September 17, 1993, was a highlight in the political career of former Polish President Lech Walesa. Soviet soldiers, who had been stationed there since 1945 and considered a symbol of Communist oppression, were about to leave.
The last remaining officers had departed their headquarters in Legnitz the day before. Now General Leonid Kovalev officially informed the Polish head of state in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw that the troop withdrawal was complete.
The end of the occupation
The date is imbued with historical symbolism in Poland. Exactly 54 years earlier, on 17 September 1939, shortly after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviets marched into the eastern regions of Poland and became the second occupier of the country. Walesa described the date as "painful and calamitous."
"Today marks the end of a certain epoch in our common history. Historical justice has been done. There are no more foreign troops on Polish territory," Walesa announced in a landmark address.
Poland under Soviet control
Troops had been stationed in Poland since the end of the World War II when the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
In June 1945 there were about 300,000 soldiers in the country. Their task was to secure the control of Poland by the provisional communist government. Soviet officers were appointed to key positions in the Defense Ministry and became commanders in the Polish army.
It was not until 1956 that a formal agreement was signed between the two states that capped the number of Soviet soldiers in Poland at 66,000. The military presence primarily laid down a political marker, drawing up the Iron Curtain and the division of Europe into East and West.
Traces of the Soviet era
When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989, Moscow gradually reduced troop numbers in Poland. According to Andrzej Friszke, a historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the so-called August Coup of 1991 and the subsequent power struggle in the Kremlin accelerated the withdrawal of troops from Poland.
A bilateral agreement was signed in October 1991. "It was connected with the reorientation of the Russian political sphere, with the departure from a politics of intimidation and imperialism," explained the historian.
From 1991 to 1993, around 56,000 Soviet soldiers, 7,500 civilian personnel and 40,000 members of military families left Poland. And with them, an entire military infrastructure was dismantled: 600 tanks, 200 planes, 90,000 tons of ammunition and tactical missiles for nuclear weapons were transported to Russia.
The Soviet military had occupied 70,000 hectares in Poland, mostly in the western regions of the country. Some of this land was left with lasting environmental damage for which Poland demanded compensation but never received.
Today, Russian cemeteries and Red Army statues continue to remind people of the Soviet occupation in many places across Poland. In recent years, however, many monuments have been removed. The Soviets are considered occupiers by the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, but also by many Poles.
A banquet with Boris Yeltsin
The withdrawal of troops changed the geopolitical situation and allowed Polish politicians to expand their horizons and seek alliances with Western Europe.
During the final phase of the withdrawal, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Warsaw. Polish President Walesa took the opportunity to tell Yeltsin about his vision of Poland becoming a member of NATO. That evening, the two heads of state engaged in long talks over a banquet that went well into the night.
The outcome surprised many observers the next day: Yeltsin's final communique expressed an understanding for Poland's NATO ambitions. But most surprised of all were the Russian president's staff, who forced him to retract his Warsaw promise in writing after he returned home.
Paving the way for NATO
However, Yeltsin still "helped Poland on its path to NATO," according to Friszke. The initial statement, despite its following revocation, encouraged Poland and other Eastern European countries to forge ambitious NATO plans.
None of this would have been possible in the presence of the Russian military. Friszke sees the withdrawal as a defining moment in history for Poland.
"As long as the troops were stationed in Poland, it was always possible for Moscow to exert pressure. With Russian soldiers still on their territory, Polandwould have had no path towards the West."