.

Not once, but twice, he was made Hero of the Soviet Union. Adept and confident in handling huge forces, he was typical of the best Russian generals. He was killed in East Prussia early in 1945 when he was hit by shell fragments.

I cannot pronounce his name; but then it's hardly a household name in the West. Indeed, that's the problem.

Within three days of the start of the Russian offensive, at least 20,000 German troops had been killed. Many thousands more were taken prisoner. The Soviets drove west, and more victories were recorded as the Germans retreated. This was the probably the most successful sustained operation of the entire war. A German commander reckoned that in the summer of 1944 the German armies in Russia suffered the worst series of defeats in their history.

The Russian leader, Joseph Stalin - "Uncle Joe" as President Roosevelt of the US called him - was no democrat. As a commander he could, and did, behave with a fearsome ruthlessness that would have been impossible in the West. In crude terms, he was not fighting for freedom so much as the very survival of his country. He was fighting Hitler, his erstwhile ally, because Hitler had stupidly invaded Russia.

In March 1946, in one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, delivered in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill articulated his "strong regard" for the "valiant Russian people" and for "my comrade, Marshal Stalin". He said he understood the Russian need to secure its western frontiers. He added: "We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world. We welcome her flag upon the sea."

But then he warned that an "iron curtain" was descending across Europe. He had to "portray the shadow" that was falling not just on Europe, but the world.

Churchill's speech was acutely prescient in its anticipation of the Cold War and of the need for the UN to establish peace- keeping forces. It acknowledged the immense sacrifice and bravery of the Russians, yet at the same time warned the rest of the world about them. It caused a global furore. Stalin himself was furious.

In a way, the position has not really changed. We have to be wary of the Russians, of course we do, but we also must remember, always, that the Second World War would not have been won without them, and that their sacrifice was almost beyond imagination.

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