Standing tall and proud to the very end, Russian Gen. Vladimir Ivanovich Bryzgun bade a historic farewell to Poland early Saturday, as the last Russian troops to leave the country quietly boarded a train in the pre-dawn cold.
"This is a very important day in our relations," Bryzgun said on a dimly lit platform at a suburban railroad station where a Russian train awaited him. "Poland will never be a Russian enemy. This I am absolutely certain about."
Fifty-four years after the Red Army swept across Poland's eastern border, the final 24 Russian soldiers retreated unceremoniously into Belarus, leaving Poland free of foreign interveners for the first time since Nazi Germany invaded to ignite World War II.
"Gone!" one Warsaw newspaper declared. "Soviets Go Home," said another in a headline across its front page. "Law, freedom and democracy have won," Polish President Lech Walesa announced to the nation.
Just three years ago, 56,000 Russian troops were stationed in 59 garrisons across Poland, where they had become fixtures of the Cold War and Moscow's determination to prop up its client regime. After the collapse of communism in both countries, it was agreed that the soldiers should leave by this December, but the timetable recently was stepped up.
The Polish government wanted the Russians gone before today's parliamentary elections, only the second free parliamentary vote since the former Communists were ousted. Some parties have tried to make an issue of the Russian presence, insisting Poland remains under the influence of Moscow.
For symbolic and historic purposes, the Poles also asked that the final departure take place Friday, the anniversary of the Red Army invasion of 1939.
The last Russian soldiers did not leave Warsaw until 5:41 a.m. Saturday, crossing the Polish border about three hours later. But the Russians did agree to hold the official withdrawal ceremony Friday at the presidential palace, as thousands of Poles across the country participated in ceremonies honoring victims of Stalinist terror.
Walesa, speaking in the courtyard of Belweder Palace, said the Russian exodus meant "Poland's sovereignty is finally confirmed." He also spoke harshly of the Red Army invasion, the Russian soldiers listening stoically nearby.
"For us, Sept. 17 has been a painful and ominous date, opening the way to prisons, concentration camps, suppression and disgrace," Walesa said. "Today's celebration is the end of a certain epoch in Polish-Russian history."
But Russian Ambassador Yuri Kashlev was not about to be bullied, saying the soldiers were leaving with a clear conscience.
"Their fathers came here fighting against our common enemy," he said. "Together with the Polish army, they guaranteed the inviolability of Poland's borders."
The timing of the ceremony angered some Russians, with one Moscow newspaper insisting that it unfairly cast Russians as "aggressors who are leaving the invaded country in disgrace."
Relations between Poland and Russia have warmed considerably in recent years, but the sensitive issue of the Russian military presence continues to bedevil them.
But at the train station Saturday in east Warsaw, such differences were overshadowed by the history of the moment.
His lips curled in a faint smile, Gen. Bryzgun was the last to board the train. Standing in the doorway, he raised his clasped hands in a final salute, then closed the door as the train slipped away. Outside his window, a seal bearing the Soviet-era hammer and sickle had been carefully painted over.