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Last Russian Soldiers Leave Barracks in Eastern Germany

By Dan Fesperman
The Baltimore Sun

They came as brutal conquerors. Then they posed as liberators, only to betray the cause by overstaying their welcome and helping prop up an infamous wall.

And even as the last of 380,000 departing Russian soldiers said goodbye to eastern Germany Wednesday after 49 years of uneasy occupation, they left an odd, ambivalent legacy: barracks stripped of every item of value; fields polluted by jet fuel and kerosene; a black market in surplus hats, medals and weaponry; grandiose monuments to a bygone Soviet empire; a lingering east German taste for left-wing politics; and, oddest of all, hundreds of stray cats.

In the face of all this, the German government managed a graceful if subdued farewell Wednesday, ending the ceremonies with a somber march of soldiers from both countries across a quiet, green corner of east Berlin.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin sought to remind Germans, as well as the rest of the world, of just what a big favor the then-Soviet army did for everyone in World War II. At a loss of 20 million citizens and soldiers - the highest casualties suffered by any nation - the Soviets barely held off a Nazi onslaught before slogging and pounding all the way to the center of Berlin, where a surrounded Adolf Hitler took his own life rather than submit to his hated enemies from the east.

"The poisonous roots of an unparalleled evil were ripped out here in Berlin, and the ashes of Hitler's monstrous plans were thrown into the wind," Yeltsin said.

Yeltsin spoke at the Soviet war memorial in Berlin's Treptower Park, standing at the foot of a towering statue of a Soviet soldier tenderly holding a German child rescued from battle. Spreading before Yeltsin was a long green lawn, the burial site of nearly 5,000 of the Soviet soldiers killed in the battle for Berlin.

On both sides of that lawn Wednesday Russian and German soldiers stood at attention, backed by a few thousand spectators beneath tall maples. Behind them along the perimeter of the site was a high fence of spiked iron, where hundreds of Russian emigres peeped between the railings, hoping to get a glimpse of Yeltsin.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl acknowledged the German debt for the Russian defeat of the Nazis. But he added, "We must also not forget what Russians later inflicted on Germans."

As part of the 1990 agreement for German reunification, the former conquerors of World War II promised to pull their soldiers out of Berlin by this fall. The Russians further agreed to leave Germany altogether, getting a $9 billion farewell gift to ease the pain of resettlement for the departing soldiers.

If the Germans have felt a bit awkward about saying goodbye, the Russian soldiers have found parting to be downright painful. They are leaving behind hard-currency salaries far more bountiful than what they will earn in rubles in the mother country, and that is assuming they will have a job. It is feared that some of the unemployed will end up as new recruits in the growing Russian mafia.

Partly to compensate themselves for their coming drop in income, the soldiers, in behavior well-reported by a disapproving German news media, have taken virtually every removable item from their barracks and bases - from plumbing fixtures to lampposts.

But they have been leaving behind their cats, which dart about the empty buildings and stray into neighboring streets.