Soviet soldiers in Germany greet coup with a shrug

August 20, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

POTSDAM, Germany -- Boris Lossik shrugged his shoulders and looked into the distance.

"Gorbachev, Gorbachev. It doesn't matter if it's Gorbachev or [Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri] Yazov. For the little man, it's all the same," the 34-year-old sergeant said.

Sergeant Lossik is one of the 270,000 Soviet troops still stationed in eastern Germany. Like the sergeant, many ordinary soldiers seemed blase about the fall of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But none said they knew about the coup beforehand, and they said they hadn't been put on a heightened state of alert.

"No one tells us anything. We heard about it from our officers," Sergeant Lossik said.

He and other troops spending a free day in Potsdam in eastern Germany, were briefed by officers who told them that Soviet foreign policy would be basically the same and that their unit would be sent home according to the plan drawn up with the German government.

Gen. Matvey Burlakov, top commander of the troops in Germany, told local politicians the withdrawal would be on time.

One of the few soldiers angry about the turn of events in the Soviet Union was Pvt. Yevgeni Marasov, 19, a conscript from Leningrad.

"Gorbachev may not have solved all the problems, but I doubt that these new ones can do any better. When did the KGB ever put bread on the shelves?" he asked.

Pvt. Leonid Stepanov said a bigger worry than food was whether there would be civil war. None of the troops wants more fighting, he said, because "this would just make things worse. We have to find some solution, some compromise. We can't resort to violence."

Most of the soldiers interviewed did not want to talk, but Cpl. Valentin Scharin spoke out in front of four of his fellow soldiers and criticizedthe hard-liners who seized control.

"They are trying to turn back the clock. I am so disappointed that we are going back to those days when politics was made with a gun. It's wrong," the 23-year-old said.

More than 100,000 Soviet troops have been withdrawn from Germany. The last troops are to leave by 1994, and Germany is paying $10 billion for their upkeep until then, as well as for their transportation home and construction of new housing in the Soviet Union.

But few of the troops are eager to leave Germany, because life is easier there and because they say they face a "catastrophic" food situation back home, Sergeant Lossik said.

"When we get back to the Soviet Union, there won't be anything to eat whether Gorbachev or another is in power. What difference does it make when there's nothing to buy?" he said.

His friend Sgt. Oleg Snetnov said Mr. Gorbachev was popular with the troops because he had reduced the threat of war but was unpopular because he hadn't been able to solve the economic problems.

"We serve our country, but at the end have nothing. Our wives can buy nothing. It's humiliating," Sergeant Snetnov said.

Neither of the men, however, expected many more Soviet troops to ask for political asylum in Germany. More than 200 soldiers have defected this year, but the Soviets have been pressuring troops to remain loyal, and there have been reports that the KGB was being used to kidnap defectors and haul them back home.

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