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WWII: Up to 8 Million Soviet Civilians Died of Malnutrition Due to Occupation and War

Between 7.6 and 8 million Soviet civilians died in WWII due to general privation caused by the occupation and the war. Including 1.3 million newborns.

  • About 4 million perished in the western Soviet Union under German occupation, where mass death of hunger and malnutrition was the predictable, anticipated and intended result of Nazi occupational policies
  • A similar number died in unoccupied Soviet Union, because without its fertile western parts the USSR faced a large food deficit and could not fully feed its population
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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 sixth 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. Links to previous chapters:

Soviet scholar A.A. Shevyakov estimated in 1991 that about 8.5 million Soviet civilians perished during the war due to malnutrition and disease induced by the war and occupation. Of these 8.5 million deaths Shevyakov reckoned 5.5 million occurred in parts of the Soviet Union that suffered the Axis occupation and 3 million in parts that did not experience occupation. In 1992 Shevyakov updated his estimates, now figuring that in total about 6.5 million Soviet civilians had perished due to war-induced privation.[43] 

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Krivosheev in 2001 estimated there had been 4.1 million excess civilian deaths due to malnutrition and disease in the occupied USSR. He reported findings according to which 1941-45 there had been an estimated 8.5 million deaths of natural causes in the parts of the USSR under occupation, but only 4.4 million were to be expected under pre-war mortality rates. A German historian Hans-Heinrich Nolte estimated that of the estimated total 27 million war deaths 7 million were indirect deaths of civilians due to malnutrition and disease. In 1972 a British writer Elliot Gil estimated 7-8 million civilian deaths due to privation.[44]

This paper has so far tallied 11.05 million military and POW deaths among Soviet citizens, leaving 14.3 million non-combatant deaths. Of the latter 6.25-6.65 million have been tallied between various causes, leaving 7.6-8 million undistributed civilian deaths that may be attributed to privation induced by the war and occupation. This is without counting privation deaths of civilians in the Siege of Leingrad (0.9 million), privation deaths of forced laborers in German-run Europe outside the USSR (0.2 million), privation deaths of Soviet citizens repressed in the gulag and internal exile (1 million and 0.3 million respectively) and civilian privation deaths in forced evacuations accompanying German retreats.

Almost all of 1.3 million excess deaths among children born after 22.6.1941 probably occurred due to malnutrition and disease. This is likely true of the great majority of 1.1 million war-related deaths of mainly elderly people who would have died in the 1941-45 timeframe anyway but at a later date. This means that some 2 million of the 7.6-8 million privation deaths in the Soviet Union during the Soviet-German War are fairly invisible to statistics. In about one quarter of cases malnutrition and disease induced by the war and occupation took the lives of either children not yet born when the war begun, or else of the elderly who were not expected to live past 1945 even had there not been a war.

Given Krivosheev's estimate it seems likely that of 7.6-8 million privation deaths among civilians just over one half occurred in the occupied western Soviet Union and just under one half occurred in the unoccupied interior of the country. The parts of USSR that fell under German occupation were home to 77.5 million people before the war. 16.5 million of these fled or were evacuated by the authorities leaving just over 60 million in areas under German control. Meanwhile the interior Soviet Union hosted 130 million original inhabitants and refugees from the west.[45] In other words Soviet citizens under German occupation were at least twice as likely to perish due to war-related malnutrition and disease than were civilians in the interior, unoccupied Soviet Union.

By far the most important immediate reason why chronic malnutrition struck the interior of the Soviet Union was that the German attack and advance had deprived it of its connection to the fertile agricultural regions of Ukraine and Russia that made the USSR into a net food producer. The Soviet Union deprived of Ukraine and parts of the southern and the Black Earth regions of Russia was simply not a food surplus area. Without a doubt the Soviet Union with agriculture that was not laboring under the constraints of collectivization and central planning and possessed a more responsive food distribution system would have weathered the crisis better and allowed fewer deaths.[46] However, for the most part it is the case that the inflexible Stalinist system made its populace exceedingly vulnerable to such a crisis, but it was the German invasion that delivered the blow that threw it over the precipice and caused mass death.

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Occupied, western Soviet Union was a net surplus food area, but regardless of this suffered a food crisis even more severe than that of food deficient areas of the Soviet interior. The root source of this hunger was that the Germans confiscated even larger portions of foodstuffs from the producers than the Soviet authorities had all the while distributing far less of the food back to Soviet civilians.[47]

In parallel with the German advance in 1941 the Soviets carried out a scorched earth policy in territories they were forced to yield. In the popular imagination this tactic is synonymous with destruction of foodstuffs, but actually this was a relatively small component of Soviet scorched earth compared to its evacuation aspect and had a comparatively small effect on the food supply. In Ukraine in 1941 the Soviets destroyed 0.2 million tons of foodstuffs, successfully evacuated 1.9 million tons of grain into the interior, while also leaving 0.9 million tons of grain that had already been harvested behind.[48] 

An even bigger evacuation effort involved the removal of agricultural mechanization and livestock. Up to one half of tractors and combines were successfully evacuated from the regions of the USSR that would fall to the Germans (24,000 from Ukraine and Belarus alone), as well as more than two million livestock — albeit the herds of the latter were soon slaughtered due to a lack of fodder and did not meaningfully contribute to herd sizes in the interior Soviet Union in the long term.

It is safe to say the evacuation of agricultural machinery and livestock from the western USSR had an immense impact on the ability of the western regions of the Soviet Union to grow food in itself. However, the food crisis that followed during the occupation was far more severe than could be explained by the Soviet scorched earth campaign of 1941. The latter was followed by the ruthless and exploitative (but probably counter-productive) policies of the German occupation. First of all the Germans set out to confiscate such proportions of food grown that they greatly reduced the incentive to produce. Secondly, they confiscated so much food for the needs of the Wehrmacht and the German civilians at home that what was left was nowhere enough to satisfy the needs of the Soviet civilians in territories under their control.

What is more the Germans had envisioned and planned for their confiscation policies to create a catastrophic food shortage for the Soviet civilians under their control since before the onset of the war. Given the intent of the German occupation to withhold food from much of the Soviet population it is doubtful many fewer people would have perished without the massive Soviet evacuation of food, agricultural mechanization and livestock. Most likely the larger yields that would have been possible would have meant the Germans would have been able to extract greater quantities of food for the needs of their army and the civilians at home, but very little of this would have benefited the Soviet civilians under occupation, millions of whom the Germans had intended to eliminate by way of hunger all along.

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Indeed, it has been estimated that even in thee abysmal year of 1942 the Ukraine had been able to produce a small grain surplus of 0.3 million tons above its needs of some 7.2 million tons.[49] Without German appetites occupied Ukraine should have been able to feed itself even in the disarray of the war. However, since the Germans simultaneously removed 1.2 million tons of grain and millions of horses, cattle and pigs what actually occurred was a catastrophic shortage of food and consequent chronic malnutrition, deterioration in health and widespread death of malnourished civilians due to disease.

Finally as the Germans were gradually forced to retreated west they carried out a destructive scorched earth policy of their own. Albeit similarly uneven theirs was generally even more damaging than the effort of the Soviets in 1941. Seeing it took the Soviets two years after the Stalingrad battle to expel the Germans from the territory they had yielded to them in 1941 in just six months, the Germans were better positioned to strip value from the land they were vacating and were just as determined to do so, as well as still more ruthless than had been the Soviets.

The categories of people who were the most likely to die due to privation were young children and the elderly as the frailest, most vulnerable part of the population. Next were the city-dwellers in the occupied USSR whom the Germans perceived as useless eaters, the inhabitants of areas plundered in the course of German anti-partisan reprisals, the population of areas sacked in the course of German retreat and scorched earth, people whose homes were destroyed in battles between the armies, evacuees who fled the German advance into the interior, the populace of areas that received large numbers of evacuees and others.

In all the German invasion and the exploitative policies of the German occupation may be identified as the most immediate cause of privation and deaths due to privation for the vast majority of the 7.6-8 million Soviet civilians who perished in the course of the war in this way (outside Leningrad and the gulag). Soviet policies were a contributing factor for many as well, particularly in the sense that they made the population more vulnerable to depredation of the invaders and amplified the negative consequences of the latter's policies and actions. For example the pre-war internal passport system and movement controls discouraged people from attempting to flee before the German advance into the interior, and the collectivization of agriculture made it far easier for the German occupiers to extract vast quantities of food from Soviet peasant and leave them hungry.

43. A.A. Shevyakov "Gitlerovski genotsid na territoriyakh SSR", Sotsiologicheskie issiedovaniya, no. 12 (1991). A.A. Shevyakov "Zhertvy sredi mirnogo nasseleniya v gody otechestvennoi voiny", Sotsiologicheskie issiedovaniya, no. 11 (1992).

44. G.V. Krivosheev et al., Rossiya i SSSR v voinah XX veka: Poteri vooruzhennyh sil: Statisticheskoe issledovanie (Moscow: Olma-Press, 2001), table 115. Hans-Heinrich Nolte, Kleine Geschichte Rußlands (Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1998), 259. Gil Elliot, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 59.
45. Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 50. Mark Harisson, Soviet Planning in Peace and War, 1938–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 72.
46. Indeed Soviet authorities quickly recognized that given the circumstances their socialist system was wholly inadequate to feed the entire population. They immediately resigned themselves to only making certain that the soldiers and the most important workers were fed enough to live off and to providing some food to other workers and their families. Everyone but the soldiers and the workers in most difficult professions needed to somehow fend for themselves just to survive, and only select few received, or could hope to secure, nutrition adequate for health just from formal channels. In a further admission of the inadequacy of the hard-line Soviet system many of its restraints were temporarily lifted and many policies reversed so that during the war there was more freedom in production and distribution of food than at any other time since collectivization and the end of the NEP. For example the same authorities which had previously eradicated private farms in the countryside now encouraged urbanites to plot their own private gardens in and around their cities. For more see William Moskoff, The Bread of Affliction: The Food Supply in the USSR During World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
47. Ibid., 48-50.
48. Ibid., 22, 29.
49. Ibid., 48.

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