WUENSDORF, GERMANY, OCT. 18 -- In East German schools, children learned that the Soviet soldiers they saw everywhere were a blessing twice over. The Red Army liberated Germans from Nazi oppression, then protected them from Western aggression.
Today, there is no more East Germany, but the 360,000 Soviet troops and their 200,000 family members still on German soil have become a manifold burden.
Two weeks after German unification, hundreds of Soviet soldiers are deserting, showing up at government offices to apply for welfare, even turning up at American facilities to seek asylum. Soviets are peddling their caps and uniforms to street dealers. And from Dresden to Berlin, soldiers and occasionally officers are hawking Soviet rifles, grenades, even ground-to-air rockets.
The deep bonds of German-Soviet friendship repeated in the old Communist propaganda turned out to be a mirage. Angry Germans have fired shots at Soviet guards, mugged Soviet soldiers and sprayed Red Army facilities with abusive graffiti. "The danger is that these German extremists will attack a munitions post and our guards have the right to shoot back," said Mikhail Logvinov, a counselor at the Berlin branch of the Soviet Embassy. "This could lead to very severe problems."
Overnight, the massive Soviet army here has become a white elephant. Sometimes confined to barracks, strictly limited in their exercises, hungry in a land of expanding appetites, the Soviets are suddenly at the mercy of a country they had dominated since 1945.
Under a deal struck by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev this summer, the Soviet Union has until 1994 to withdraw its forces from the former East Germany.
In the meantime, Germany is paying for the Soviets' food and supplies. Germany will pay to train Soviet soldiers in new careers, transport them home and build them new apartments there. That will take money -- at least $10 billion say the estimates.
For now, the Soviets are still omnipresent, with 1,000 installations, and still heavily armed. But they are inside a Western nation, on the land of a NATO member, and surrounded by their former enemy, the German army.
Here in Wuensdorf, a German town of 3,000 just south of Berlin, the Soviet forces have their sprawling headquarters, a dilapidated, walled compound that houses 70,000 soldiers and civilians. The Soviets closed off the main highway to all Germans, requiring residents to take a circuitous route around the base. Soviet officers filled the restaurants and the rental boats on the town's lake.
With the power positions now reversed, the Germans' pent-up resentment is bubbling over. Someone has scrawled "Russians out!" on the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounds the Soviet compound. An angry delegation of town council members this week got their first meeting with the base commander and presented a long list of demands -- property rights, the reopening of the highway, fewer training flights, quieter exercises.
"The situation is a little different since Oct. 3," said town council member Jorgen Petereit, referring to the date of German unification. "Now we will learn how much we can get from them."
"In my opinion, they could leave immediately," Klaus Otto, a 35-year-old restaurant owner, said of the Soviets. "Who are they supposed to protect now? But it won't be easy to get them out of here. Life couldn't be better for them now. This is paradise for them. They're getting rich."
Just outside the base's main gate, communism and capitalism meet in a bizarre bazaar. Soviets throng outside a makeshift "Hi-fi-Video" market, stocking up on boom boxes and VCRs. A few steps away, German entrepreneurs preside over tables overflowing with jeans and other Western clothing. Soldiers inspect a row of used West German cars for sale -- no rubles, of course.
Since July, Soviet soldiers have received their pay in hard currency, courtesy of the Bonn government. Most young conscriptees get 25 marks a month, about $17, barely enough for anything but an intoxicating taste of Western life.
A supermarket chain from the west called Plus has opened a branch in a ramshackle warehouse. The aisles are packed with Soviet families stocking up on toilet paper, chocolate, yogurt and eggs -- scarce items back on the base.
"There are just too many of them," said a 43-year-old German woman of the soldiers. "They're trying to stay here as long as possible so they don't have to go home to the terrible situation there."
"Our customers get very angry when they come in the evening and try to shop and the place is packed with Russians," said Detlef Werner, the supermarket manager. "When you try to go to a restaurant in town, it's full of Russians and there's no space left."
Some Soviet soldiers are quick to admit that they hope to avoid returning to their struggling homeland. Eduard, a soldier from Armenia who has been in Germany for four years, said he wants to stay because "there are more luxuries and fewer problems here. In Armenia, we have elemental problems -- lighting, gas, even bread."
Eduard has a plan. "I could divorce my wife, send her back home, marry a German girl and then I could stay here legally. Then later, I could invite my Armenian wife to join me. This is what I would like to do."
The wife of a Soviet officer said, "We wouldn't mind staying longer. You know, the more money you have, the more you want."
But many soldiers say they will do their duty and return to their country. "Of course, from a material viewpoint, things are better here," said Alexander, 23, a Soviet soldier. "But morally, it's better to be home. In my opinion, neither the Soviet army nor the American army belongs in Germany anymore. But this is a question for the big politicians."
The tension is so palpable, the potential for disaster so great, that both the Germans and the Soviets are trying to speed up the troop withdrawal.
"The presence of our troops on German soil has lost all sense," Kremlin foreign policy adviser Vyacheslav Dashichev said in a German television interview. "Foot-dragging is the root of all vices."
"I think the Soviets will withdraw sooner than scheduled if they can solve their housing problem," said Lutz Stavenhagen, a top aide to Kohl. "Two years would be optimal. In the meantime, they will try to keep a very low profile. We will watch them and they will watch us."
Kohl's government is trying to help the Soviets leave as quickly as possible, but "the problem is that they simply have nowhere to put these people," Stavenhagen said.
Meanwhile, the strains are likely to intensify. Kohl recently received a letter signed by about 400 wives of Soviet soldiers in Potsdam imploring him to save them from being sent back to a village about 100 miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. "No one will listen or help," said the letter. Asked about it, a Soviet spokesman said, "These women were misinformed. Things aren't as bad as they say."
But the Soviet Embassy's Logvinov said he has heard of soldiers who returned to the Soviet Union from Hungary or Czechoslovakia, could not find apartments and so were forced to move in with relatives in the Chernobyl area.
"The reality is that the living conditions in the Soviet Union and here are very, very different," Logvinov said. "When a young soldier from central Asia or a small town in Siberia suddenly experiences everything here, honestly, it's a psychological burden. We have to rethink everything -- exercises, contact with the population. Emotions are running pretty high."
A Soviet soldier who heard a gunshot Wednesday night while guarding a garrison near the German-Polish border opened fire on the dark woods. For three days this week, 20 Soviet paratroops surrounded the home of a Soviet major in Gotha because he sought asylum in Germany. German authorities eventually persuaded the Soviet forces to back away and the major reportedly has returned to the Soviet Union to apply for an exit visa.
In recent days, Germans who live near Soviet bases have demonstrated against noise of training flights, shrapnel that sometimes hits homes during maneuvers, and the Soviet families who crowd small-town grocery shops.