In the West, when Stalin’s name is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the “millions of deaths” under his “ruthless regime”. For decades, fascist and capitalist propagandists alike perpetuated this vision of Stalin as a monster, employing the best World War 2 and Cold War propagandists to slander Stalin’s role as a statesman. What is the truth behind this claims? I hope to shed some light on the matter.
As has been now resolved, the varying numbers of deaths under the Stalin administration are a product of propaganda, and have hence been wildly exaggerated. The evidence found in Russian archives, opened up by the capitalist roader Yeltsin, put the total number of death sentences from 1923 to 1953, the post-Lenin Soviet Union, between 775,866 and 786,098a. To this we must add up the 40,000 who may have been executed without trial and unofficiallyb. If we add up the numbers, what we get achieve is 800,000 executions in a period of 36 years, less than the lives claimed by the dictatorship of the CIA-backed anti-communist Suharto in Indonesia in a time span of 2 years. This is not to say the deaths are to be condoned, but it raises an important question: if less lives have been claimed by the Soviet Union under Stalin than Suharto’s Indonesia, why is Stalin demonized to that extent when Suharto is rarely even known among pro-capitalists?
We shall answer this question in a future post about cultural hegemony, let’s now continue with our examination of Soviet deaths. Because the figure of 800,000 executions includes those persons sentenced to death but had, for instance, their sentences reduceda, this too may be an overestimation. In fact, in a research by Vinton, evidence has been provided indicating that the number of executions was significantly below the number of civilian prisoners sentenced to death in the USSR, with only 7,305 executions in a sample of 11,000 prisoners authorized to be executed in 1940 (or around 60%)c. In addition, 681,692 of the 780,000 or so death sentences were issued during the Great Purge (1937-1938 period)a.
Initially, the NKVD, under Yezhov’s orders, set a cap of 186,500 imprisonments and 72,950 death penalties for a 1937 special operation to combat the threat of foreign and internal subversion. The operation was decided upon after the discovery of Bonapartist plots against the government, led by Tukhacevsky, whose links with opportunist factions within the Party caused total panic. The NKVD’s orders had to be carried out by troikas, 3-men tribunalsa. As the troikas passed sentences before the accused had even been arrested, local authorities requested increases in their own quotas, and there was an official request in 1938 for a doubling of the amount of prisoner transport that had been initially requisitioned to carry out the original campaign quotas of the tribunalsd.
However, even if there had been twice as many actual executions as originally planned, which I would doubt, the number would still be less than 150,000. Many, in fact, may have had their death sentence refused or revoked by authorities before arrest or execution could take place, especially since Stalin, Molotov and Beria later realized that excesses had been committed in the 1937-38 period (the Great Purge), had a number of convictions overturned, and had many of the responsible local leaders punishede. Soviet records indicate only about 300,000 actual arrests for anti-Soviet activities or political crimes during this 1937-1938 interval. With a ratio of 1 execution for every 3 arrests as originally specified by the NKVD, that would imply about 100,000 executions. Since some of the people sentenced to death may have already been in confinement, and since there is some evidence of a 50,000 increase in the total number of deaths in labor camps over the 1937-38 interval that was probably caused by such executions, the total number executed by the troika campaign would probably be around 150,000a. There were also 30,514 death sentences passed by military courts and 4,387 by regular courts during the 1937-38 period, but, even if all these death sentences were carried out, the total number remains under 200,000. Such a low number seems especially likely given the fact that aggregate death rates from all causes throughout the Soviet Union were actually lower in 1937-38 than in prior yearsf, possibly a result of universal health care, vaccination and an improvement in living standards.
Assuming the remaining 100,000 or so death sentences passed in the other years of Stalin’s administration (1923-1936 and 1939-53) resulted in a 60% execution rate, as per the Vinton sample, the total number executed by the Soviet Union during the period would be about 250,000. Even with the thousands executed between 1917 and 1921, it is plausible that the number of unarmed civilians killed between 1917-1953 amounted to considerably less than a quarter million given that thousands of these victims may have been Soviet soldiers, given that many may have been armed bandits and guerrillas, and given that at least 14,000 of the actual executions were of foreign prisoners of warc.
A USA former attache to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, has stated that the number executed was really only in the tens of thousandsg, and so it is very likely that the true number of people killed by the Soviet Union over its entire history (including the thousands killed in Afghanistan) is too small for the country to make it even in the top ten in mass murders (unlike the United States of America, but that’s for another day). There were no doubt many innocent victims during the 1937-38 Stalin purge, but it should also be mentioned that there is substantial evidence from the Soviet archives of Soviet citizens advocating treasonable offenses such as the violent overthrow of the Soviet government or foreign invasion of the Soviet Unioni. In addition, the Soviet Union felt itself so threatened by subversion and imminent military invasions by Japan and Germany (which occurred in full force in 1938 and 1941, respectively) that it perceived a need to undertake a nationwide campaign to eliminate potential internal enemies. Moreover, these external threats were further fueled by the fact that the Russian nobility and czarists (over a million of whom had emigrated after the communist revolution in 1917) had given financial aid to the German Nazis in the 1930s for the purpose of using them (once they had successfully taken power in Germany) to help them overthrow the Soviet governmentj. Forged documents and misinformation spread by Nazi Germany to incriminate innocent and patriotic Soviets also contributed to Soviet paranoiak. It must also be remembered that Soviet fear of foreign-sponsored subversion in the 1930s existed within the context of guerrilla warfare fought against the Soviet Union by some of the same groups of people who had fought with the foreign invaders against the Soviet Union in the 1918-22 Foreign Interventionist Civil War. While the 1937-38 purges were very repressive and tragic by almost any measure, they may have helped prevent the fascists from inciting a successful rebellion or coup in the Soviet Union. Such a threat was a very real one given that the German Nazis did succeed in using political intrigues, threats, economic pressure, and offers of territorial gains to bring other Eastern European countries into their orbit, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, as well as Yugoslavia for a short period of timeh, given that the Soviet Union had been subjected to a brutal 1918-22 civil war which was launched by rebels who were supported by over a million foreign invading troops from over a dozen capitalist countries, given that there was a large amount of sabotage committed by Soviet citizens in the 1930s, and given that there were a significant number of Soviet dissidents who were in favor of overthrowing the Soviet government even if it required an invasion by Germany or some other foreign poweri. In addition, many people may have worked independently to sabotage the Soviet Union in the hope that they would thereby contribute to a foreign overthrow of the Soviet Union, especially since Nazi Germany did make extensive efforts to incite uprisings, cause subversive actions, and create ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Despite the Soviet Union’s success in defeating the subsequent invasions by fascist Japan (in 1938) and Germany (1941-44), the danger posed by the Nazi spies and saboteurs in Eastern Europe is illustrated by the fact that the CIA considered them so effective that it adopted virtually the entire Nazi network into its own system of terrorism in Eastern Europe after World War IIl.
Evidence from the Soviet archives indicates that the officials responsible for the political repression of the 1930s sincerely felt the victims were guilty of some crime such as sabotage, spying, or treason, and many of the executions of the Great Purge were reported in the local Soviet press at the time. Even when there was proven to be no direct connection between the accused and the fascist foreign powers, there was often a strong belief that the suspects were foreign sympathizers who were working on their own (without formal direction) to contribute to the overthrow of the Soviet Union. It should also be noted that much of the 1937-38 repression, often called the Great Purge, was actually directed against the widespread banditry and criminal activity (such as theft, smuggling, misuse of public office for personal gain, and swindles) that was occurring in the Soviet Union at the timem. In addition to the executions, there were also many imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands of people were expelled from the Communist Party during the Great Purge for being incompetent, corrupt, and/or excessively bureaucratic, with such targeting of inept or dishonest Soviet bureaucrats being fairly popular among the average Soviet citizensi. Like the myths of millions of executions, the fairy tales that Stalin had tens of millions of people arrested and permanently thrown into prison or labor camps to die in the 1930-53 interval are untrue. In particular, the Soviet archives indicate that the number of people in Soviet prisons, gulags, and labor camps in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s averaged about 2 million, of whom 20-40% were released each yeara. This average, which includes desperate World War II years, is similar to the number imprisoned in the USA in the 1990s and is only slightly higher as a percentage of the population. It should also be noted that the annual death rate for the Soviet interned population was about 4%, which incorporates the effect of prisoner executionsa. Excluding the desperate World War II years, the death rate in the Soviet prisons, gulags, and labor camps was only 2.5%a, which is below that of the average citizen in Russia under the tsar in peacetime in 1913f. This finding is not very surprising, given that about 1/3 of the confined people were not even required to workn, and given that the maximum work week was 84 hours in even the harshest Soviet labor camps during the most desperate wartime yearso. The latter maximum (and unusual) work week actually compares favorably to the 100-hour work weeks that existed even for “free” 6-year old children during peacetime in the Gilded era and industrial revolutionp(shoutout to libertarians), although it may seem high compared to the 7-hour day worked by the typical Soviet citizen under Stalini.
In addition, it should also be mentioned that most of the arrests under Stalin were motivated by an attempt to stamp out crimes such as banditry, theft, misuse of public office for personal gain, smuggling, and swindles, with less than 10% of the arrests during Stalin’s rule being for political reasons or secret police mattersa. The Soviet archives reveal a great deal more political dissent permitted in Stalin’s Soviet Union (including a widespread amount of criticism of individual government policies and local leaders) than is normally perceived in the Westi. Given that the regular police, the political or secret police, prison guards, some national guard troops, and fire fighters (who were in the same ministry as the police) comprised scarcely 0.2% of the Soviet population under Staline, severe repression would have been impossible even if the Soviet Union had wanted to exercise it. In comparison, the USA today has many times more police as a percentage of the population (about 1%), not to mention prison guards, national guard troops, and fire fighters included in the numbers used to compute the far smaller 0.2% ratio for the Soviet Union. In any event, it is possible that the communist countries of Eastern Europe would have become politically less repressive and more democratic (especially over time), if there hadn’t been overt and covert efforts by capitalist powers to overthrow their governments, including subversion conducted in the USSR as late as the 1980s that the USA government admitted to in the 1990s. These efforts at violent subversion were initially carried out mostly by the British (before World War II) and then later more so by the USA through the CIA, which did succeed violently overthrowing a very democratic communist government in Chile in 1973. If the communists had truly been as evil and dictatorial as they are portrayed to be in the capitalist press, the peaceful revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe (with virtually no related deaths except in Romania) could never have occurred.
a: Getty, Ritterspom, and Zemskov, “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence”
b: Hellmut Andics, “Rule of Terror”
c: Louisa Vinton, “The Katyn Documents: Politics and History.”
d: Amy Knight, “Beria, Stalin’s First Lieutenant”
e: Robert Thurston, “Life and Terror in Stalin s Russia”
f: Stephen Wheatcroft, “More Light on the Scale of Repression and Excess Mortality in the Soviet Union in the 1930s”
g: J. W. Smith, “Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the 21st Century”
h: Marshall Miller, “Bulgaria during the Second World War”
i: Sarah Davies, “Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia”
j: Leslie Feinberg, “The Class Character of German Fascism”
k: Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky “KGB: The Inside Story”
l: Von Schnitzler, “Der Rote Kana”
m: John Arch Getty, “Origins of the Great Purges”
n: Edwin Bacon, “The Gulag at War: Stalin’s Forced Labour System in the Light of the Archives”
o: R. J. Rummel, “Lethal Politics”
p: Marx and Engels, “Das Kapital”
q: Numbers taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_Soviet_Union, which in turn cites Andreev et al, “Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991″