Source: www.osa.ceu.hu/gulag/

On the Scope of Political Repression in the USSR
under Stalin's Rule: 19211953

There are no precise statistics regarding the number of victims of the communist regime in the USSR. On the one hand, this fact can be explained by the lack of reliable documentary evidence. On the other hand, the very notion "a victim of the regime" is difficult to define in this case.

The notion can be construed in a narrow sense: "victims" are individuals that were arrested by the political police (security bodies) and convicted on political charges by judicial or quasi-judicial authorities. Based on this definition, the number of the victims of repression in the period from 1921 through 1953 can be estimated as 5.5 million persons, with a narrow margin of statistical error.

The notion can also be interpreted in the broadest possible sense. Then the number of the victims of Bolshevism will also encompass various categories of deportees, people who died in artificial famines, those killed in engineered armed conflicts, casualties in numerous wars waged in the name of communism, those children that were never born because their potential parents had been repressed or starved to death, and many others. In this case, the estimate of the total number of the regime's victims will approach 100 million persons (a number of the same order of magnitude as the country's population itself).

For all that, we can always intuitively distinguish those that were subject to purposeful actions undertaken by the communist authorities from those that simply happened to live in this miserable country, where disrespect for human life, hard forced labor, limited civil rights and freedoms were the norm rather than an exception.

And even if we can identify all the population groups that were systematically destroyed or discriminated against, we cannot merely "add them together" into one broad category of "victims," for the pressures exerted by the authorities in different cases were too diverse, and the repercussions were too manifold.

Below we cite only the most conspicuous, broad categories of the victims of repression.

I.        Persons arrested by the state security authorities (VechekaOGPUNKVDMGB)[i] and sentenced to execution, various terms in prisons and prisons camps, or exile. A tentative estimate of this category in the period from 1921 through 1953 amounts to some 5.5 million persons.

The consolidated figures we cite in Table 1 result from the analysis of a variety of documentary sources, primarily different statistical reports issued by the state security bodies. These data are not final; indeed they are certainly incomplete, since there are too many omissions and discrepancies in the surviving documents. Although each specific figure presented in the table could be made more precise, the overall historical reality pertaining to the scope of repression and its dynamics (see the diagram) appears to be reflected fairly accurately.

The table contains three columns:

The category "Brought to trial" includes persons that were subjected to prosecution (the majority, but not all of them, having been placed under arrest). The figures presented in this column show the number of cases undertaken by the state security bodies during the given year rather than the number of persons that were eventually convicted and sentenced (for example, this category includes those released during investigation).

The category "Convicted" refers to persons that were sentenced to different punishments by various bodies: tribunals or administrative commissions ("troikas," "dvoikas," "special councils," etc.)[ii]. It should be taken into account that the "convicted" are not necessarily included in the number of those "brought to trial" during the same year, as the conviction often took place in the successive calendar year after the beginning of trial.

The category "Capital punishment" refers to persons sentenced to death.

 

Diagram. Dynamics of political repression: 1921 1953.



Table 1. Dynamics of political repression: 1921 1953.

 

Years

Brought to trial

Convicted

Sentenced to
capital punishment

1921

200,270

89,530

12,200

1922

119,330

50,540

2,410

1923

104,280

41,850

880

1924

92,850

40,740

2,830

1925

72,660

39,250

2,660

1926

62,820

43,940

1,250

1927

76,980

54,840

2,690

1928

111,880

95,620

1,490

1929

219,860

147,210

3,020

1930

378,540

285,820

20,980

1931

479,070

272,960

11,290

1932

499,250

263,210

5,120

1933

634,430

422,140

5,790

1934

336,000

224,410

3,500

1935

293,680

267,080

1,230

1936

324,190

274,670

1,120

1937

940,850

860,160

392,380

1938

641,760

625,680

372,210

1939

47,420

66,630

2,600

1940

158,880

101,980

23,720

1941

214,020

130,000

28,800

1942

405,540

226,000

55,790

1943

420,750

165,000

20,500

1944

279,020

150,000

19,700

1945

221,090

126,000

10,600

1946

117,030

105,580

2,270

1947

93,740

67,590

900

1948

81,820

68,380

0

1949

80,280

72,520

0

1950

65,750

59,350

470

1951

54,810

54,160

1,800

1952

21,690

28,650

1,610

1953

16,490

12,080

300

Totals

7,867,030

5,533,570

1,012,110

 

Comments on the table:

1.      All figures are rounded off to units of ten.

2.      Data pertaining to the years 1918-1920 are not quoted, since available statistics from the corresponding period are fragmentary and, in some cases, fake. Estimates of the scope of the repression that took place during the Civil War and Red Terror vary between 60 thousand and 500 thousand persons (the former figure originating from official Cheka documents, the latter reconstructed based on indirect evidence; the actual figure though is likely to have been the average of the two, i.e. some 250300 thousand persons). It should also be noted here that the data from 1921 and 1922 are not exhaustive either, because some local Cheka and GPU bodies did not send their reports to Moscow at all or provided only fragmentary information at the time. Only some of these data (for example, related to the participants of the Kronstadt uprising) were later fully reconstructed on the basis of other sources.

3.      The figures given in the columns "Convicted" and "Sentenced to capital punishment" in the period of 19211934 are estimates. The reason is that the statistics issued by the security bodies covers only those convicted by the VechekaOGPU. However, many cases initially conducted by the security bodies were later handed over to judicial authorities (revolutionary and military tribunals, "people's trials" at various levels, Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR and other organs). No consolidated trial statistics covering these years exist. In order to estimate the number of judicial convictions on political charges, we had to extrapolate corresponding data from the judicial statistics of 1935-36 to the previous years (incorporating also available fragments of the relevant judicial statistics of the 1920s), and then add the resulting figures to the respective numbers of those convicted by extra-judicial authorities in 19211934.

4.      The figures for 1940 comprise the data pertaining to the executions of around 22 thousand Polish citizens in the so-called "Katyn case," although the data were not included in standard reports issued by the state security bodies.

5.      The figures for 1941 and 1942 include those prisoners (some 15 thousand persons) executed in the course of the evacuation of prisons from areas close to the front line. These numbers were never included in official reports either. Since we had no data at our disposal on the year-to-year distribution of the executions in question, we chose to divide the category in an arbitrary way, adding five thousand persons to the 1941 estimate and 10 thousand to the 1942 figure.

6.      A similar problem arose in the case of those arrested and convicted by the "Smersh"[iii] counter-intelligence bodies subordinated to the military ministry[iv]. At present only consolidated (and still incomplete) estimates are available for the period from the beginning of the war to May 1945 (627,636 persons brought to trial; 272,410 convicted; 66,538 executed). Therefore we had to distribute these data proportionally among the years of the corresponding period.

7.      The "Capital punishment" figures for 19481949 are not presented because execution was abolished by Soviet legislation in the period from 26 May 1947 until 12 January 1950.

8.      A careful reader will notice that the number of people convicted in 1952 is higher than the number of those brought to trial or arrested. The reason is that people were convicted en masse during that year in cases pending from the first post-war years (many foreign POWs and internees among them).

II.    Second broad category of victims of political repression: includes peasants banished from their native lands in the course of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class."

According to various estimates, a total of 2.5 to four million persons had to leave their native villages in 1930 through 1933, 1.8 million of them having become "special settlers" in the least developed areas of the European North, the Urals, Siberia and Kazakhstan. The rest were stripped of their property and resettled within their native regions, while a considerable number of the "kulaks" fled to larger cities and industrial construction sites. Stalin's agrarian policy resulted in mass starvation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which took an estimated six to seven million lives. Former "kulaks" were allowed to return to their native lands only after Stalin's death. However, we do not know how many of them took advantage of the opportunity.

III. Third broad category of victims of political repression: includes peoples subjected to total deportations from the areas of their traditional domicile to Siberia, Central Asia and Kazakhstan.

Most of these deportations took place during the war, in 19411945. Some peoples were deported by way of prevention, as the enemy's "potential abettors" (Koreans, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians). Others were accused of collaboration with the occupying German regimes (Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, some peoples of the Caucasus). Some of the deportees were mobilized into a so-called "labor army." The total number of deported persons amounted to 2.5 million (see Table 2). On the way to their destinations many died of hunger and disease. Their mortality rate in new locations was also very high. When the deportations took place, corresponding administrative national autonomous regions and republics were liquidated, and the toponyms were changed. Most of the deportees were not allowed to return to their native lands until 1956, while some of the repressed peoples (the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars) were not allowed to return until the late 1980s.

Apart from consolidated deportations of whole national groups as such, the politically motivated banishment of smaller numbers of people belonging to specific ethnic or social groups occurred at different times. It is extremely difficult to assess the total figure of these deportees (the minimal tentative estimate is 450 thousand persons).

Table 2. Deported peoples (1937 1944).

Nationality

Number of deportees (average estimate)

Year of deportation

Koreans

172,000

1937 1938

Germans

905,000

1941 1942

Finns, Ingrian Finns, Greeks, other nationalities of the states allied with Germany.

400,000

1941 1942

Kalmyks

101,000

1943 1944

Karachais

70,000

1943

Chechens, Ingushetians

485,000

1944

Balkars

37,000

1944

Crimean Tatars

191,000

1944

Meskhetian Turks and other peoples of Transcaucasia

100,000

1944

Total

2,461,000

 

 

* * *

The list of population categories subjected to political persecution and discrimination can be extended much further. We have not mentioned hundreds of thousands persons stripped of their civil rights for having the "wrong" social origin; killed when numerous peasant uprisings were suppressed; residents of the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine, Moldavia and Poland, exiled to the North or to Siberia; or those who lost their jobs and homes as a result of ideological persecution (for example, Jews repressed during the "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign).

Moreover, apart from these indisputable victims of political terror, there were millions convicted for petty "criminal" or disciplinary offences. Routinely, they are not regarded as victims of political repression, although many repression campaigns waged by the Soviet militia were politically motivated. A campaign "for the protection of socialist property" was conducted before WWII. During the war people were sentenced to prison terms for breaches of labor discipline. After the war, both charges were applied. Table 3 shows the outcomes of such campaigns. It includes some data from judicial statistics (as mentioned before, full statistics do not exist).

Table 3. The total number of persons convicted by courts and military tribunals in 19411956.

Year

The number of convicted

1941

3,381,755

1942

3,582,023

1943

3,222,556

1944

3,089,374

1945

2,742,146

1946

2,922,484

1947

2,934,810

1948

2,384,098

1949

2,224,661

1950

1,974,233

1951

1,566,963

1952

1,590,329

1953

1,230,390

1954

1,108,179

1955

1,186,716

1956

1,121,788

Total

36,262,505

 

Out of these inconceivable millions, 17,961,420 persons were convicted directly under "wartime decrees" (11,454,119 of them for absenteeism). As a rule, punishments under these and similar decrees were not very severe. Often those convicted were not confined; instead they were simply sentenced to community service or even unpaid (or partly paid) work at their own workplaces for a specific period. These practices along with the wording typically employed in the decrees revealed the main motivation behind them: to expand the system of forced labor beyond the premises of prison camps and "labor settlements." The formulae in question included: unauthorized departures from enterprises and institutions (or voluntary change of one's workplace); unauthorized absence (leave) from one's place of work; violation of discipline; voluntary departure of students from railway and factory professional schools; departure (desertion) from military institutions and from railway and waterborne transport; evasion of mobilization for work at industrial plants and construction sites; evasion of mobilization for agricultural work; unwillingness to work at a collective farm ("failure of collective farm workers to work out the minimal mandatory number of workdays"). Remarkably, these decrees were still in force for a while after Stalin's death. The policy was implemented again in the early 1960s, when the authorities started to persecute the unemployed (so-called "tuneyadtsy"[v]) all over the country. In 1964, this was the charge brought against Joseph Brodsky, poet from Leningrad, who was banished from the country and became a political emigrant and, later, a Nobel prize winner.

N.G. Okhotin, A.B. Roginsky

Memorial Society, Moscow

Translated from Russian by Anna Yastrzhembska



[i] Vecheka original abbreviation (also commonly abbreviated to (Cheka)) ; or All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage.

OGPU original abbreviation (also known as (GPU)) ; or Joint (All-Union) State Political Administration under Council of People's Commissars of the USSR.

NKVD original abbreviation ; or People's Commisariat for Internal Affairs.

MGB original abbreviation ; or The Ministry of State Security.

[ii] Troika (or NKVD troika) literally "triumvirate" a commission of three people (usually at the level of region) employed as an additional instrument of extrajudicial punishment introduced to supplement the legal system with a means for quick punishment, especially during the Great Purge.

Dvoika a commission created to implement extrajudicial punishemnts and comprising two persons: NKVD Chief and Prosecutor of the USSR.

Special council (or Special Council of the USSR NKVD) an NKVD organ endowed with the rights to apply extrajudicial punishments.

[iii] Smersh original abbreviation (from , or "Death to Spies") The full title of the entity was , or USSR People's Commissariat of Defense Chief Counterintelligence Directorate "SMERSH."

[iv] USSR People's Commissariat of Defense

[v] Literally "spongers."