In WWII the USSR Suffered Some 25.3 Million Dead

Of these 1.5 million can be shown to have been caused by Soviet repression leaving 23.8 million that occured due to war and occupation

Wed, Apr 15, 2015 | 5616 Comments
One way to comprehend: the greatest losses any country has suffered in any war

Note: With the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War just around the corner we are publishing more material related to that epic conflict that is so important to Russian collective memory.

Comprehending the massive human and material losses suffered by Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union is crucial to understanding why this is so.

This article is the first chapter of a research paper from the pen of RI deputy editor and contributor Marko Marjanović. Other chapters are to follow in the coming days.

The most widely used figure of Soviet losses in the Soviet-German war is 26.6 million. This number stems from the report of an expert commission set up under Gorbachev, which found that 26-27 million is the most accurate estimate of Soviet losses during the war, with 26.6 million being a good possible point estimate.[1] Specifically the calculated losses refer to the period from 22.6.1941 to 1.1.1946 and are based on expected mortality rates as they were recorded for 1940.

The figure has its detractors, including those who posit that the actual number of losses was significantly greater, as well as those who assert that the real figure was lower. Perhaps the most well known personality to posit higher figures is the Russian historian Boris Sokolov, who asserts that a far higher figure of 43.4 million dead was the true cost of the war for the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most notable critic of the semi-official 26.6 million figure is the Soviet/Russian historian Viktor Zemskov, who comes on the other side of the debate and maintains that the lower, pre-Gorbachev figure of 20 million dead is the most accurate estimate to date.[2]

Even so, the 26-27 million figure is cited extensively, either verbatim or with minor reservations and adjustments both in the former Soviet space and in the West. Therefore it is mostly accepted that Gorbachev's commission did a conscientious and generally capable job in establishing this figure as the best estimate of Soviet wartime losses.

Nonetheless, there are important issues connected not to the figure itself, but to its interpretation. First of all the figure is regularly taken as an estimate of excess deaths, when it is actually an estimate of excess population loss, including due to emigration.[3] Secondly, it does not include all deaths caused by the war. It leaves out the number of people who died of war-related causes, if they would have died in this timeframe anyway, but of other causes. Thirdly, it includes most, but not all, deaths due to Soviet repression. It includes only repression deaths from the timeframe beyond the number of deaths expected to occur based on the rate of mortality due to repression in 1940.

Thus the 26.6 million figure does not actually equal the figure of Soviet war dead. It is instead merely the best starting point to establish such an estimate. To get the total Soviet war dead the 26.6 million figure of excess population loss should be reduced by the estimated migration deficit of the Soviet Union, increased by the number of non-excess, seemingly normal deaths that were actually war-related and finally either increase it for the number of repression deaths expected to occur in the 4.5 year period based on 1940 mortality due to Soviet state repression, or else decrease it by the estimated additional repression deaths beyond the expected rate – depending on whether one is interested in total Soviet war dead including deaths attributable to Soviet wartime repression or only the deaths directly due to the war and occupation.

The most detailed calculation of Soviet migration balance for the war and its immediate appears to have been produced by the Dutch and émigré Soviet scholars Michael Ellman and Sergei Maksudov. The pair estimates an emigration deficit of 2.7 million for the period. The figure is justified by migration statistics given as 2.3 million Poles transferred to Poland, 0.4 million Germans transferred to Germany, 0.3 million Jews emigration to Israel and 0.5 million all-union migration to the West, offset partially by 0.6 million Ukrainians transferred from Poland, 0.1 million Armenian immigrants and 0.1 million Russian immigrants from Manchuria and Europe.[4] In as much as the 2.7 million estimate of net emigration balance is the best available, then the best point estimate of Soviet wartime excess deaths is not 26.6 million, but instead 23.9 million.

The flaw of taking estimated excess deaths beyond the expected rates among the Soviet population to be the same as the estimate of deaths caused by the war was first pointed out by the British historian Michael Haynes. This would actually mean leaving out the number of people who died of war-related causes, if they would have otherwise died in this timeframe anyway but of other causes.

This is easy to understand if one imagines a person who would have otherwise died in 1944 of old age but instead fell victim to war-induced malnutrition in 1942. The death of such a person would have slipped under the radar as a "normal" death. It would not contribute to the figure of excess wartime deaths, though it occurred in the relevant timeframe and was caused by the war. [5]

British economic historian Mark Harrison seized upon this and established that there were between zero and 1.9 million such non-excess but war-related deaths, with a figure somewhat above the mid-point being the most likely. With 0.95 million being the mid-point, 1.1 million will be understood as the most likely number of such deaths.[6]

As will be substantiated later in this article that the number of Soviet citizens who died in this timeframe due to Soviet state repression may be estimated at 1.5 million. Based on the lower occurrence of deaths due to Soviet repression in 1940, however, only 300,000 repression deaths were expected to occur in the 4.5 years from mid-1941 through 1945.[7] This means that 1.2 million repression deaths were excess deaths encompassed in the 26.6 million excess population loss, but the expected 300,000 deaths due to repression were not.

The 26.6 million figure of excess population loss is composed of an estimated 2.7 million net emigration balance, 1.2 million repression deaths in excess of the expected level of mortality due to Soviet repression and 22.7 million excess deaths due to war and policies of the enemy. It does not encompass 1.1 million war-related deaths of people who would have died in the timeframe in any case, but at a later date and of different causes, and 0.3 million repression deaths that were not in excess of 1940 levels.

The total Soviet population loss during the war was actually 28 million, of which 2.7 million were due to emigration. The total war dead was 25.3 million, of which 1.5 million were due to Soviet state repression and 23.8 million were due to the war and occupation.

Table 1 - Total Soviet Losses:

Calculated loss in excess of expected deaths (Andreev, Darskii, Kharkova)


War-related deaths of people expected to die in the timeframe of other causes (Harrison)


Expected deaths due to Soviet repression


Total deficit of the Soviet population in the war



Table 2 - Soviet Losses by Cause:

Demographic loss of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War


Of that losses in migration deficit (Ellman, Maksudov)


Total Soviet war dead


Of that losses due to Soviet state repression


Total losses due to war and occupation



1. For more on the background of the 1988-1991 breakthrough in Soviet historiography on this question see L.L. Rybakovskij, "Lyudskie poteri SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne", Sotsiologicheskie issiedovaniya 8 (2000): 89-92.

2. Boris Sokolov, "The cost of war: Human losses for the USSR and Germany, 1939–1945", The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 9, no. 1 (1996): 152-193. Viktor Zemskov, "K voprosu o masshtabah ljudskih poter’ SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne (v poiskah istiny)", MIR i Politika 68, no. 5 (2012).
3. E.M. Andreev, L.E. Darskiy and T.L. Khar'kova, Naselenie Sovetskogo Sojuza 1922-1991 (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 73.
4. Michaell Ellman and Sergei Maksudov, "Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note", Europe-Asia Studies 46, no. 4 (1994): 671-680.
5. Michael Haynes, "Counting Soviet deaths in the Great Patriotic War: a note", Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 2 (2003): 303–309.
6. Mark Harrison, "Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment", Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 6 (2003): 939-944.
7. 1940 saw the deaths of 60 thousand people in prisons, and the labor camps and colonies of the gulag. Given such prevalence of deaths among inmates the 4.5 years from mid-1941 through 1945 would be expected to see 270 thousand deaths in this population. 
Additionally in 1940 2,044 people were executed for criminal offenses and 1,649 for political offenses. Given these rates the subsequent war years would be expected to produce 17 thousand judicial executions. Occurrence of death due to repression among the internal exiles in 1940 predicted a relatively small number of deaths on the order of tens of thousands for the subsequent 4.5 year period. There are two major reasons to believe the occurrence of deaths due to repression among internal exiles in 1940 was just a fraction of the same in an average war year. First of all 1940 was a non-crisis year when the food supply in the USSR was adequate. Secondly, compared to the war years 1940 represented an early year of exile for a comparatively small number of deportees. 1940 saw the deportation of 276 thousand people, and 1938-39 of just 6 thousand. In 1936-37 233 thousand were deported. Small numbers compared to the 2.4 million deported during the war. Occurrence of death due to Soviet repression in 1940 stretched over 4.5 years thus predicted somewhat over 300,000 deaths (270 thousand + 17 thousand + tens of thousands).


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