MOSCOW -- Facing an unscripted and potentially difficult session today with President Boris N. Yeltsin, President Clinton told Russians at their V-E Day celebration yesterday what they have long hoped to hear: that America at last is willing to recognize the tremendous sacrifice made by the Soviet people in the war against Hitler.
In a country where 27 million people died as a result of the war -- where entire cities were wiped out, where virtually every family suffered a death -- the last half-century of peace has included a rankling resentment about the way the Western Allies seemingly slighted the Soviet role.
Mr. Clinton, banking on personal rapport to bring success to his summit today with Mr. Yeltsin, acknowledged yesterday that PTC American understanding of the war was clouded by distrust born of the Cold War.
"The Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today," Mr. Clinton said.
"Now we must all say you wrote some of the greatest chapters in the history of heroism -- at Leningrad, in the battle for Moscow, in the defense of Stalingrad, and in the assault on Berlin, where your country lost 300,000 casualties in only 14 days."
For his part, Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday that the war could not have been won without the Western Allies, particularly Great Britain and the United States -- which was a departure, as well, from the Moscow rhetoric of the past.
All this was more than just polite talk. The war is still a very real presence in Russia, and its wounds still run deep.
Moreover, resentment of the West in general has only multiplied with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the deep economic crisis into which Russia has plunged.
Yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin's government put on a grand spectacle to mark the 50th anniversary of Germany's surrender: parades, concerts, solemn church services, the arrival of more than 50 heads of state, a Kremlin dinner for the leaders of five major powers, and an evening of fireworks -- grander than anything here since the last czarist coronation, in 1896.
If it was intended to restore a little pride to this hard-bitten nation, Mr. Clinton, in his remarks, was happy to go along.
"I have come here today on behalf of all the people of the United States to express our deep gratitude for all that you gave and all that you lost," he said, at ceremonies dedicating the new Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
"It is fitting," he said later at the Kremlin banquet, that the war's end should be celebrated in Russia, "where virtually every family had a loss to mourn and a hero to remember."
In the morning, as aged Russian veterans marched through Red Square, Mr. Clinton turned to an aide and said: "I just can't get over the faces. The faces are incredible."
Today, Mr. Clinton will try to capitalize on some of those feelings, but his task will not be an easy one.
He will be arguing against Russia's planned sale of nuclear reactors and technology to Iran. Mr. Yeltsin will be arguing against a rapid eastward expansion of NATO. Mr. Clinton will be expressing U.S. concern about Russian conduct in Chechnya.
On none of those issues is one man likely to persuade the other. On none is the outcome likely to be clear.
"Boris Yeltsin is a decision-maker," Mike McCurry, Mr. Clinton's spokesman, said yesterday, "and it's clear that many of the things that are in place for discussion will not be resolved until he, face to face, has an opportunity to discuss them with President Clinton."
Success, Mr. McCurry said, will be a matter of shadings rather than blacks and whites.
On the sale of nuclear technology to Iran, for instance, "If we can make President Yeltsin more sensitive to our proliferation concerns and find a way to deal with that issue as time progresses, we would consider that an important outcome."
Mr. Clinton is not on his own.
Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, met with Mr. Yeltsin yesterday, and they talked about NATO, nuclear sales and Chechnya.
John Major, the British prime minister, also spoke with Mr. Yeltsin about NATO. John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, said he planned to discuss Chechnya with Andrei V. Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister.
But there wasn't much question about who was the star guest. As the leaders of all the World War II Allies looked out on Red Square yesterday, they saw, draped down the side of the museum where Marx and Lenin used to be pictured on holidays, a huge banner showing a grinning Soviet soldier greeting an American.
So it is up to Mr. Clinton to have the final word with Mr. Yeltsin.
The war in breakaway Chechnya, which has seen so much destruction by Russian forces, may be the least susceptible of all the issues to U.S. pressure. But it was the great cloud hanging over yesterday's events, particularly because they were so heavily military.
The White House carefully scheduled Mr. Clinton's day so he would miss the parade of modern Russian equipment. He agreed to review veterans marching in Red Square only after obtaining a promise that no units that had fought in Chechnya would be present.
Young soldiers did in fact march alongside the veterans there, but the White House said later that it had been assured that Mr. Clinton's pledge of avoidance had not been broken.
In Chechnya itself, there was relatively little fighting reported. Tank crews held a V-E Day parade at the city airport, which is firmly under Russian control. Soldiers in bulletproof vests laid a wreath to the memory of their grandfathers who had fought before them.
In Moscow, Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev declared that Russia still faces "a military danger" that can be met only by enhancing its armed forces. General Grachev has said previously that if NATO expands into Eastern Europe, Russia must take "appropriate steps" to meet the challenge, without defining what those steps might be.