Stalin by the Numbers

The 50th Anniversary of Khrushchev’s speech has passed but not unnoticed. There was lots of commentary over the week in English and Russia media. Below you’ll find links to English and Russian language articles that have been published in the last few days. The list is far from complete. I won’t provide any detailed commentary on them.

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech & End Of Communism
1956: Khrushchev Lashes Out At Stalin
Khrushchev: The Man Who Stood Up To Stalinism
Russia Turns Its Back On The Man Who Denounced Stalin
Stalin Nostalgia Growing in Russia
1959: Macmillan And Khrushchev Talk Peace
‘The First Nail In The Coffin Of Communism’
The Speech Russia Wants To Forget

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Instead I would like to concentrate on a recent poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion (VTsIOM) on “Repression, the Repressed and ‘the Strong Hand’” released this week in conjunction with the anniversary of de-Stalinization. An analysis of the poll can be found here. Such polls are common in Post-Soviet Russia. Many people see them as a gauge to the Russian population’s “transition” to democracy. In fact, I was at a conference on Stalin at USC last week and one presenter used statistics from VTsIOM as evidence of Stalin’s “reemergence” in Russia. I personally don’t put much stock in these polls as a representation of how Russian’s view Stalin. Instead I see them as interesting indicators to how Russians remember and understand Stalin’s Terror. Here are some of the polls statistics.

Who in your opinion carries the primary responsibility for mass repression in the country after the Revolution up to the 20th Party Congress? (in percent)



Leaders of the NKVD –Iagoda, Ezhov, Beria.


The upper Party leadership – Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich, and others.






In the conditions of enemy encirclement and the threat of war, repression was inevitable.


Difficult to answer.


What is interesting about these answers is not that 41% named Stalin. It is that fact that 59% said that it something else besides Stalin was responsible for mass repression? Now, does this mean that Russians are more favorable to Stalin? I would say no. What it tells me is that given a set of explanations, many Russians understand mass repression as a phenomenon conducted by individuals. This is perhaps because of the canonizing effect of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, which was very popularity when it was translated into Russian in the 1990s. Conquest portrays the Terror as part of a master plan executed flawlessly by Stalin.

What is conspicuously missing in the list of answers are the Russian people themselves. There is no space for collective responsibility. This could be simply explained by the fact that the questionnaire did not provide an answer for some sort of collective responsibility. This in and of itself is suggestive of how such polls construct the memory of such events. They reduce a potentially diverse set of viewpoints into a few. They create a narrative for how events are represented and remembered. It however makes one wonder whether Russians see any collective responsibility at all for the horrors of the Soviet regime. My guess is that there continues to be little sense of this, and as a result a failure to come to terms with living and participating in an authoritarian society.

The lack of recognition of a collective responsibility about mass repression in Russia has always stuck me. After all, the term “mass repression” is not only one that denotes scope; it also suggests a process that goes beyond one man or a group of leaders. Essentially, this survey hides the fact that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of rank and file Party members, secretaries, local leaders, and regular people participated in the execution of this “mass repression.” Without them, I doubt it could ever have become mass. Take for example, this denunciation written by a student of the Leningrad Technical Institute and Komsomol member in 1936 to the editor of Pravda, Lev Mekhlis about one N. V. Kitaev:

How can a parasite WHO ALWAYS SOBS WHEN HE HEARS LENIN’S NAME AND GROANS WHEN HE HEARS STALIN’S (those are not just words, comrade Mekhlis, but the appalling truth), how can such a person be allowed to remain within the walls of the institute, how can we, comrade Mekhlis, shelter such a snake in our bosom?

The letter went on to state how the denunciation of Kitaev was not out of personal malice toward him.

No comrade Mekhlis, it’s much worse—for four years, until February 1935, we venerated him as a “real party man,” politically highly developed, an activist, someone who always spoke up at every meeting and assembly, who could quote Lenin and Stalin and in our (Komsomol members’) eyes was the INCARNATION OF PARTY CONSCIENCE, ethics, and PARTY SPIRIT.


Since Kirov’s murder, [Kitaev] arouses an animal fear in me, an organic disgust. Just as I previously venerated him and respected him, now I fear him and expect him to do something terribly evil, some irreparable harm to the whole country. If you could have seen the unfeigned joy we all felt . . . when we learned of his expulsion [later revoked] from the Institute after the execution of Zinoviev and Kamenev . . . It is impossible and criminal to allow him to finish his studies at the Institute, because comrade Mekhlis even THE CAMPS OF THE NKVD WILL NOT REFORM HIM . . . I am terribly sorry now that he was not sitting next to his hero Zinoviev and Kamenev [in the court that ordered their execution.]

(cited in Shelia Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks, 213.)

The fate of Kitaev is unclear. What is clear is that many more similar denunciations can be found in the archives as well as incidents where people participated in the public denunciation of others in local show trials.

None of this would be found in the survey. It only recreates the idea that history is the work of great individuals rather than the multitude of actions carried out by regular people.

The memory of the “mass repression” is inscribed in other parts of the survey. Here it is the memory of victims rather than perpetrators is formed.

Were any of your relatives repressed in the 1930s and 1940s? (in percent)

Of all Respondents






60 and older

Yes, I know much about their fate from stories of close relatives and family archives (letters, photos, etc)







I know that my relatives were repressed but the details aren’t known to me.







None of my relatives were repressed.







I don’t know if any of my relatives were repressed or not.







Difficult to answer.







According to the survey one in four respondents were “repressed.” But what does repressed mean? Does it mean execution, arrest and imprisonment, deportation, or dispossession? Or does it also include much more? Does this include all soldiers imprisoned after the war? War collaborators? It is difficult to say because the survey doesn’t give a definition. This says to me that there is a question as to what repression means, and how it is defined and remembered by the respondent. I think that what exactly “repression” means is an important question because the trend has been to think that everyone imprisoned under Stalin was “repressed.”

It would be difficult to verify if the 25 percent figure in the survey is correct. The difficultly is not simply that “repressed” is not defined, neither is “relative.” Does this mean close relative—mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, etc? Or does it mean great uncle, cousin, third cousin etc? On this, the survey is potentially misleading in demonstrating the scope of repression among the population because when reading the one in four statistic, one assumes that one in four soviet citizens in the 1930s and 1940s were “repressed.”

Thanks to the opening of the archives, we now have a better sense of the numbers of executions, Gulag inmates, arrests, etc. Some of them are considered accurate; others are based on estimates when set against demographic materials. Some of the numbers are for specific periods, like 1936-1937, or for the whole Stalin period 1930-1953. Some include NKVD victims, other numbers include famine, and still others even include war deaths. The point is how you frame the figures, what you include in the count, and what you don’t. Most importantly when evaluating numbers on the victims of Stalin, what you mean by “repression” and what you think Stalin is responsible for is of utmost importance.

Here part of what we now know. And I should first preface this by stating that all of these figures are from scholarly studies, most of which are based on archival documents. But as many scholars freely admit, the numbers from archival documents and census data also contain inaccuracies. All in all, they act more as a guide than a way to posit completely accurate figures. The population of the Soviet Union in 1937 was 162 million. In 1939 was 167.3 million. Population growth was estimated to be around an average of 3 million per annum.

1921-1953 total arrests

1938 camp population

1938 prison and camp population

1952 camp population

1937-38 camp deaths

1937-38 executions

1921-53 executions

2.5 million

1.9 million

2 million

2.5 million




Source: J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov, “Vitcims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence,” American Historical Review, 98:4, 1993, 1022.

Grated these figures don’t give us a sense of the percentage of people repressed in the Stalin period in terms of overall population. Most the above figures are for a narrow period of time that coincides with the Great Purge, 1937-1938. These also don’t include deportations of ethnic groups or kulaks (razkulachivanie). There are estimate figures for these too, but I will only state one since it coincides with not only the anniversary, but also Russia’s Men’s Day holiday that was on February 23.

On February 23, 1944 the NKVD began the deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan. I won’t go into the history of it because I am not an expert on this. But according to figures in the archives, 400,478 Chechens and Ingushes were recorded in special settlements (spetsposeleniia). This is not the number of those deported, only those who arrived. Some estimate that over 100,000 died in transit to Kazakhstan.

Suffice to say and attempt on producing numbers on the victims of Stalinism will remain only estimates. And like I mentioned above, it depends on what you mean by “repression” and to a certain extent “victim.” But complexity hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. But the more sophisticated scholars who are armed with minutia of demography tend to be inconclusive on total numbers, but have offered numbers in specific areas: executions, deportations, sentences, Gulag populations etc more as a way to disprove previously offered guesstimates that were often steeped in Cold War ideology and misconceptions about how the Soviet Union functioned. As one can imagine the battle over figures has caused fierce academic debates. Even though most scholars agree that we have a much better picture of the scope of repression, the ability to come up with a best estimate on the total of victims under Stalin continues to be marred in politics, definition, inaccurate data, not to mention academic nit-picking over tables, calculations, and figures.

Personally, I don’t have much of an intellectual interest in numbers. I can’t comprehend the mass slaughter of a 100 people let alone millions. Plus at some point the humanity in all of it gets lost. The human gravity in the difference between one million and two million gets erased by the short abstract distance between one and two. After all, whether the estimate on the total number is 20 or 30 million, does 20 million make the Stalin period less repressive than 30 million? Or does 30 million make it more repressive than 20 million? Less or more inhuman? Hardly.