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October 18, 2006

Stalin the Mass Murderer: How many victims?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

How many people did Stalin kill? William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth and the author of Genocide: A History - argues that the most likely figure is that Stalin was directly responsible for about seven million deaths.

Two months ago I wrote an article for this site about Keith Windschuttle, the Australian historian who has suggested that no more than about 120 Aborigines were killed by whites in Tasmania during the colonial era. The article was republished on his website and in an Australian newspaper (The Australian), and has attracted a good deal of attention.

As is so often the case, much of the attention it attracted was rather unexpected. In this essay I said that historians revise the death tolls of past massacres all the time, as new evidence comes along. One example I gave was the number of victims of Stalin's Purges and mass murders which has been revised downwards since perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union, as new archival information has become available. Rather to my surprise, I have received a steady stream of emails attacking me and questioning the bases of my statement. It might, therefore, be worth taking a closer look at Stalin and his crimes.

I might preface this by making several points which should, I think, be obvious. In no sense am I whitewashing one of the worst criminals in history, a man who would certainly be on any shortlist of the very worst. Secondly, even if the death toll for Stalin is revised downwards by a very considerable extent, it is still enormous and almost unimaginably large. Thirdly, had I myself been an adult in the Soviet Union in Stalin's period of supreme rule (1928-53), my own chances of survival, as an intellectual, a Jew, a pro-Zionist, an historian, and an habitual dissenter, would certainly be close to zero, and only marginally greater than my chances of survival in Nazi-occupied Europe. I am well aware of all of this, and hope that the purpose of this essay is not misunderstood.

During the 1960s and 1970s, estimates in the West of the number of persons killed by Stalin were unimaginably large, up to fifty million, with twenty million probably a rough average. These estimates appeared in the writings of such distinguished authors as Robert Conquest, in his famous and magisterial The Great Terror (1968).

Conquest and others unquestionably did an enormous service in finally removing the prevalent depiction of Stalin, so common among so many Western intellectuals, as an essentially benevolent ruler of a backward society whose lapses were unfortunate and out of character. No one now can reasonably assert that Stalin was anything other than a paranoid megalomaniac, a man quite probably clinically insane during the latter part of his life, whose brutality matched and possibly even exceeded Hitler's.

Nevertheless, facts are facts, and it might well be that the actual scale of his killings has been exaggerated. Stalin's mass killings consisted of several separate, perhaps only loosely related campaigns of mass killing, most notably the death toll in the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, the Great Purges of the later 1930s, and the mass relocations of minority people during and just after the Second World War. Behind everything, of course, was the constant, continuing, ever-pervasive background of terror and repression throughout the whole history of Stalinist Russia.

Stalin built on Lenin's foundations. Although hardly comparable to Stalin, Lenin and his Old Bolshevik henchmen killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, in the "Red Terror" and the post-1917 Civil War. An estimated five million persons died in the Soviet famine of 1921-22. Yet the number of victims of Communist mass murder was probably declining steadily by the time of Lenin's death in 1924. As is well known, Lenin was probably on the point of expelling Stalin from positions of influence when he died. Had Stalin disappeared, the history of the Soviet Union would obviously have been very different and far more moderate, with the (by Soviet standards) moderate Bukharin probably emerging as Lenin's successor. If he had, arguably by the 1930s the Soviet Union would have been something like Tito's Yugoslavia, with a continuing private sector, especially in agriculture, more intellectual freedom, and far less centralisation from the Kremlin.

Stalin's complete victory over his rivals and opponents, however, transformed the Soviet Union into an entirely totalitarian regime, dedicated above all to augmenting the nation's military-industrial might as a Great Power with Stalin as, in effect, the new Czar.

The first group to feel the genocidal effects of Stalinism were the Ukrainians, victims, in 1932-33, of an all-out attempt by Stalin to confiscate surplus grain and collectivise all agriculture. Most recent historians put the number of Ukrainians who died at somewhere between three and five million (considerably less than the figure posited by Conquest and others). In addition, about 1.5 - 1.7 million Kazakhs also died through this famine, about 42 per cent of the entire Kazakh population. This death toll is virtually unknown in the West, even now.

The Great Purges of the mid - late 1930s, especially the Ezhovschina of 1937-38 (named for Stalin's infamous head of the NKVD, Nikolai Ezhov or Yezhov) was, of course, the centrepiece of Stalinist mass murder, and at the heart of Stalin's place next to Hitler as an all-time super-killer.

A good deal of recent research has gone into determining how many people Stalin actually killed in his Purges, often employing novel research methods. For instance, Sheila Fitzpatrick, a well-known historian of this subject, compared telephone subscribers listed in the Moscow phone book between 1937 and 1938, the height of the Purges. She found that 12 per cent of the engineers and 16 per cent of teachers, but only 3 per cent of doctors, had disappeared in one year. However, 60 per cent of officials of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry had vanished between 1937 and 1939 - definitely not a job with (normal) lifetime tenure.

Overall, it would appear that about 850,000 persons were murdered during the Ezhovschina of 1937-38. About 2.7 million persons were sent to Soviet gulags and labour camps in the three years 1937-9. These figures are very considerably lower than the traditional figures of up to ten million deaths during this period.

During the Second World War, Stalin engaged in a variety of "ethnic cleansing" measures and sundry mass murders and purges, little known or noted in the West until recently, which were also horrifying in their scale. Between 1937 and 1944 the Soviet government deported twelve nationality groups from their traditional homelands to areas of "internal exile" in central Asia and Siberia. In the late 1930s, during the period of growing hostility with Japan, 172,000 Koreans were deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while the Volga Germans and Leningrad Finns were deported soon after the War began in 1941. About 1.8 million Crimean Tartars were deported as late as May 1944: they were regarded as disloyal to the regime, although by then the War was on the way to being won.

Probably the most notorious case of wartime Stalinist ethnic cleansing occurred to the Chechens, who were moved en bloc to central Asia and allowed to return only in 1956-7. (The origins of today's Chechen terrorism may well be found in these events.) These mass transfers were carried out by the most brutal possible means, and by the NKVD's own figures, over 260,000 persons died in the process.

Probably hundreds of thousands were also killed in Stalinist Purges during the period 1939-41 when the Baltic states, eastern Poland, and other areas were taken over by the Soviet Union, and again from 1944-45 on, when millions were driven west by the events of the end of the War and the Soviet Union also established its hegemony over eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands certainly also died in "everyday" and miscellaneous acts of terrorism and persecution by the Stalinist secret police throughout the whole of the period of Stalin's rule.

In all, it seems most likely that Stalin was directly responsible for killing about seven million people. It is possible that this figure is an underestimate, although it is difficult to see how the death figure could be vastly higher than this. Stalin obviously ranks as one of the most evil monsters in history, although the most accurate estimate - and historians must always aim for accuracy - is that he was not quite as monstrous as many have, not surprisingly, long believed. Nor can mere figures convey the universal atmosphere of terror and fear which pervaded the Soviet Union and the satellite states during the Stalin era. That "only" 850,000 persons were murdered during the Great Purge of 1937-8 might usefully be compared with the fact that, during the entire fours years of the First World War, 720,000 British troops were killed in virtually continuous brutal fighting.

While Stalin's enormities are fully comparable to Hitler's, he differed from the Nazi dictator in many respects. In Nazi Germany if one were not a Jew, Slav, handicapped, or hardcore Marxist, and didn't make trouble, one would usually be left alone, at least until the latter phases of the Second World War, when all-embracing paranoia set in. Of course Nazi Germany had a far-reaching secret police force spying on everyone, but its underlying concept of a Volkish (racial-nationalist) society meant that all Aryans were regarded as equal. Apart from the "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934, Hitler strikingly failed to purge anyone in his inner circle, nearly all of whom - Goebbels, Himmler, Goering et al. - remained alive and in place until the end or just before the end.

Notwithstanding the fact that fewer were murdered by Stalin than was previously believed, in contrast, in Stalinist Russia no one was safe, and literally anyone might expect the dreaded "knock on the door" after midnight by the secret police. One did not have to be "guilty" of anything, needless to say: everyone was a target for arrest and the gulag or worse. In marked contrast to Hitler and the longevity of his inner circle, Stalin killed the great majority of those who rose to power with him in the Revolution and afterwards, starting with Kirov in 1934, proceeding to the "Old Bolsheviks" during the mid-1930s, and finishing with his arch-rival Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, in 1940. Only a handful of "Old Bolsheviks" like Molotov and Kaganovitch, remained in senior positions - or even alive - in March 1953 when Stalin finally died.

The two regimes were highly comparable in that both were the product of the breakdown of the European order in the First World War - Bolshevism a direct product, Nazism an indirect product of the effects of Versailles and the lack of legitimacy of the Weimar government. It is virtually inconceivable that either regime would have come to power if the First World War had not occurred, and it took until the collapse of Communism around 1990 to fully repair the damage the Great War did to European society.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth and is the author of Genocide: A History. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.


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I remember seeing pictures of children starving in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930's - a reminder that such things don't only happen in Africa. What I'd like to ask is, when the author says directly murdered, is he including those who died in these famines?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 26, 2006 08:31 AM
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No, the figure includes everyone who died in the famine, from whatever cause. I don't know how many Stalin or his Party henchmen directly murderered. Bill Rubinstein

Posted by: William D. Rubinstein at October 27, 2006 10:15 AM
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Is there any statistic about how many Muslim's Stalin killed during his presidential era?

Posted by: Ali at February 23, 2009 08:46 PM
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Does it really matter how many muslims died? All that matters is that many people were killed by Stalin (directly and indirectly). He was not a good leader and even now people are under the false pretense that Stalin was a good leader, and it is ridiculous. There are many races that Stalin killed and there were many muslims because the Mogul's decendants had settled in the South Central part of Russia near the Volga River. They were know as the Kossacs.

Posted by: Esha at February 20, 2010 07:55 PM
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