The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Counting the Bodies


Liam O Ruairc • January 28, 2005

One of the main arguments made against Socialism is that it leads to the Gulag. For many, Gulag is synonymous with the crimes committed in Nazi concentration camps. The popular view is that under Stalin, dozens of millions died. It has even been argued by some that Socialism is worse than Nazism because it has been responsible for far more many deaths. The work of scholars like Robert Conquest, Robert Service and Richard Pipes (or more recently Dmitrii Volkogonov) represents that conventional view. One of the problems with their work is that most of it was published before the death of the Soviet Union, and these historians had not full access to the Soviet archives. One has also to bear in mind that this was cold war historiography.

Robert Conquest had worked at the UK Foreign Office's Information Research Department doing anti-communist propaganda before publishing his 1968 book 'The Great Terror' and his 1986 research on the Ukrainian famine, 'Harvest of Sorrow' was paid by Ukrainian nationalist groups which had collaborated with the Nazis (1). Also, Richard Pipes was an advisor to Ronald Reagan' s administration.

Since the end of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Soviet archives, the work of this cold war 'totalitarian' interpretation of the Stalin period had been undermined by the so-called 'revisionist' school of Soviet history. This school of thought is non-Marxist and has no political interest in somehow 'rehabilitating' the Stalin period. It does however challenge the work of the cold war historians.

The best known of these 'revisionist' historians are John Arch Getty, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Roberta T Manning and Robert W Thurston. The first and groundbreaking work of this school was John Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938 (Cambridge University Press, 1985). The collection Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives edited by John Arch Getty and Roberta T Manning (Cambridge University Press, 1993) gives a good general overview of their work. It should be noted that these are all serious mainstream historians, and that their work is published by prestigious publishers like Cambridge and Yale University Press who cannot be accused of Communist sympathy.

Over the last decade the 'revisionists' published a number of important books such as Robert W. Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 (Yale University Press, 1996); Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Oxford University Press, 1998), Lewis Siegelbaum and A.K Sokolov's Stalinism As a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents (Yale University Press, 1999), and the crucial book by J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932-1939 (Yale University Press, 1999).

On the basis of solid evidence (archival and other), these authors demonstrate that the amount of people sent to the Gulag and the number of custodial deaths previously reported by various scholars were vastly inflated. Parallel to them, the work of Steven G. Wheatcroft on the size of Soviet forced labour camps and number of deaths has developed as a refutation of Conquest Getty and Naumov write that "The population of all labor camps, labor colonies, and prisons on 1 January 1939, near the end of the Great Purges, was 2,022,976. This gives us a total increase in the camp and prison population in 1937-38 of 1,006,030." (p. 590) To put things into perspective, the prison population in the United States today is around 2 million.

What about "custodial mortality" figures? In their 1993 article, J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov state that on the basis of archival evidence "we know that, between 1934 and 1953, 1,053,829 persons died in the camps of the GULAG. We have data to the effect that some 86,582 people perished in prisons between 1939 and 1951. (We do not yet know exactly how many died in labor colonies.) We also know that, between 1930 and 1952-1953, 786,098 "counter-revolutionaries" were executed (or, according to another source, more than 775,866 persons "on cases of the police" and for "political crimes"). Finally, we know that, from 1932 through 1940, 389,521 peasants died in places of "kulak" resettlement. Adding these figures together would produce a total of a little more than 2.3 million." It goes without saying that those figures are horrific, but they are far below Conquest's twenty million dead.

The same goes for the number of executions. Stalin signed numerous death sentences, the record number being 3 167 (approximately the number of people who died during the Troubles of the last thirty years…) on 12 December 1938. The 1st Special Section of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in a summary dated 11 December 1953 documents 684,244 executions in the period 1937-1939. Of these 681,692 occurred in 1937-1938 (compared with 1,118 persons in 1936). These archival figures, coming from a statistical report 'on the quantity of people convicted upon cases of NKVD bodies,' include victims who had not been arrested for political reasons. Also, in New Left Review 219, R.W. Davies quotes a formerly secret report from the Soviet archives, prepared for Malenkov and Khrushchev, which stated that from 1921 to 1952 inclusive 799,257 persons were executed by the decision of various agencies and tribunals of the OGPU and its successors and by the Military Collegium. In any event, the data available at this point make it clear that the number shot in the two worst purge years was more likely in the hundreds of thousands than in the millions (3).

"If we add the figure we have for executions up to 1940 to the number of persons who died in GULAG camps and the few figures we found on mortality in prisons and labor colonies, then add to this the number of peasants known to have died in exile, we reach a figure of nearly 1.5 million deaths directly due to repression in the 1930s." (J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov p. 591)

Even if drastically reduced from Conquest's twenty millions, these figures are still appallingly atrocious. There is no case for negationism. The carnage in those days was horrific, but this not an excuse to exaggerate the number of deaths attributable to Soviet state terror. While one cannot exonerate the Stalin and the Soviet authorities from their crimes against humanity, it is wrong to claim that they were responsible for murders which weren't in truth committed.

History is written by the winners, and today there are people who have made an ideological cottage industry out of exaggerating the figures of deaths under Stalin (see for example the book about the Gulag recently reviewed in the Blanket by S. O Murchu). Their purpose is to make the Communism seem "worse" than Nazism with ten to thirty million deaths. They play loose with the historical facts when they don't simply lie. But debates about statistics should not mask what those figures really are: a terrible human tragedy.



(1) Jeff Coplon, "In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right", Village Voice, Jan. 12, 1988 (<>). The author interviewed many leading historians of the USSR, all rejected Conquest's research on the Ukrainian famine. See also Robert Thurston, "On Desk-Bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspectives, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest", Slavic Review 45 (Summer 1986), 238-244.

(2) Wheatcroft's research was published in Europe-Asia Studies (formerly Soviet Studies). For example, in "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930-1945", EAS 48 (December 1996), 1319-1353, Wheatcroft attacks the facile, anti-Communist comparison of Stalin with Hitler. The abstract reads:
Repression and mass killings carried out by German and Soviet leaderships during the period 1930-45 differed in several respects. It appears that the German leader Adolf Hitler put to death at least five million innocent people mainly because of his antipathy towards Jews and communists. In contrast, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the murder of some one million people because he apparently believed them to be guilty of crimes against the state. He was careful about documenting these executions whereas Hitler did not bother about making any pretence at legality.
Also of interest in the same journal are Stephen G Wheatcroft 'Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: the comparability and reliability of the archival data -not the last word. Statistical data included' (March 1999); John Keep 'Wheatcroft and Stalin's Victims: Comments' (September 1999); Robert Conquest 'Comment on Wheatcroft: Critical Essay' (December 1999). A few other works which base themselves on recently-published Soviet archival documents refuting the work of the likes of Conquest include: Nicolas Werth, "Goulag: Les Vrais Chiffres", L'Histoire no. 169 (Septembre, 1993), 38-51; and J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov, "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence," American Historical Review, Vol. 98 No. 4 (October 1993), pp. 1017-1049. A polemic of great interest between the 'revisionist' and 'totalitarian' schools of history took place in the New Left Review. See R.W. Davies, 'Forced labour under Stalin: the archive revelations' (issue 214, November/December 1995, pp 62-80); the exchange between Robert Conquest and R.W. Davies 'Excess deaths in the Soviet Union' (issue 219, September/October 1996, pp.143-144) and its conclusion 'Stalin's victims' (issue 225, September/October 1997, pp. 157-160).

(3) "Table 5: Secret Police (GPU, OGPU, NKVD) Arrests and Sentences, 1921-39" in J. Arch Getty's and Oleg V. Naumov's 'The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destructon of the Bolsheviks', Yale University Press, 1999, p. 588. Getty and Naumov rely on a huge amount of the Soviet archives which have been released since 1991, and their numbers are authoritative; I know of no serious refutation of them.





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