At first sight, things look very different now. When President Xi Jinping of China took pride of place next to Vladimir Putin of Russia on Saturday, they looked like any other modern world leaders: pragmatic men-in-suits, full of smiles, temporary possessors of power rather than dictators-for-life.
Back in 1949, when Chairman Mao Tse-tung paid his first visit to Moscow to celebrate Comrade Joseph Stalin’s 70th Birthday, it was a paean of old-school Communism.
Children in Young Pioneer uniforms paraded through the Bolshoi Opera House telling of their ambition to become tractor drivers. Mao wore a “Mao suit” and Stalin military uniform. Both men looked grumpy.
From left: LM Kaganovich, Chairman Mao Tse-tung, NA Bulganin, Joseph Stalin, Walter Ulbricht, J cedenbal, NS Khrushchev and I Koplenig (Getty)
But the two events, six decades apart, have a clear parallel. Once again, the Russia-China axis is the main threat to the West’s vision of peaceful and prosperous international relations.
The line-up of leaders alongside the two men was a walking representation of a new anti-American alliance that has formed bit by bit since the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the frightening ease with which Washington could destroy hostile leaders far away.
Alongside Mr Xi were Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Raúl Castro of Cuba, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela: standouts against what Mr Putin called a unipolar world, his code phrase for the spread of western-style democracy.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, centre, and Cuban President Raul Castro, centre right, after the parade (EPA)
In itself, there isn’t much new to this. China has been railing against a “unipolar world” for a decade. Mr Putin and his allies all have their reasons for disliking the West’s tendency to set a high store on open elections, a free press and “cooperative” foreign policies.
What is stark is that Russia and China are now openly stating their intention to stand together to lead such an alliance.
The history is a patchy one. In 1949, Mao felt snubbed by Stalin, who regarded him as just another leader of a Soviet-backed Communist satellite rather than an equal.
Mao’s subsequent falling-out with Stalin’s successors led to the US-China rapprochement following President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. The new détente helped defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Chairman Mao Tse-tung, left, welcomes US President Richard Nixon at his house in Beijing (AFP)
Twenty years ago, when both Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin of China stood alongside Boris Yeltsin at the 1995 Moscow Victory Day parade, the power relations were self-evident.
A self-confident America knew that Russia was no longer a threat, while China was dependent for its economic growth on American spending power and investment.
Yesterday in Moscow there was no America – something Washington may come to regret – and there was no doubt whose smile was most confident.
Mr Xi finds himself in a diplomatic sweet spot. It is Mr Putin who gets the flak for standing up to Nato in Ukraine, for supporting the Assad regime in Syria, for threatening to sell air defence systems to Iran.
The Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia (Reuters)
But it is China who is the ultimate winner, as America’s attention is diverted from Beijing’s expansion across the South China Sea.
China is openly developing a naval strategy aimed at challenging American dominance of the western Pacific, including in the waters around Japan and Taiwan.
Unlike Chairman Mao, Mr Xi is happy to be seen to play second fiddle on the podium in Moscow. With China now the rising power, he has no doubt as to where the balance of power will lie between China and Russia in years to come. Shows of Russian strength like yesterday’s serve his interests, as much as Mr Putin’s.