Stalin: Bad, very bad. No, even worse than that …

gulag railroad

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. His demise did not end the Soviet internal reign of terror that had gripped the nation for decades, but it would eventually bring a lessening of the effects of the murderous regime.

A commonly accepted figure for the number of individuals Stalin murdered while in power is 20 million.

However, as Rudolph J. Rummel, the late professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, wrote a decade ago, that figure woeful undercounts the number of Soviets and foreigners who met their demise as a result of Stalin’s rule.

According to Rummel, the 20 million figure comes from a 1968 book by Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties.

“In his appendix on casualty figures, (Conquest) reviews a number of estimates of those that were killed under Stalin, and calculates that the number of executions 1936 to 1938 was probably about 1,000,000; that from 1936 to 1950 about 12,000,000 died in the camps; and 3,500,000 died in the 1930-1936 collectivization. Overall, (Conquest) concludes: ‘Thus we get a figure of 20 million dead, which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so, as the debit balance of the Stalin regime for twenty-three years.’”

Part of the problem is that Conquest’s qualification adding another 10 million lives to Stalin’s total is rarely mentioned, although over the past 10 years this has happened a little more often.

In addition, Rummel, who spent his career assembling data on collective violence and war with a view toward helping their resolution or elimination, wrote that Conquest’s estimate was incomplete:

Conquest did not include labor camp deaths from 1922 to 1936 and between 1950 to 1953, executions between 1939 and 1953; the vast deportation of the people of captive nations into the camps, and their deaths 1939-1953; the massive deportation within the Soviet Union of minorities 1941-1944; and their deaths; and those the Soviet Red Army and secret police executed throughout Eastern Europe after their conquest during 1944-1945 is omitted. Moreover, omitted is the deadly Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, Stalin purposely imposed on the region that claimed killed 5 million in 1932-1934.

Rummel estimated Stalin murdered about 43 million citizens and foreigners.

Hitler, by comparison, usually gets credit for about 30 million deaths, while Mao Zedong is said to have murdered 60 million.

Other well-known historical bad dudes include King Leopold II of Belgian, who was responsible for the deaths of approximately 8 million Congolese; Hideki Tojo of Japan, 5 million; Pol Pot of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million; Saddam Hussein, approximately 600,000; and Idi Amin of Uganda, as many as 500,000.

Consider that Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reviled as a murderous despot, is said to be responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths, making him a mere piker by the standards of those listed above. That is, of course, small consolation to the families of those he made “disappear.”

And mere numbers, no matter how large, are an abstraction. For anyone wanting to get a fuller idea of the Soviet death machine in action, consider picking up The Gulag Archipelago; The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s; Stalin’s Genocides; and Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor.

(Top: A rail line being built through snow by Gulag prisoners, possibly from the Solovki prison camp, on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea .)

10 thoughts on “Stalin: Bad, very bad. No, even worse than that …

  1. Most interesting. Sounds like Mao Zedong is the winner among losers. Reminds me of one of my favorite books, “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,” by Jung Chang, published in 1991. It’s her autobiography of having grown up under Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution.” She was born in 1952.

    The book sounds eerily familiar. Mao turned the Chinese against their own cultural heritage, either bullying or conning them into destroying architectural and other treasures. He also started the migration from farms to cities. In his call for steel, he induced the populace to do things like melt down their woks, so that they could no longer cook their own food.

    Creating famine to control the populace seems to be a pattern among despots.

    • I’ve heard about Mao’s attempts to have the populace try to smelt their own “steel.” Of course, the quality of the product was so abysmal that it was less than useless. I hadn’t considered the ulterior motive of preventing people from cooking their own food. How do people come up with such evil? And, yes, famine is definitely a tool of tyrants.

      • Strange though it may sound, I think the drive for such god-like power (or wealth) comes from basic insecurity about personal worth. They seek to control others through usurping other people’s power. But like a drug, it becomes addictive. Most despots that I’ve heard of are incredibly paranoid, certainly Stalin and Hitler. They had good reason.

      • Yes, you don’t run a police state and kill hundreds of thousands or millions without a high degree of paranoia and/or other mental imbalances. In modern parlance, they had “issues.”

  2. I had a serious bust-up with a former, supposedly reformed Stalinist apologist over this very subject last year. Despite his apparent embrace of socialism he still managed to find excuses for Stalin’s actions and got very hot under the collar when I argued that fascism and communism are malignant, authoritarian ideologies, and was particularly incensed when I compared Uncle Joe to Hitler. Apparently the death estimates in Stalin’s USSR were grossly exaggerated by anti-soviet propagandists and what deaths did occur were necessary to keep the union going in the face of external and internal enemies. Stalin’s paranoia was the fault of the conspiracies of the Western powers or some such. In deference to his age I gave up on the argument.

    • Amazing, isn’t it? Those who excuse Stalin’s crimes are akin to Holocaust deniers, with the difference being the former usually say that whatever misdeeds were committed under Communism were necessary and, therefore, excusable.

      I know that is much that Western nations that have much to atone for, but many in the West are at least attempting to recognize the wrongs of the past, unlike Russia, which seems all too willing to re-embrace the heavy-handedness of the Soviets if it brings back past glory.

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