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WWII: Axis Caused the Deaths of Over 15 Million Soviet Civilians and Disarmed Soldiers

Of some 25.3 million Soviet citizens who perished in WWII some 15.7 million were civilians or POWs who died due to policies of the Axis nations. This goes to show that any notion of moral Soviet and Nazi equivalence in the context of WWII is wide off the mark.

It also goes a long way to explaining why WWII remains central to Russian collective consciousness and how petty and undignified the western boycott of the Russian commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII over daily political matters is.

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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.

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This is the concluding chapter of a research paper from the pen of RI deputy editor and contributor Marko Marjanović. Links to preceding chapters:

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Total demographic loss of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War was 28 million people. This includes 26.6 million estimated loss in excess of expected deaths calculated by ADK, the 1.1 million deaths due to war-related causes of people expected to die in the timeframe in accidents and of natural causes and 0.3 million expected deaths due to Soviet repression. Of the 28 million lives lost 2.7 million were migration loss and 25.3 million were actual war dead. Of the second figure 1.5 million deaths were due to Soviet state repression and 23.8 million were due to war and policies of the occupier.

Military Deaths

Of the 25.3 million deaths due to war 11.05 million were what are usually deemed "military deaths". These, however, include 3.1 million deaths of Soviet POWs in German custody, not all of whom were actually military personnel, 20,000 POW deaths in Finnish custody and 135,000 Red Army men executed by Soviet military tribunals, as well as 7.25 million deaths of Red Army men due to combat, accidents and disease, 250,000 deaths of Soviet partisans and militiamen and 290,000 deaths of Soviet citizens who fought as part of non-Soviet forces, mainly in German service.

Not counting prisoners of war and soldiers condemned in courts martial who were the victims of enemy states and of their own state, and fighters who died as part of non-Soviet forces, the proper Soviet military dead adds up to 7.5 million regulars and irregulars, of whom more than 300,000 were due to frostbite and disease and 150,000 in accidents.[50]

Civilian Deaths

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Of the upwards of 14.25 million civilian deaths 7.6-8 million occurred due to general privation associated with the German invasion and occupation. Just over half of such deaths occurred in the western USSR mainly due to ruthless economic exploitation of the occupation. The remainder occurred in the interior USSR mainly due to the fact the German advance eastwards had cut off the Soviet Union from the majority of its food surplus areas. A further 0.9 million civilian deaths occurred in blockaded Leningrad, and 200,000 among Soviet forced laborers in German-run Europe and the children born to them. 1 million perished in the course of the war in the prisons, camps and colonies of the Soviet penal system, and 300,000 during deportations or internal exile, again mostly due to malnutrition, exhaustion and disease.

2.55 million Jews, citizens of the Soviet Union, were murdered in the course of the Jewish Holocaust, mainly by application of direct violence. The Germans further shot or otherwise directly caused the deaths of some 850,000-1,050,000 non-Jews. Mainly in anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside, but also as part of killing policies or repression against Communists, the Roma, the intelligentsia, the urban underground, mental patients and in forced evacuations accompanying their retreat. 50,000 civilians perished in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities and towns, and some 200,000-400,000 were killed in the course of, and in the aftermath of battles between armies by German and Soviet battle munitions — shells, rockets, bombs, land mines and the like. The Soviet state executed 65,000 Soviet civilians for political, or ostensibly criminal offenses, and the Soviet partisans killed probably about 60,000 in reprisals against perceived collaborators. A further 90,000 civilians were murdered in the course of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in western Ukraine. 

Roughly speaking there were over 4 million civilian deaths due to hard violence by all sides, as well over 10 million such deaths due to privation and associated deterioration in health.

POW and Civilian Deaths Inflicted by the Germans

3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war, who were neither exclusively soldiers, nor were they actually afforded the privileges of POW status perished in German custody. Majority of them in 1941 and 1942 when the Wehrmacht carried out a conscious policy of eliminating its Soviet POWs by deliberately arranging for them to starve to death. 0.9 million Soviet civilians perished in besieged Leningrad. These died as a result of a starvation blockade of the city that occurred in the course of a battle, but which the Germans intended to put up even had they broken the resistance of the Soviet defenders of the city. 200,000 Soviet forced laborers and their newborn children died having been deported to Germany, or German-occupied Europe. 7.6-8 million civilians died during the war due to general privation and shortage of food, mainly caused by the German invasion and exploitation under the occupation. Of these just over one half among the 60 million under German occupation, and just under one half among the 130 million (including the 16 million refugees from the west) in the interior Soviet Union which had been cut off from its agriculturally most productive regions by  the German advance. 

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2.55 million Soviet Jews were murdered in the Nazi program to exterminate Jews across their empire in Europe. The German security apparatus shot or killed using other violent means an estimated 650,000 people in anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside. Some 200,000-400,000 Soviet civilians were murdered in all other German policies of mass killing and political and social repression. 50,000 people died in the German stratgic bombing of Soviet cities. 200,000-400,000 civilians may have perished due to military battles, probably one half due to German munitions. In total the Germans inflicted some 15.7 million deaths among Soviet civilians and soldiers they had already captured and disarmed. Of this figure one quarter were killed due to hard violence such as being shot. Three quarters died due to privation, mainly of hunger and disease.

Deaths of Soviet Citizens Inflicted by the Soviet Side

215,000 Soviet citizens died fighting against Soviet forces in the German-organized auxiliary police (Schuma), the SS and the Wehrmacht. Of the 75,000 guerillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Polish Home Army (AK) and the various Lithuanian nationalist fighting organizations nearly 60,000 might have been inflicted by the Soviet army, the NKVD, police forces, militia and partisans.

One million Soviet citizens, victims of Soviet repression, perished in prisons and as forced laborers in camps and colonies of the gulag, mainly due to malnutrition, exhaustion and disease. 300,000 Soviet citizens, also victims of Soviet repression, perished of much the same causes in internal exile after being deported, mainly in nationality-based deportations. 65,000 Soviet citizens were executed by the Soviet civil authorities and some 135,000 citizens serving in the Red Army by the Soviet military authorities. Most likely some 60,000 people were killed in reprisals carried out by the Soviet partisans. If military battles killed 200,000-400,000 people Soviet munitions may have accounted for one half of this number.

In total the Soviet side directly inflicted nearly 2 million deaths among inhabitants of the USSR, of whom some 275,000 were Soviet citizens fighting against the Soviet Union in German service and as Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian anti-Soviet guerrillas. Counting just the deaths among civilians and its own soldiers the Soviet side inflicted 1.7 million deaths among its citizens. 

Losses by Gender 

Research conducted by Russian demographers Andreev, Darskii and Kharkova suggests the Soviet population from 1941 through 1945 lost 13.5 million more males than females.[51] 

In the Soviet-German War the USSR suffered 11.05 million military deaths which would have been overwhelmingly of males. 1941-1945 65,000 Soviet citizens were executed by civil authorities and a further 1,020,000 people died in prisons, camps and colonies of the gulag. These deaths too would have been overwhelmingly of males. Also about 500,000 Soviet prisoners or war, or Soviet citizens in German service successfully avoided repatriation to the USSR at the end of World War II. Thus 12.6 million, or the great majority of the male to female deficit in Soviet population, is accounted for by military deaths, judicial executions, deaths in the gulag and emigration of collaborators and prisoners of war. This may attest to at least a rough validity of estimates presented in this paper.

The unaccounted difference between 12.6 and 13.5 million may mean that males were, somewhat counter-intuitively, slightly overrepresented among civilian deaths as well. Possibly particularly due to being overrepresented among victims of German anti-partisan reprisals and other killing policies. It may also mean the number of 500,000 is an under-estimation of how many more males than females managed to emigrate. It may also mean that 11 million is an underestimation of Soviet military deaths in the Soviet-German War. Krivosheev himself estimates 500,000 Red Army deaths due to combat in excess of reported fatalities, but it could be the Soviet reporting system was off by more than that number. Indeed a noted Russian scholar, S.N. Mihkhalev, estimates the USSR lost 10.9 million Red Amy and NKVD regulars on the front, to military tribunals or in captivity. This would push the combined military casualties from the Soviet population to 11.4 million. Naturally, it might be that the 0.9 million difference was due to some combination of any of the three factors mentioned.

Migration Deficit

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The scale of migration deficit is possibly the most uncertain of all causes of Soviet population losses in the Soviet-German War. The 2.7 million estimate from Ellman and Maksudov used here is 20 years old and is based on only a very rough and preliminary calculation.[52] Even as such, however, it remains seemingly the most-well supported of all such estimates (most of which are not nearly as high). This article then uses the seemingly best available, but still rather uncertain figure.

Hopefully scholars will return to this question and eventually produce a more certain estimate, so that the question of how much of the Soviet population deficit in the war may be attributed to emigration might be answered more reliably.

Population of Newly Annexed Territories

Since the Soviet Union conducted a population census in 1937 and then again in 1939 we have a fairly good idea how large the population of the USSR was in its 1939 borders. The far bigger unknown is how many new citizens were added through Soviet territorial expansion in 1939-40. 

This means that the size of the Soviet population on the eve of the war is not fully certain, which makes estimating its losses all the more difficult. Andreev, et al, estimate that through annexations the Soviet population increased by 20.3 million. On the one hand Ellman and Maksudov reckon this is more likely to be an underestimate than an overestimate. Indeed there are other estimates that go up to 23 million. On the other hand there are rival lower estimates as well. S.N. Mihkhalev reckons newly annexed territories were populated by between 17 and 20 million inhabitants.[53]

The interplay between the uncertainty connected to the size of net emigration balance and the size of population added through annexations on the eve of the war makes estimating the likeliest number of Soviet war dead all the more difficult. For example if 2.7 million is actually an overestimate of how many people the USSR lost through migration and 20.3 million is an underestimation of how many lived in the newly added territories then 25.3 million would be considerably less than the actual war dead. On the other hand if 2.7 million is an overestimate of emigration balance and 20.3 million an overestimate of the number of people in the annexed territories then 25.3 million could well be a basically right estimate even though these two inputs were off.


The significance of the breakdown of Soviet WWII losses presented here is in relative rather than absolute terms. It is not anything approaching a definite breakdown, but it does represent an improvement over anything else produced so far. There is a definite limit on how clearly anyone will ever be able to estimate and break down the losses from a war that is now 70 years old, but more than that much more research still needs to be done. A considerably more reliable breakdown is possible, but only after historians have done more work on topics such as the partisan war in the USSR, the life under the German occupation, the food supply in wartime USSR and so on. Counter-intuitively, despite being so vast, the human cost of the Soviet-German War 1941-45 can be said to remain a woefully understudied subject.

Deaths of Soviet civilians and disarmed soldiers attributable to Axis:

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Soviet POW deaths in German hands 3,100,000
Soviet POW deaths in Finnish hands 20,000
Deaths of Soviet forced laborers in German-run Europe and children born to them 200,000
Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union murdered in the Holocaust 2,550,000
Civilian deaths in the Siege of Leningrad 900,000
Non-Jewish Civilians killed in German anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside 650,000
Civilian deaths in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities 50,000
Civilians killed in all other German killing policies and repression 200,000-400,000
Civilian deaths due to battle munitions of the Axis 100,000-200,000
Civilian deaths due to general privation due to invasion and occupation 7,600,000-8,000,000
Total attributable to Axis (rounded) 15,700,000

Deaths of Soviet civilians and disarmed soldiers attributable to USSR:

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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
Killed in reprisals of the Soviet partisans 60,000
Civilian deaths due to battle munitions of the Soviets 100,000-200,000
Total attributable to Soviets (rounded) 1,700,000

50. 270,000 Soviet regulars died due to disease, but there would have been tens of thousands of more such deaths among Soviet partisans. 

51. E.M. Andreev, L.E. Darskii and T.L. Kharkova, Naselenie Sovetskogo Sojuza 1922-1991, table 35, p. 78. 

52. Ellman and Maksudov, "Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War", 678- 679. 

53. Mentioned in L.L. Rybakovskij, "Lyudskie poteri SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne", Sotsiologicheskie issiedovaniya, no. 6 (2000): 108-118, citing SN Mikhalev, Ljudskie poteri SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne (St. Petersburg: 1995).

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