POTSDAM, GERMANY -- Behind the gates of the three bright yellow mansions on Menzelstrasse that house the headquarters of Radio Volga, the once-proud men of the once-Soviet army have gone into Fort Apache mode.
They were once kings of this realm, occupying powers who claimed automatic right-of-way on the clogged streets, rulers who required locals to pay homage at stilted sessions of the German-Soviet Friendship Society.
Now it is the Germans who tell the Soviet army when and where it can train. And when Soviet army jeeps rumble down the cobblestone streets, no one bothers to pull to the side. In fact, it has become local sport to try to cut off the Russians.
Now it is the former Soviets who court their hosts, who invite the locals to open houses at their barracks, who give defensive answers to questions about Soviet environmental abuses on German soil, who broadcast a weekly program on Radio Volga designed to win German sympathy for the lonely Soviet soldiers caught abroad when their country dissolved.
Radio Volga is the voice of the Soviet forces' West Group, the elite advance troops of an empire in liquidation. For 45 years, the radio transmitted a taste of the motherland to homesick Soviet forces in Germany -- news from Moscow, music, political encouragements in that inimitable Leninist style. Now, as the army pulls out of eastern Germany, keeping the schedule that was outlined in the deal that made German reunification possible, Radio Volga has been retooled to recognize the new power relationship.
Col. Pavel Norenko wears the uniform of what his commander, Gen. Matvei Burlakov, calls the last intact piece of the Red Army. But in two hours of conversation, Norenko managed not to use any name for his army. Norenko is director of the new German-language service of Radio Volga.
Radio Volga is perhaps the world's most self-effacing propaganda program. Operating on a shoestring (the program scripts are typed on the ultimate in post-Cold War stationery: the reverse sides of old memos from the U.S. military liaison in West Berlin), Radio Volga tries to convince Germans that the 225,000 Soviet troops still in their country want only to leave as quickly and neatly as possible.
That is, of course, not entirely true. Russian officers and diplomats readily concede that many of their troops are none too keen to return to the political mess and economic chaos that have developed while they have been living the relatively good life in Germany.
The West Group, thanks to the German government, is paid in marks. The average conscript makes only the equivalent of $15 a month, but it is hard currency, enabling soldiers to go to local markets and buy top-quality food, toilet paper, stereo equipment or whatever else they fancy. And the soldiers have comparatively decent housing -- far better, at least, than they can expect back home.
If, that is, they still have a home. Germany is spending $5 billion to build 36,000 homes for returning soldiers in the former Soviet republics. But many career soldiers have no idea which republic they will return to. Many do not even know which army they will work for when they get home -- Russia's, their own republic's, or some joint force.
"We talk about all of this on the air," Norenko said, "our soldiers who want to stay here, the ecological damage we've done, our deserters, the difficulties we have with housing back home. Our message is we are all people, with all kinds of opinions."
Officers appearing on Radio Volga programs concede that some of their soldiers want to be in a Ukrainian army while others prefer to defend Uzbekistan. "Our young men often can't understand what's happening," Norenko said. "The soldier only knows he's going home to a new state. But he doesn't know what that state is."
Radio Volga admits, but minimizes, some of the tensions between the army and its German neighbors. Although Germans plainly see open bazaars at which Soviet soldiers sell their uniforms, boots, hats, handguns and -- less openly -- even larger weapons, the official Russian line is that only 10 hand weapons are missing from West Group stocks.
"It is very unpleasant to see our uniform on sale on the street," Norenko said. "I mean, who would have believed it? And I think some of these uniforms you see are really fakes -- it can't be that our people would sell all these uniforms."
Radio Volga tries to convince Germans that the approach of a Soviet soldier on the sidewalk is not necessarily an offer to sell every article of clothing the fellow is wearing. "The Germans believe they can buy anything from any of us," Norenko said. "Believe me, it doesn't happen often or that easily."
Although German police have reported numerous incidents of Germans shooting at Soviet bases or attacking Soviet soldiers, Radio Volga insists the West Group is still welcome in Germany.
"The hate is directed at foreigners in general, not against our soldiers," Norenko said. "We've had soldiers beat up, but it's really quite rare." Russian diplomats, however, said there have been more than 100 physical or verbal attacks on West Group soldiers -- enough to cause the army to distribute bulletproof vests to guards at base entrances.
"Of course illegal deals are being made around our barracks," Vladimir Grinin, a top Russian diplomat in Berlin, said. "I can't exclude that the Mafia is busy around our bases. But inside the barracks, the situation is normal."
Officially, the West Group is a unified force under Moscow's command -- "a disciplined, fully battle-ready force," Grinin said.
"If I say the West Group is neutral on these questions of what is happening back home, of course no one will believe me," he said. "Our soldiers follow every change at home and feel rattled by it all. What really awaits them at home is totally new words, totally new principles of life. And here we are, separated from all of this."
In the meantime, the West Group tries to make itself inoffensive. It has set a minimum altitude of 1,800 feet for practice flights that used to zoom immediately over village streets. It has quit open-barrel firing of tank weapons.
"Our mission is over and we go home," Norenko said. "The Germans get to make their own history, and you and I can only watch."
The German families whose grandparents once owned Radio Volga's three grand buildings already have laid claim to the houses.
One block away, the Glienicker Bridge, where East and West exchanged spies and prisoners throughout the Cold War, crosses Lake Jungfern. The walls, barriers and checkpoints are gone now. Traffic flows freely from east to west and back again.
But Col. Norenko may not cross that bridge. West Group soldiers still are not permitted to enter western Berlin. "Very close for you," Norenko told an American visitor. "For me, still impossible."
STATUS AT TIME OF GERMAN UNIFICATION, 1990
Troops.......Family Members.......Materiel (tons)....Weapons (pieces)
WITHDRAWALS, 1991 (ACTUAL)
WITHDRAWALS, 1992 (PLANNED)
NOTE: By 1994, under German-Soviet treaty, all remaining forces and equipment are to be withdrawn.
Source: Russian Embassy, Berlin