Bitterness and bargains on the retreat to Moscow: Steve Crawshaw in Wunsdorf sees some of the last Russian troops in Germany leave for an uncertain future

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THERE are no road signs. The old logic still seems to apply: if you don't already know the way, that means you have no right to be told. But it is easy enough to find. Everybody knows the way to 'the Russians'. Turn right from the little market square in the town of Zossen, continue for 400 metres along a cobbled road and you will come to the unmarked checkpoint, near a peeling hoarding which declares: 'Defence of the motherland - our sacred duty.'

Once through the checkpoint the curtained black Volga which comes to meet the foreign visitor drives for several kilometres past row upon row of barracks before arriving in the heart of this provincial Russian town in rural east Germany. A hairdresser, a Friendship Cafe, a Lenin statue, a food store. All the essentials of life.

Wunsdorf, near Berlin, built for the German army at the turn of the century and later used by Hitler, was the Soviet military headquarters in East Germany and thus three years after it became part of Nato, 30,000 Russian troops are still in the country, half of them in Wunsdorf. The last soldiers are due to leave in August.

A few years ago, the Russians were unchallenged masters of the regional universe. Now they are forced to return home as comparative beggars, to an uncertain future. Thousands of families have no homes to go back to. Germany is providing 8bn Deutschmarks (pounds 3bn) to build housing for some of the families in Russia, as part of the cash-for-unity deal agreed with Moscow but little of this has been completed.

Colonel Dmitry Timashkov, my host in Wunsdorf, insists German unity and the kicking-out of the Russian troops was normalno; he and his comrades had always expected to go home, one day. He argues that there was, in any case, no great difference between the role of US and British troops in west Germany and the Russian troops in the east. He is unwilling to dwell on the implications of Russia's great retreat. 'Military orders are given - you do what you are told to do. Politics, that's not for us.'

And what about Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the far-right Russian politician who has threatened to stop the withdrawal? 'Zhirinovsky,' Col Timashkov points out, 'is not the president.' Still, he is clearly not being ignored: many quotations in an interview with the would-be president have been highlighted, in a magazine lying in Colonel Timashkov's office.

For those still in Wunsdorf, life has changed considerably. Military exercises have been almost abandoned: how can you practise fighting Germany and Nato when Germany has, in effect, become your host? Instead, those left behind are helping to pack the army's bags. A few years ago there were more than half a million Russians in East Germany, including dependants. Every month the numbers dwindle. Outside the gates, the daily Wunsdorf-Moscow train is waiting to leave. In the waiting-room Sergei and his wife Julia are preparing to return to the provincial town of Orenburg. 'What are we returning to? A tent, maybe. Of course there's bitterness.' Of the Russian troop presence in Eastern Europe, Sergei says: 'Maybe for them, it was bad. But for us, it was good.'

Those returning will have less money than in Wunsdorf. As another part of the cash-for-unity deal, Russians in Germany are paid in Deutschmarks, so they are, comparatively speaking, rich. Many go on spending sprees before they leave. On the station forecourt there is a flourishing car market. One customer, Vitaly, is bargaining hard - in other words, feigning lack of interest - for an old Renault. The asking price is DM2,000. Vitaly insists he will pay a maximum DM700; he wanders around looking bored until the price comes down, while the seller sits inside the car, looking equally bored.

Nor is it just in the markets that the Russians are active buyers. Shopkeepers say their departure will make an enormous difference to business. Some in nearby villages say they are glad to see the Russians go but there is little outright hostility. One woman said: 'We were never allowed to talk to them, before . . . Now, when you hear about their future, you can't help feeling sorry for them, can you?'