Loss of Life in the Stalin Era

December 3, 2010 0 Comments

Alexander Yakovlev in a recent book, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), put the number of deaths due to the Soviet system at 60 million. Yakovlev, who along with Mikhail Gorbachev was an architect of glasnost, called the Soviet tragedy a “democide.” Despite research done over the past decades by Russian and other scholars, there are no exact numbers for those who perished in the years 1928–1953. The following account of repression is taken from a variety of primary and secondary sources; it deals with only 10 major incidents of repression in the Stalinist period.

 

Collectivization and the Famine of 1933–1934. A figure of 7–10 million deaths is probably as accurate an estimate as can be provided. This includes the loss of 2–3 million peasants during collectivization, the death of approximately 500,000 Kazakh nomads, and the death by starvation of approximately 5 million Ukrainians.

The Yezhovshchina. The KGB provided the Communist Party Central Committee with information during the Nikita Khrushchev years that there had been approximately 1.5 million arrests and 650,000 executions in 1937–1938. This figure is almost certainly too low: the Memorial organization has established that there were more than 40,000 executions in Leningrad alone in that period, and no less than 20,000 people were shot at Butovo near Moscow in just 14 months. Moreover, the figure may not include thousands shot without trial or interrogation, or those murdered in provincial jails. In 1953–1956, the newly minted KGB had every reason to provide the leadership with a very low figure.

Incorporation of Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine. A noted Western historian, Jan Gros, places the loss of life in Poland between 750,000 and 1 million in his Revolution from Abroad (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988). This included those shot out of hand, those executed after a trial, and those who perished in Siberia. The large mass grave at Kuropaty in Byelorussia, where tens of thousands were shot in 1939–1940, suggests that the latter figure is closer to the truth.

Katyn. Information provided by Moscow to the Polish government in 1992 showed that Lavrenty Beria had suggested the execution of more than 25,000 Polish military officers and civilian notables. Joseph Stalin and other members of the ruling Politburo signed the order.

Incorporation of the Baltic States. While the loss of life in the Baltic was less than that in eastern Poland, it amounted to more than 5 percent of the population, with approximately 200,000 shot and deported. Combined with heavy losses in 1944–1950 as the Soviet authorities reestablished power, executions and deportations constituted a demographic catastrophe for the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Executions during the Great Patriotic War. There were approximately 140,000 executions of Soviet soldiers during the war. At Stalingrad 13,500 men were shot in the course of the campaign that lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. In contrast, there was one execution for desertion in the U.S. Army during World War II, and fewer than 10 executions in the British armed forces for mutiny and other military crimes during six years of war. During World War I, more than 350 British service personnel were shot for military crimes; this is seen today as a mark on the honor of the country and the military.

Death during Deportations, 1943–1945. The NKVD and NKGB deported 1.5–2 million Soviet citizens during the war. There are no real morbidity figures for these people. The Chechens and the Crimean Tatars in their accounts state that 20–30 percent of the deportees died on the way to Central Asia or perished during the first year. This would lead historians to the conclusion that 300,000 to 500,000 perished in the first year of captivity.

Death in Camps, 1930–1953. A recent study of the gulag system put the number of deaths in the camps during 1930–1953 at more than 2.7 million. The author concludes that this figure is almost certainly too low, because prisoners who were mortally ill were often released from penal servitude days before they passed away.

Famine of 1946–1948. There is only very sketchy information on this “unknown” famine. Recent Russian scholars have placed the death toll at 2 million. It is estimated that almost half the population, 100 million people, suffered from malnutrition after World War II. Thousands of peasants were arrested for stealing food for their families during the famine: MVD figures show 53,369 arrests in 1946 alone for theft of food. Most of those convicted were women pilfering food for their children. Almost three-quarters of those arrested went to forced labor camps. They were not reckoned as political prisoners, but they were victims of the system.

Political Arrests during Stalin’s Last Years. Approximately 350,000 captured Soviet military personnel received death or 25-year sentences after their repatriation from Germany. In the Ukraine and the Baltic states, prophylactic arrests of villagers continued until 1953, as the MGB sought to break the back of nationalist resistance. Arrests of intellectuals and dissident military officers continued as well, though not at the pace of the Yezhovshchina: between 1947 and 1953, there were 350,000 arrests for political offenses. The last mass execution of political prisoners was the shooting of Jewish intellectuals and factory workers following the trial of the Anti-Fascist Committee in late 1952.

 

These figures are “soft.” They do not include those killed in the prolonged partisan war in the Ukraine and the Baltic in 1945–1953 or the peripatetic civil war that existed in the Caucasus in 1925–1935 over collectivization. Nor does the figure include those who were murdered out of hand on Stalin’s and others’ personal orders. Alexander Yakovlev’s A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002) is the best short volume on the costs of the terror. It is not for the squeamish. The Memorial organization is creating a history of the martyrdom of the people, but despite extraordinary courage and persistence, it lacks complete records for the period. It now has lists for many mass graves and still continues to search for other execution grounds. Its website in Russian and English is the best place to follow developments in the history of the Soviet holocaust.

 

Demographers are now better able to comment on this bloody period in a different way. Their research, like Yakovlev’s study and Memorial’s research, shows that the countries that once composed the Soviet Union are still reeling from the terrible losses of the Stalin era. The Slavic countries, the Russian Federation, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, as well as three Baltic States have suffered a demographic catastrophe that will take decades from which to recover.

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