Between 350,000 and 500,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed in the GDR – more than anywhere else outside the borders of the USSR. The duration of military service was initially three, later two years. During this time, the soldiers hardly ever left their barracks. Military drills and violence marked their everyday life.
It is surprising to find a passport of a Red Army soldier who was stationed in East Germany (GDR) during the Cold War from 1977-to 1980. As mentioned above, up to 500.000 Soviet soldiers were stationed in the center of Germany and Europe for 40 years. And still, to find such a critical travel document of the Soviet occupation of (East) Germany is pretty rare. The reason seems obvious. They needed the travel document to return home. Passport USSR soldier GDR
The everyday life of Soviet soldiers in the GDR Passport USSR soldier GDR
Up to 120 men in one team room, hardly any free time, miserable supplies – and once a week showering day: The life of the Soviet soldiers stationed in the GDR was complicated and full of deprivation. The recruits who had to do their military service in the GDR often came from the non-European republics of the Soviet Union – they were supposed to feel completely alien to their stationing places. For weeks they were brought to the GDR, often in cattle cars. Usually, it was only here that they learned which city they were to serve in. But everyday life was the same everywhere anyway: A strictly organized daily routine and an essential ban on contact with the outside world, and vacations and going out was a rarity.
In an interview with the historian Thomas Ammer in the early 1990s, a former officer said: “Officially, every unit has a duty roster displayed, but in reality, it only exists on paper. In particular, there is no fixed end of duty, nor is there a guaranteed free weekend. Free time – in practice, this often means participation in certain services in the unit. This means being present in the unit. […] A term like that of a day off was considered downright indecent.” Passport USSR soldier GDR
On average, a simple soldier received a monthly payment of about one ruble per day (about three GDR marks) and up to 25 GDR marks. Of the maximum of around 100 GDR Marks, things like cigarettes and chocolate had to be paid for and essential items such as food and washing utensils – because the supply in the barracks was meager. After their escape at the beginning of 1987, two deserters told West German television: “The food of the ordinary soldiers is miserable in every respect. I would not even give something like this to my dogs: Porridge, just porridge – morning, noon, evening, always porridge.”
The health care of the soldiers was similarly poor. A deserter told at the time that in army hospitals, “one is not cured, but only prevented from dying. For example, in the summer of 1986, I had an appendectomy. It was cut out without any anesthetic.
But the poor supply was only one of the soldiers’ burdens. Especially under the harassment of the higher ranks, many young men suffered visibly; not a few broke or risked dangerous escape attempts. The “Dedovshchina,” the “rule of the grandfathers,” stood for the systematic suppression of recruits by the higher ranks. It was characterized by brutality and coercion, even rape and murder. According to estimates by the parliamentary group Die Grünen/Alternative List in 1990, up to 4,000 Soviet soldiers per year had died in the GDR – through accidents, excesses of violence, and suicides. Passport USSR soldier GDR
But criminal assaults by Soviet army soldiers outside the barracks were also part of the daily routine. Stasi files reveal some 27,500 offenses committed by Soviet military personnel on GDR territory between 1976 and 1989 alone, including many traffic offenses and thefts and murder, assault, robbery, and rape. However, the GDR judiciary could not prosecute a Soviet soldier who had committed a criminal offense. The Thuringian criminal police officer Klaus Dalski confirmed: “Our investigations stopped at the barracks’ gate. Instead, crimes committed by their men were often punished by the supreme commanders with draconian measures – up to the death penalty.
One of the few pleasant changes in the life of the soldiers was the “prescribed” contacts with the GDR citizens. Personal initiative was forbidden, but small delegations of the most exemplary soldiers were regularly sent to holidays and political events in Germany’s neighboring countries: to pioneer afternoons at the samovar, small concerts in houses of culture, slide shows about the Soviet Union and matryoshka painting lessons with the youngest children – the “Society for German-Soviet Friendship” (DSF) made it possible. But outside of these prescribed dates, the soldiers remained largely isolated. Passport USSR soldier GDR
Further “contacts” with the GDR citizens were more likely to occur through adverse events: Villages near military training and firing ranges were constantly exposed to the danger of ricochets and misdirected grenades. In Gossel, Thuringia, the spire of the church was shot away. In Schwerin, in the mid-1980s, there was even an “explosion of an ammunition depot lasting several hours,” as was stated in a letter from the Schwerin district administration to the Ministry for State Security. In March 1989, two children died when a bullet exploded in a wild garbage dump. Two months later, two more children died after they found uncleaned ammunition in a military training area, and it exploded.
Return into the unknown Passport USSR soldier GDR
1989 placed the GSSD (Group of Soviet Forces in Germany) in a dramatic situation. Suddenly it threatened the wall opening the soil under the feet to break away. The Two Plus Four Treaty established the withdrawal of Soviet troops by 31 December 1994, later brought forward to 31 August 1994. The undertaking turned out to be a significant logistical task that lasted three years and eleven months. Five hundred forty-six thousand two hundred soldiers and officers and their families had to be returned to Russia. In addition, there were more than 120,000 heavy weapons and other military equipment – a total load of 2.7 million tons.
For the soldiers, returning home proved difficult, as they went into a crumbling empire that suffered great economic difficulties after the failure of socialism. The Western group of the Soviet Army left behind a burden that the reunified Germany still has to bear today: dilapidated barracks, contaminated land, piles of garbage, and ammunition left behind. So what could be more evident than to take everything with them that was not nailed down when they left the barracks? Colonel-General Matvej Burlakow later wrote in his notes on the withdrawal: “I demanded that the commanders handle material values with care and take everything with them, if possible because practically everything could be used at the new base in Russia.
The last tank, which left the GDR in 1994, said, “Farewell Germany – forever! – based on the “Farewell Song of the Russian Soldiers,” which Colonel Gennady Luschetzki wrote at that time: “Germany, we reach out our hand to you – and return to the fatherland. The homeland is ready to receive you. We remain friends – always! We should build our future on peace, friendship, and trust. The duty fulfilled! Farewell, Berlin! Our hearts go home.”
A standard red passport was issued in 1976 to a 20 years young soldier stationed in East Germany from 1977 to 1980. Seventeen pages and several with entry/exit stamps USSR and GDR (DDR). An excellent document of passport history during the Cold War.
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...