BERLIN -- 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 yesterday 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, strangest of all, hundreds of stray cats.
In the face of all this, the German government managed a graceful if subdued farewell yesterday, ending the ceremonies with a somber march of soldiers from both countries across a quiet, green corner of east Berlin.
Big favor recalled
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 largest 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," Mr. Yeltsin said.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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 yesterday, 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 bars, hoping to get a glimpse of Mr. 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."
Indeed, it didn't take long after the end of World War II for the Soviet Union to split from the other three "occupying powers," the United States, Great Britain and France.
By 1948 the Soviets were trying to starve out West Berlin with a blockade. That brought on the U.S.-led Berlin Airlift, and nearly a year later the Soviets backed down.
The division of East and West Germany only deepened, however. Each side set up its own government, and, in June 1953, Soviet tanks helped the East German government put down a worker's uprising.
In 1961 came the greatest affront of all to the West, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the Soviets supplied the might to keep it standing.
When the Soviet might began to crumble in the late 1980s, so did the Wall. It finally came down in November 1989, as the Communist regime of East Germany collapsed amid popular protest and economic weakness.
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. Russia further agreed to leave Germany ++ altogether, getting a $9 billion farewell gift to ease the pain of resettling its departing soldiers.
Summer of goodbyes
All summer long, Berliners have been saying goodbye to the various armies that have stayed in the city since 1945, with the fondest sentiments reserved for the Americans and the British.
Mr. Yeltsin had hoped that the final farewell ceremony would be a joint affair, but Cold War memories were still too fresh for the other Allies and the Germans.
Yet, in the meantime, the re-formed Communist Party of east Germany has enjoyed a resurgence at the polls in state and local elections this summer, consistently winning more than a third of the vote in the old eastern states, while recent polls have shown Germans feeling more divided than ever.
Yesterday's ceremonies began early in the morning, with Russian Gen. Matvei Burlakov announcing to Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kohl, "I report to you that the international agreement on the temporary stay and the complete withdrawal of the Soviet army in Germany has been fulfilled."
The leaders and assembled dignitaries then went indoors to hear a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic before heading to Treptower Park.
If the Germans have felt a bit awkward about saying goodbye, the Russian soldiers have found parting to be downright painful. They're leaving behind hard currency salaries far more bountiful than what they'll earn in rubles in the mother country, and that's assuming they'll have a job. It is feared that some of the unemployed will end up as new recruits in the burgeoning Russian mafia.
Partly to compensate themselves for their coming drop in income, the soldiers, in behavior well reported by a disapproving German press, have ripped out virtually every removable item from their barracks and bases -- from plumbing fixtures to lampposts.
But they've been leaving behind their cats, which dart about the empty buildings and stray into neighboring streets.
A bigger headache for the Germans will be cleaning up the environmental mess left behind. German officials estimate that it will cost at least $6 billion to clean up the former Russian bases, prompting several eastern German states to refuse federal offers of the sites, free of charge.
But in yesterday's ceremonies the dominant theme was of peace and unity.
"We want to strengthen and further develop our new friendship and partnership," Mr. Kohl said.