IN THE SQUARE before Moscow’s belorussky rail terminal, soldiers celebrate the withdrawal of over half a million Soviet troops, known as the Western Group of Forces, from Germany. Around three months earlier, on 11 June 1994, the Soviet Union marked the end of the occupation of East Germany with an official parting ceremony in Wünsdorf, the site of the largest Soviet military camp outside of Russia. Described as the biggest ever withdrawal conducted by an army that had not been defeated in battle, the event marked not only the conclusion of Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe, but also the end of the Cold War.
Alongside the withdrawal from Europe, former Soviet troops were recalled from military installations across the world. The withdrawal was conducted over five years, during which more than 700,000 Soviet soldiers and 500,000 civilians were repatriated from around the planet. Along with the soldiers and civilians, planes, helicopters, artillery, armoured vehicles and nuclear weapons were also returned, in a speedy and precise process that was hailed as a logistical triumph.
However, before heading home, the troops faced deep uncertainty. Many soldiers were discharged because the Russian government could not afford to maintain them in service. Officers often had no place to live, and were put up in tents and other temporary quarters. The Russian economy was staggering, and soldiers were forced to bring back home whatever things of value they could find, from window frames to electrical outlets to toilet fixtures—and, in one case, an entire airport runway. The gaiety of the withdrawal celebrations belied these harrowing conditions.