MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin grew up with tales of how his father battled the Nazis as a Red Army soldier and his mother lived through the punishing siege of Leningrad.
The stories of suffering and survival were similar to those of millions of others of Soviet citizens who experienced the horrors of the war, and they had a major impact on the young boy with a big future.
Now, 70 years after the victory over Germany, the Kremlin strongman is gearing up to host a huge Red Square parade on Saturday for the anniversary of a war that shaped his views on Russia's place in the world as well as sensitive issues like Stalin's leadership and the deal he struck with the Nazis.
Born in 1952 -- more than seven years after the war's end -- Putin himself never experienced the hardships of what Russians still call the Great Patriotic War.
Instead his memories -- recounted in his official biography and numerous interviews -- come from stories that relatives and family friends told over dinner at the family home.
Frontline fighting, starving civilians
Putin's father, also called Vladimir, was mobilised as part of a sabotage unit from the Soviet NKVD intelligence service, the predecessor to the KGB that Putin junior would later join.
One day the elder Putin and 27 comrades were sent to the Russian town of Kingisepp, on the border with Estonia, where they fell into a German ambush after being "betrayed by local residents", the younger Putin recounted.
"Of the 28 soldiers only four came back from the frontline," the Russian president said in one interview.
Later Putin senior was deployed close to Leningrad -- now Saint Petersburg -- under heavy Nazi bombardment and was hospitalised in the former imperial capital after being wounded by a grenade blast.
At the same time, Putin's mother Maria was struggling to survive the harrowing famine that wracked the city during its 900-day siege by Nazi forces.
One day she collapsed from exhaustion while out in the street and a team sent out to collect the mounting number of corpses was on the verge of writing her off as dead when her husband, by that time out of hospital, intervened.
"She was still alive and he had to drag her out from a pile of corpses," Putin said.
The siege, however, did claim the life of Putin's older brother Viktor, who died of diphtheria in the ravaged city.
Deal with the Nazis
While the stories of his parents gave Putin a personal connection to the horrors of the war, he has been firm in defending the Soviet Union's controversial role in the run-up to the fighting.
In August 1939 Berlin and Moscow inked a secret non-aggression pact that included divvying up Poland and the annexation of the Baltic countries by the USSR.
The pact, officially admitted by Soviet supremo Mikhail Gorbachev only in 1989, underlies the lingering mistrust towards Russia felt in Poland and the ex-Soviet Baltic nations.
But for Putin, the Soviet Union had no choice but to sign a deal with the devil after France and Britain inked the ill-fated Munich pact with Adolf Hitler in 1938 over Czechoslovakia.
"The Soviet leaders had the feeling that in Munich the issue at stake was not just carving up Czechoslovakia but also isolating the USSR and pushing Hitler towards attacking eastwards," Putin said.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had to sign the accord with Hitler to protect the "security and interests" of the country.
"People say, 'Oh, that is terrible.' But what is terrible about the USSR not wanting to fight?" Putin asked.
Staggering Soviet losses
When it comes to Stalin's legacy, Putin treads a fine line between condemnation and redemption.
On the one hand Stalin was a "dictator" and "tyrant", but on the other, "it was under his leadership that the country won the war."
Tens of millions of Soviet citizens died in the war and historians have long argued over whether Stalin was culpable for sending countless young men to the slaughter.
"We can blame the military commanders and Stalin as much as we want, but who can guarantee that the war would have been won any other way?" Putin has said.
The losses sustained by the Soviet Union were immense after the Nazis invaded in 1941 in a ferocious unleashing of firepower and fighting men with no precedent in world history.
And for Russia -- and Putin -- the burden that it bore in facing the might of the German forces makes the sacrifice sacrosanct and still worthy of international respect 70 years on.
"How many did Great Britain lose during the war? How many? 350,000? And the United States, around half a million?" Putin has said.
"Yes, it is a lot and it is dreadful, but it isn't the 25 million that the Soviet Union lost."