ON a frigid night last October, Sgt. Stanislav Zokolov shoved a few belongings and a handful of rations into his Red Army issue rucksack and headed for his garrison's perimeter. After gingerly skirting a sentry tower, Sergeant Zokolov scrambled atop a fuel barrel, pulled himself over the concrete wall, and disappeared into the deep pine forests of northeastern Germany. Two weeks later he walked into a police station in Wolfsburg, just west of the former border with East Germany.
"I just couldn't stand it any longer," Zokolov says, referring to conditions at his barracks. He describes "an endless series of beatings, harassment, corruption, and humiliation."
Tough, muscular, and barrel-chested, Zokolov was no malingerer. An explosives expert, he was assigned to the Red Army's elite Spetsnaz troops, crack special forces units.
But in a matter of months, the pace of German unity transformed the Red Army's "West Group" in eastern Germany from a powerful occupying Army into an imploding anachronism. With unity came access to German currency. Chaos and greed quickly followed.
Although hazing and hardship can be found in any Army, Red Army West Group deserters say a gangland-style terror regime has replaced discipline.
Human rights activists estimate 800 suspicious deaths each year in West Group installations, including suicides.
Since introduction of West German currency into former East Germany last year, soldiers have been paid in marks - about 25 marks ($15 dollars) a month for conscripts and up to 1,200 marks ($700) a month for higher-ranking officers.
"The German mark rules life in the West Group," Zokolov says. "It has corrupted even the best."
On pay day, the deserters say, soldiers with seniority routinely extort cash from younger conscripts and newcomers.
"If you refuse, you're attacked every night until you submit," says Alex, a young private who fled in a stolen car.
For those who earn or extort enough cash, Army life can be nearly luxurious.
"A clever officer in the West Group can earn 25-years-worth of pay in four months," Zokolov says. That keeps officers in many units busy finding black-market work for soldiers, deserters say.
The Soviets have pledged to withdraw their 388,000 troops from German soil by 1994, but many soldiers have decided they can neither endure brutal life in the West Group nor return to a disintegrating society.
Since German reunification last October, officials say, nearly 500 Red Army soldiers have deserted their posts in eastern Germany. Most, like Zokolov, have requested asylum in Germany.
For many troops, there is little to look forward to after going home. Barracks there are in even worse shape. Zokolov, a Jew, says he fears anti-Semitic violence. Many worry their units will be ordered to crush independence movements.
"The problem is that desertion is not an acknowledged reason to be granted political asylum," says Bruni Zueiter, a social worker at a government hostel near Hannover, where Zokolov and other deserters are staying.
But she says German law also prohibits the deportation of people who face the death penalty at home. In recent interviews, the deserters said they feared execution if deported to the Soviet Union. "We're hoping that once the Soviets are gone these people can quietly be allowed to stay," Ms. Zueiter says.