Long march back to uncertain future

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S double-headed eagle hangs beside the gate below the red star. Somehow the non-Communist eagle does not quite fit. At the main barracks in Karlshorst on the eastern edge of Berlin the Soviet hammer and sickle - technically incorrect but still widely to be seen - seems more appropriate.

Karlshorst used to be the heart of the Soviet military presence in Berlin. The garrison suburb was like a small Soviet town. Four years after German unity and three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that legacy is about to end.

Now only one brigade is left, which officially says goodbye today. President Boris Yeltsin and Chancellor Helmut Kohl will get together for a day of symbolic handshakes and salutes. 'Home] To the Motherland]' as the official slogan describes it.

The ceremonies bring to an end almost 50 years of Russian troops on German and East European soil. It was in Karlshorst that the Soviet commander, Marshal Zhukov, accepted the German surrender in 1945. And it is from Karlshorst and from the Russian headquarters at Wunsdorf, south of Berlin, that the last troops will leave. After today's ceremonies a handful will stay to pack up the remaining cars and military equipment, to be transported back to Russia.

The atmosphere at Karlshorst is less demob-happy than demob- down-beat. Going home means a sharp drop in living standards and an uncertain future, which few are keen to talk about. On the Soviet legacy most are wary of hazarding a view. Lieutenant Dmitry Kalinin chooses his words carefully: 'For the Soviet government we played a very important role here. We were a buttress against capitalism. From today's point of view it was a negative role.' And from his personal point of view? A long silence. Lt Kalinin acknowledges the difficulty in turning his back on the past. 'If you've grown up with a government, of course you think what they do is right.'

Some are more outspoken and insist that the Russians, who suppressed the 1953 workers' uprising, always played a positive role. 'There were 50 years of peace. And we said 'no' to Fascism. That means that our task was well fulfilled,' said one Russian woman in Karlshorst.

Today's ceremonies, together with the simultaneous, less good- tempered pull-out from the Baltic states, mark the end of the road for the Russian military presence in eastern Europe. When the Russians come back to Germany they will be invited guests: there are due to be joint exercises, probably as early as next year.

In contrast to the Baltic states, where the burden of Russia's regional power is still strongly felt, there is little German bitterness towards the Russians, now that they are on their way. Anger at the occupying power has given way to gratitude for the peaceful achievement of German unity and to pity on the Russians for the parlous state of their own economy. Germany is spending pounds 3bn on building accommodation for returning Russian officers and their families.