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Germany

Remembering Russia's Retreat

While many western German cities are trying to come to grips with the fact that the US is planning to withdraw thousands of troops, eastern German communities saw Russian troops leave a decade ago on Tuesday.

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Not all were glad to return home

It was probably just a coincidence -- but the announcement by US President George W. Bush that the US Army will significantly reduce its forces in Germany came just days before the anniversary of another military power leaving the country: On Aug. 31, 1994, the last Russian soldiers and officers of the "Western Group of Forces" (WGF) left Germany.

"We have defeated fascism but lost the Cold War," is how many Russians felt that day.

Relikt aus vergangener Zeit

Russian billboards could still be found throughout eastern Germany in the 1990s

From a political and strategic point of view, the deployment of about 340,000 troops and their 207,000 civilian support staff and family members was no longer necessary. Financially, their continued presence had become virtually impossible.

In 1991, the then Soviet government still contributed 820 million deutsche marks (€419 million, $516.6 million) to financing the WGF. A year later, the Russian government reduced the amount to 19.8 million deutsche marks.

As a result, the WGF practically had to finance itself, opening the door to business dealings in the barracks that weren't always in accordance with the law.

Shady dealings

The withdrawal of troops itself also happened under shady circumstances -- people spoke about corruption, embezzlement and mismanagement.

Bildgalerie Boris Jelzin und Helmut Kohl auf dem Gendarmenmakt (Archivfoto und text 1994)

Boris Jelzin (left) and Helmut Kohl during the festivities surrounding the withdrawal of the last Russian soldiers on Aug. 31, 1994

Many Russians also accused then President Boris Yeltsin (photo) of having made too many concessions to his "friend Helmut" Kohl (photo), the German chancellor at the time. Yeltsin's attempt to conduct a military orchestra after a few drinks was seen by many as a symbol of his government's lack of stability.

The troop withdrawal had been sealed on Oct. 12, 1990 -- just nine days after German reunification; Germany agreed to pay 8.35 billion deutsche marks to Russia to build 45,000 apartments for the returning soldiers.

Much of that money disappeared in Russia's regions that had been put in charge of building the new homes. As a result, many families were left practically homeless for a long period of time and others had to live in tents.

Russians no economic factor in East Germany

In return, Germany eventually took over the WGF's land property (240,000 hectares or 593,000 acres -- about the size of the western German state of Saarland).

Unlike the US Army, which has been a significant economic factor for western German cities since 1945, the WGF never took on a similar role in East Germany, where it remained a "state within a state." By and large, the troops were self-sufficient and their withdrawal was welcomed by most.

Today, many Russian families still have fond memories of their time in Germany and keep them alive via the Internet.

Über den Seelower Höhen

Memorials and soldier's graves like these ones in the town of Seelow near the German-Polish border are all that's left today.

"People say that one should not return to places where one was young and happy, but I didn't regret it," wrote one Russian about his visit to the town of Rechlin in what is now the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania, where he used to be stationed.

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