Saturday, September 13, 2008


The Soviet experience of warfare was very different from that of its Allies, Britain and the United States. Large in territory and population, the Soviet Union was poorer than the other two by a wide margin in productivity and income. It was Soviet territory that Hitler wanted for his empire, and the Soviet Union was the only one of the three to be invaded. Despite this, the Soviet Union mobilized its resources and contributed combat forces and equipment to Allied fighting power far beyond its relative economic strength.

These same factors meant that the Soviet Union suffered far heavier costs and losses than its Allies. After victory, Hitler planned to resettle Ukraine and European Russia with Germans and to divert their food supplies to feeding the German army. He planned to deprive the urban population of food and drive much of the rural population off the land. Jews and communist officials would be killed and the rest starved into forced migration to the east.

The Soviet Union suffered roughly 25 million war deaths compared with 350,000 war deaths in Britain and 300,000 in the United States; many war deaths were not recorded at the time and must be estimated statistically after the event. Combat losses account for all U.S. and most British casualties; the German bombing of British cities made up the rest. The sources of Soviet mortality were more varied. Red Army records suggest 6.4 million known military deaths from battlefield causes and half a million more from disease and accidents. In addition, 4.6 million soldiers were captured, missing, or killed or presumed missing in units that failed to report. Of these approximately 2.8 million were later repatriated or reenlisted, suggesting 1.8 million deaths in captivity and a net total of 8.7 million Red Army deaths. But the number of Soviet prisoners and deaths in captivity may be understated by more than a million. German records show a total of 5.8 million prisoners, of whom 3.3 million had died by May 1944; most of these were starved, worked, or shot to death. Considering the second half of 1941 alone, Soviet records show 2.3 million soldiers missing or captured, while in the same period the Germans counted 3.3 million prisoners, of whom 2 million had died by February 1942.

Subtracting up to 10 million Red Army war deaths from a 25-million total suggests at least 15 million civilian deaths. Thus many more Soviet civilians died than soldiers, and this is another contrast with the British and American experience. Soviet sources have estimated 11.5 million civilian war deaths under German rule, 7.4 million in the occupied territories by killing, hunger, and disease, and another 2.2 million in Germany where they were deported as forced laborers. This leaves room for millions of civilian war deaths on territory under Soviet control, primarily from malnutrition and overwork; of these, one million may have died in Leningrad alone.

In wartime specifically Soviet mechanisms of premature death continued to operate. For example, Soviet citizens continued to die from the conditions in labor camps; these became particularly lethal in 1942 and 1943 when a 20 percent annual death rate killed half a million inmates in two years. In 1943 and 1944 a new cause of death arose: The deportation and internal exile under harsh conditions of ethnic groups such as the Chechens who, Stalin believed, had collaborated as a community with the former German occupiers.

The war also imposed severe material losses on the Soviet economy. The destruction included 6 million buildings that previously housed 25 million people, 31,850 industrial establishments, and 167,000 schools, colleges, hospitals, and public libraries. Officially these losses were estimated at one-third of the Soviet Union’s prewar wealth; being that only one in eight people died, it follows that wealth was destroyed at a higher rate than people. Thus, those who survived were also impoverished.

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