Modern history



ALTHOUGH THE SOVIET UNION contained thousands of concentration camps, and although millions of people passed through them, for many decades the precise tally of victims was concealed from all but a handful of bureaucrats. As a result, estimating their numbers was a matter of sheer guesswork while the USSR existed, and remains a matter of educated guesswork today.

During the era of sheer guesswork, the Western debate about the statistics of repression—just like the more general Western debate about Soviet history—was tainted, from the 1950s on, by the politics of the Cold War. Without archives, historians relied alternately on prisoners’ memoirs, defectors’ statements, official census figures, economic statistics, or even minor details which somehow became known abroad, such as the number of newspapers distributed to prisoners in 1931.1 Those more inclined to dislike the Soviet Union tended to choose the higher figures of victims. Those more inclined to dislike the American or Western role in the Cold War chose the lower figures. The numbers themselves ranged wildly. In The Great Terror , his then groundbreaking 1968 account of the purges, the historian Robert Conquest esimated that the NKVD had arrested seven million people in 1937 and 1938.2 In his 1985 “revisionist” account, Origins of the Purges, the historian J. Arch Getty wrote of merely “thousands” of arrests in those same two years.3

As it turned out, the opening of the Soviet archives gave neither school complete satisfaction. The first sets of figures released for Gulag prisoners seemed at first to show numbers lying squarely in the middle of the high and low estimates. According to widely published NKVD documents, these were the numbers of prisoners in Gulag camps and colonies from 1930 to 1953, as counted on January 1 of each year:

These numbers do reflect some things that we know, from many other sources, to be true. The inmate figures begin to rise in the late 1930s, as repression increased. They dip slightly during the war, reflecting the large numbers of amnesties. They rise in 1948, when Stalin clamped down once again. On top of all that, most scholars who have worked in the archives now agree that the figures are based on genuine compiliations of data provided to the NKVD by the camps. They are consistent with data from other parts of the Soviet government bureaucracy, tallying, for example, with data used by the People’s Commissariat of Finance.5 Nevertheless, they do not necessarily reflect the whole truth.

To begin with, the figures for each individual year are misleading, since they mask the camp system’s remarkably high turnover. In 1943, for example, 2,421,000 prisoners are recorded as having passed through the Gulag system, although the totals at the beginning and end of that year show a decline from 1.5 to 1.2 million. That number includes transfers within the system, but still indicates an enormous level of prisoner movement not reflected in the overall figures.6 By the same token, nearly a million prisoners left the camps during the war to join the Red Army, a fact which is barely reflected in the overall statistics, since so many prisoners arrived during the war years too. Another example: in 1947, 1,490,959 inmates entered the camps, and 1,012,967 left, an enormous turnover which is not reflected in the table either.7

Prisoners left because they died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences, because they were being released into the Red Army, or because they had been promoted to administrative positions. As I’ve written, there were also frequent amnesties for the old, the ill and for pregnant women—invariably followed by new waves of arrests. This massive, constant movement of prisoners meant that the numbers were in fact far higher than they seemed to be it first: by 1940, eight million prisoners had already passed through the camps.8 Using the inflow and outflow statistics available, and reconciling a variety of sources, the only complete reckoning I have seen estimates that eighteen million Soviet citizens passed through the camps and colonies between 1929 and 1953. This figure also tallies with other figures given by senior Russian security officials during the 1990s. According to one source, Khrushchev himself spoke of seventeen million passing through the labor camps between 1937 and 1953.9

Yet in a deeper sense, this figure is misleading too. As readers will also by now be aware, not every person condemned to forced labor in the Soviet Union actually served out his time in a concentration camp run by the Gulag administration. For one, the figures above exclude the many hundreds of thousands of people who were sentenced to “forced labor without incarceration” for workplace violations. More important, there were at least three other significant categories of incarcerated forced laborer: prisoners of war, postwar inhabitants of filtration camps, and above all the “special exiles,” who included kulaks deported during collectivization, Poles, Balts, and others deported after 1939, and Caucasians, Tartars, Volga Germans, and others deported during the war itself.

The first two groups are relatively easy to count: from several reliable sources, we know that the number of POWs exceeded four million. 10 We also know that between December 27, 1941, and October 1, 1944, the NKVD investigated 421,199 detainees in filtration camps, and that on May 10, 1945, over 160,000 detainees were still living in them, engaged in forced labor. In January 1946, the NKVD abolished the camps and repatriated a further 228,000 to the USSR for further investigation.11 A total of about 700,000 seems, therefore, a fair guess.

The special exiles are somewhat harder to count, if only because there were so many different exile groups being sent to so many different places at so many different times for so many different reasons. In the 1920s, many of the Bolsheviks’ early opponents—Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and the like—were exiled by administrative decree, which meant they were not technically part of the Gulag, but were certainly being punished. In the early 1930s, 2.1 million kulaks were exiled, although an unknown number, certainly in the hundreds of thousands, were sent not to Kazakhstan or Siberia, but to other parts of their native province or to bad land at the edges of their collective farms: since many seem to have escaped, it is hard to know whether to count them or not. Much clearer is the position of the national groups exiled during and after the war to the “special exile” villages. Equally clear, yet much easier to forget, are odd groups like the 17,000 “former people” expelled from Leningrad after Kirov’s murder. There were also Soviet Germans who were not physically deported, but whose villages in Siberia and central Asia were turned into “special settlements”—the Gulag came to them, as it were—as well as babies born to exiles, who surely count as exiles too.

As a result, those who have tried to collate the many statistics that have been published about each of these different groups have come up with slightly different numbers. In Ne po svoei vole, published by Memorial in 2001, the historian Pavel Polyan has added up the numbers of special exiles and got a figure of 6,015,000.12 In a survey of archival publications, Otto Pohl, on the other hand, counts just over seven million special exiles from 1930 to 1948.13 He gives the postwar figures for people living in “special settlements” as follows:


Still, on the principle that the low estimate will satisfy the more fastidious, I have decided to choose Polyan’s number: six million exiles. Adding the numbers together, the total number of forced laborers in the USSR comes to 28.7 million.

I realize, of course, that this figure will not satisfy everybody. Some will object that not all of those arrested or deported count as “victims,” since some were criminals, or even war criminals. Yet although it is true that millions of these prisoners had criminal sentences, I do not believe that anything close to the majority were actually “criminals,” in any normal sense of the word. A woman who has picked a few pieces of grain from a field which has already been harvested is not a criminal, nor is a man who has been late to work three times, as was the father of the Russian General Alexander Lebed, who received a camp sentence for precisely that. For that matter, a prisoner of war who has been deliberately kept in a forced-labor camp many years after the war has come to an end, is not a legitimate prisoner either. By all accounts, the number of genuine professional criminals in any camp was tiny—which is why I prefer to leave the numbers as they are.

Others, however, will be unsatisfied with this figure on different grounds. Certainly in the course of writing this book, I have been asked the same question many, many times: Of these 28.7 million prisoners, how many died?

This answer is complicated too. To date, no completely satisfactory death statistics for either the Gulag or the exile system have yet appeared. 15 In the coming years, some more reliable numbers may emerge: at least one former MVD officer has personally taken it upon himself to comb methodically through the archives, camp by camp and year by year, trying to compile authentic numbers. With perhaps somewhat different motives, the Memorial Society, which has already produced the first reliable guide to the numbers of camps themselves, has set itself the task of counting the victims of repression too.

Until these compilations appear, however, we have to rely upon what we have: a year-by-year account of Gulag death rates, based on the archives of the Department of Prisoner Registration. This account seems to exclude deaths in prisons and deaths during transport. It has been compiled using overall NKVD reports, not the records of individual camps. It does not include special exiles at all. Nevertheless, I record it here, reluctantly:



Like the official prisoner statistics, the table also shows some patterns which can be reconciled with other data. The sudden spike in 1933, for example, surely represents the impact of the famine which killed six to seven million “free” Soviet citizens as well. The smaller rise in 1938 must reflect the mass executions which took place in some camps that year. The major rise in death rates during the war—nearly a quarter of prisoners in 1942— also tallies with the memoirs and recollections of people who lived through the camps in that year, and reflects the wider food shortages throughout the USSR.

Yet even if and when these numbers are improved, the question “How many died?” will still be difficult to answer with ease. In truth, no death figures compiled by Gulag authorities can ever be considered completely reliable. The culture of camp inspection and reprimand meant, among other things, that individual camp commanders had a vested interest in lying about how many of their prisoners died: both archives and memoirs indicate that it was common practice in many camps to release prisoners who were on the point of dying, thereby lowering camp death statistics.17Although exiles moved around less frequently, and were not released when half-dead, the nature of the exile system—prisoners lived in distant villages, far from regional authorities—means that statistics on exile death rates can never be considered completely reliable either.

More important, however, the question itself has to be asked a bit more carefully. “How many died?” is in fact an imprecise question, in the case of the Soviet Union, and those who ask such a question should first consider what it is that they really want to know. Do they want to know, for example, simply how many died in the camps of the Gulag and in the exile villages in the Stalinist era, from 1929 to 1953? If so, a number based on archival sources is available, although even the historian who compiled it points out that it is incomplete, and does not cover all categories of prisoner in every year. Again, I reluctantly cite it: 2,749,163.18

Even if it were complete, however, this figure still would not reflect all of the victims of the Stalinist judicial system. As I say in the Introduction, the Soviet secret police did not, for the most part, use their camps in order to kill people. When they wanted to kill people, they carried out mass executions in forests: surely these are victims of Soviet justice too, and there were many of them. Using archives, one set of researchers cites a figure of 786,098 political executions from 1934 to 1953.19 Most historians consider this more or less plausible, but the haste and chaos which accompanied mass executions may well mean that we will never know. Yet even this number— which, in my view, is actually too precise to be reliable—still does not include those who died on the trains to the camps; those who died during interrogation; those whose executions were not technically “political” but were nevertheless carried out on spurious grounds; the more than 20,000 Polish officers who died in the Katyn massacres; and, most of all, those who died within a few days of release. If that is the number we really want, then it will be higher—probably far higher—although estimates will again vary greatly.

But even these numbers, I’ve found, do not always provide the answer to what people really want to know. Much of the time, when I am asked “How many died?” what the questioner really wants to know is how many people died, unnecessarily, as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. That is, how many died in the Red Terror and the Civil War, the famines which followed in the wake of the brutal policy of collectivization, the mass deportations, the mass executions, the camps of the 1920s, the camps of the 1960s through the 1980s—as well as in the camps and mass murders of Stalin’s reign. In that case, the numbers are not only far larger, but they really are a matter of pure conjecture. The French authors of The Black Book of Communism quote a figure of twenty million deaths. Others cite numbers closer to ten or twelve million.20

A single round number of dead victims would be extremely satisfying, particularly since it would allow us to compare Stalin directly with Hitler or with Mao. Yet even if we could find one, I’m not sure it would really tell the whole story of suffering either. No official figures, for example, can possibly reflect the mortality of the wives and children and aging parents left behind, since their deaths were not recorded separately. During the war, old people starved to death without ration cards: had their convict son not been digging coal in Vorkuta, they might have lived. Small children succumbed easily to epidemics of typhus and measles in cold, ill-equipped orphanages: had their mothers not been sewing uniforms in Kengir, they might have lived too.

Nor can any figures reflect the cumulative impact of Stalin’s repressions on the life and health of whole families. A man was tried and shot as an “enemy of the people”; his wife was taken to a camp as a “member of an enemy’s family”; his children grew up in orphanages and joined criminal gangs; his mother died of stress and grief; his cousins and aunts and uncles cut off all contact from one another, in order to avoid being tainted as well. Families broke apart, friendships ended, fear weighed heavily on those who remained behind, even when they did not die.

In the end, statistics can never fully describe what happened. Neither can the archival documents upon which so much of this book has been based. All of those who have written most eloquently on the subject of the Gulag have known this to be true—which is why I would like to give one of them the last word on the subject of “statistics” and “archives” and “files.”

In 1990, the writer Lev Razgon was allowed to see his own archival file, a thin collection of documents describing his arrest and the arrests of his first wife, Oksana, as well as several members of her family. He read through it, and later wrote an essay on its contents. He reflected eloquently on the contents of the file; on the sparsity of the evidence; on the ludicrous nature of the charges; on the tragedy which befell his wife’s mother; on the opaque motives of his father-in-law, the Chekist Gleb Boky; on the strange absence of repentance on the part of those who had destroyed all of them. But what struck me most about his experience of working in the archives was his description of how ambivalent he felt when he had finished reading:

I have long since stopped turning the pages of the file and they have lain next to me for more than an hour or two, growing cold with their own thoughts. My guardian [the KGB archivist] is already beginning to cough suggestively and look at his watch. It’s time to go. I have nothing more to do here. I hand over the files and they are negligently dropped again into the shopping bag. I go downstairs, along the empty corridors, past the sentries who do not even ask to see my papers, and step out into Lubyanka Square.

It’s only 5 p.m., but it is already almost dark and a fine, quiet rain falls uninterruptedly. The building remains beside me and I stand on the pavement outside, wondering what to do next. How terrible that I do not believe in God and cannot go into some quiet little church, stand in the warmth of the candles, gaze into the eyes of Christ on the Cross and say and do those things that make life easier to bear for the believer . . .

I take off my fur hat, and drops of rain or tears trickle down my face. I am eighty-two and here I stand, living through it all again . . . I hear the voices of Oksana and her mother . . . I can remember and recall them, each one. And if I remained alive, then it is my duty to do so . . .21

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