Vienna, May 9 – More than 60 years after the end of World War II, Russian politicians, generals and historians continue to disagree about how many Soviet soldiers and civilians died in that conflict, a situation that reflects both problems with the available data and the political sensitivity of any particular estimate.
This long-running controversy has tended to intensify in advance of Victory Day on May 9, and this year was no exception. On May 4, Major General Aleksandr Kirilin of the Defense Ministry’s Military-Memorial Center released several new numbers that sparked debate.
Kirilin said that his office has confirmed that 8,860,400 members of the Soviet military died during the war and that roughly 2.5 million more Soviet citizens who fought as partisans or served in other irregular forces are now confirmed to have died as well (http://top.rbc.ru/index.shtml?/news/society/2007/05/04/04123808_bod.shtml).
But immediately after that announcement, Moscow historian Boris Sokolov challenged these figures, accusing the general of sloppy arithmetic, indefensible estimates and projections, and a failure to consult and compare all available information sources (http://grani.ru/War/p.121644.html).
Sokolov’s specific criticisms of Kirilin’s numbers are certain to be of interest primarily to specialists, but his discussion of three more general problems with all such figures should be kept in mind by anyone concerned about the meaning of the Great Patriotic War for Russian society.
(These problems affect not only these competing estimates of military deaths but also the various projections of total Soviet casualties. Although Stalin in 1946 put that figure at seven million, most experts now conclude that between 25 and 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war with Germany.)
First, there is a problem of data. Many deaths were simply not recorded. Others were recorded multiple times. And the categories various specialists have ysed vary from one to the next, with some historians counting as military deaths those that other students of this subject say are in fact civilian ones.
This problem is further exacerbated because the war occurred in the middle of an extremely long intercensal period. Between 1926 and 1959, Moscow simply did not conduct a detailed and reliable census of the population. Given losses in collectivization and the GULAG, there is little basis for reliable projections about war losses.
Second, the Russian military like its Soviet predecessor has generally wanted to keep the number of military deaths as low as possible in order to reduce the ratio of Soviet to German losses. Consequently, the defense ministry tends to count as civilian losses deaths that in fact are tied to the military.
And third, Soviet and Russian politicians have varied widely in how they have allocated the premature deaths the 1959 census revealed between the war with Germany and domestic Soviet calamities like collectivization, forced industrialization and the GULAG camps.
At least since glasnost allowed a more open discussion of these issues, Russian political leaders who want to present Stalin in the best possible light have a vested interest in a higher number of premature deaths in the war and a lower number from the Soviet dictator’s various domestic policies.
And those political figures who want to hold Stalin responsible for his crimes have just the opposite interest – with the exception of those who seek to blame the dictator for his failure to prepare the country for the war with Germany and for his mishandling of that conflict’s initial stages.
Given these factors, the debate that began in 1946 when Stalin said seven million Soviet citizens had died in the war, that continued in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev said that total was 20 million, and that more recent investigations have suggested is far larger shows no sign of ending anytime soon.