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State Repression Caused an Estimated 1.5 Million Soviet WWII Deaths

A huge number but just a fraction of the USSR's total WWII losses (an estimated 25.3 million). It consists of:

  • 1 million who perished in the gulag and prisons
  • 200,000 executed by civilian or military courts
  • 300,000 who perished as deportees

The shortage of food caused by the German invasion was a major contributing factor to deaths of gulag inmates and deportees

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

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 second 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. Here is the link to the first chapter.

The Soviet Union under Stalin engaged in repression of its citizens on a vast scale. Its repression was deadly and resulted in numerous deaths, even when the state had not explicitly set out to cause the deaths of those it repressed. What is more, the four years of the Great Patriotic War were characterized by a sharp increase in the scale of repression and deaths of repressed persons relative to most peacetime years under Stalin, including the immediate pre-war period.

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The Gulag

Archival data shows the gulag administration in the years 1941 through 1945 presided over the deaths of 1.02 million inmates, of whom 622,000 were prisoners in the labor camps of the gulag, 312,000 in labor colonies of the gulag and 85,000 in prisons. The total number of deaths the gulag was responsible for in this timeframe might be even higher on the account of deaths among former inmates who died after their release as a consequence of the conditions they had been subjected to during their imprisonment.[8]

During the war mortality among the inmates of the gulag increased sharply so that half of those who perished in the gulag died during the war years, particularly between 1941 and 1943 and mainly of malnutrition-related causes. The German invasion of the USSR caused food shortages everywhere in the Soviet Union, however malnutrition and the consequent mortality in the gulag was much more severe than among free Soviet citizens in the unoccupied USSR.

The most proximate cause of the crisis for the inmates of the gulag was that they were kept imprisoned, mostly unjustly, with little access to food, not that the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union and caused a general shortage of food. Had the regime released the inmates it was unable to feed they would have stood far better chances of surviving than they did in the camps. This would have only benefited the war effort as a gulag inmate was only half as productive as a free laborer.

Internal Exile and the Labor Army

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Another major category of Soviet citizens who suffered lethal repression at the hands of the Soviet regime during the war were deportees in internal exile. Deportees were usually stripped of their civic freedoms, lost most of their property and were often dumped in some of the most inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union – condemned to live in "special settlements" that often did not yet exist and they would first have to build themselves. Besides performing labor in their colonies the exiles were routinely lent out to industries as enslaved labor, or else, during the war, conscripted into the labor army.

The exile groups experienced far higher rates of mortality compared to the rest of the Soviet population, particularly in the first several years of their exile. As they gradually settled into their new environments their mortality rates decreased and eventually normalized. Both because they gradually succeeded in improving their circumstances, and because by this time most of their infirm, who were the most likely not to survive the exile, had already died off. Thus the Australian historian Stephen Wheatcroft has shown that mortality of Kulak exiles, who were mainly deported in the early 1930s, by 1938 no longer exceeded mortality among the general population.[9]

This means that excess wartime deaths among deportees likely occured almost exlusively among the exiles deported in subsequent national deportations, particularly among the exile contingents deported during the war itself, but also among those exiled immediately before the war and in the late 1930s. During the war some 2.4 million people were deported in the wholesale deportations of Germans and Finns in 1941 and of Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, the Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks deported in 1943 and 1944.[10] Additionally 380,000 people were deported in 1940 and the first half of 1941, as well as 240,000 in 1936-1939, and 465,000 in 1935.[11]

The Russian-Karachai scholar D.M. Ediev has calculated that up to 1952 there were 474,000 excess deaths among the nine nationality groups deported wholesale during the war, including 247,000 among exiled Germans and Finns and 226,000 among Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, the Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks.[12]

From this starting point it can be estimated that deportations, banishment and unfree service in the Labor Army caused the deaths of some 300,000 internal exiles during the war. This pressuposes that one half, or 240,000, of the total loss of the deportees deported during the war occurred before January 1946, and that there were several tens of thousand of additional deaths during the war among exiles deported in 1940-41 and the late 1930s.[13] This figure is roughly in line with the estimate of The Cambridge History of Russia which estimates a somewhat smaller number of 250,000 deportee deaths.[14]

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It is well documented that 1941 through 1945 civilian courts in the USSR sentenced to death 22,572 people for criminal offenses and 42,149 people for political offenses.[15]

Additional executions occurred in the context of NKVD prison massacres in 1941 in the western USSR. Due to the speed of the initial German advance across USSR territory and the existing demands on the Soviet transportation system the Soviet authorities found it impossible to evacuate the prisons lying in the path of the Germans in time. Rather than leave them to the enemy the center ordered local NKVD guards to evacuate some categories of prisoners, release others and execute still others. Subsequently the NKVD massacred about 8,789 inmates in prisons in Ukraine and 530 in Belarus, an additional 940 prisoners during the evacuations from these prisons, and an unknown number in the prisons in Baltic republics and western Russia.[16] The number executed in such circumstances is therefore not fully certain, however, the losses among the prisoner population that were sustained in this way are counted in the 85,000 wartime losses among the prison population.

Furthermore, 135,000 Red Army men were executed after court martials. The research conducted in the pertinent archives by the Russiah scholar G.F Krivosheev, shows that Soviet military tribunals passed sentances against 994,000 soldiers, of whom 423,000 were transferred to penal battalions, 436,000 were imprisoned and the remaining 135,000 were shot.[17]


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In summary during the Soviet-German war of 1941-45 there were around 1.5 million deaths of Soviet citizens due to repression of the Soviet authorities. These encompass the 1 million deaths among the captive population in the gulag and the prisons, 200,000 condemned to death and executed of whom were 65,000 civilians and 135,000 military, as well as roughly 300,000 internal exiles who perished during the war as a consequence of deportations and conscription into the labor army.

Deaths in prisons and camps and colonies of the gulag 1,020,000
Deaths in deportations, internal exile and the labor army 300,000
Executions by civil authorities 65,000
Executions by military tribunals 135,000
Total deaths due to Soviet state repression 1,500,000

8. Michael Haynes and Rumy Hasan, A Century of State Murder? Death and Policy in Twentieth-Century Russia (London: Pluto Press, 2003), 214-215.

9. Stephen Wheatcroft "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930-1945". Europe-Asia Studies 48, no. 8 (1996): 1319-1353, Table 11.
10. Dalkhat Ediev, Demograficheskie Poteri Deportirovannyh Narodov SSSR (Stavropol': StGAU "AGRUS", 2003), 302, Table 109.
11. Pavel Polian, Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004), 327-333.
12. Ediev, Demograficheskie Poteri Deportirovannyh Narodov SSSR, 302-303.
13. A big portion of the 380 thousand deported from 1940 to mid-1941 were Poles from the newly annexed territories. Seeing they were subject to the amnesties of August 17th 1941 and June 30th 1943 their exile was much shorter and presumably less deadly. Thus, compared to the exiles deported after 22.6.1941 there must have been relatively fewer deaths during the war among those deported 1940-41.
14. John Barber and Mark Harrison, "Patriotic War, 1941-45" in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 226.
15. Stephen Wheatcroft "Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: The Comparability and Reliability of the Archival Data — Not the Last Word". Europe-Asia Studies 51, no. 2 (1999): 337-338. 
16. Aleksandr Gur'yanov and Aleksandr Kokurin "Èvakuacija tjurem. 1941". Rossijskij istoricheskij zhurnal "Karta", no.6 (1994): 16-27.
17. G. F. Krivosheev, ed., Rossiya i SSSR v voynah XX veka: poteri vooruzhyonnyh sil. Statisticheskoe issledovanie (Moscow: OLMA-Press, 2001), 246.

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