Editor’s note: The following is a chapter from a project I’m working on to tally up Stalin’s bodycount (after having broken down the 25.3 million Soviet losses in WWII by cause some years ago). The total number of people killed by Stalin comes to about 12 million, ninety percent of them of Soviet citizens, and mostly due to policies that did not aim at killing. Far lower than the nonsensical 60-80 million number bandied about by Cold Warriors that would have demographically broken the Soviet Union. Also lower than the most often cited number of 20 million, which was pulled out of thin air by the Black Book of Communism. And also far higher than the numbers given by Stalin revisionists, which top out at 4 million.
Under Stalin the Soviet Union internally exiled (deported) six million and fifteen thousand of its people. Experiences varied but at its worst deportation meant being dispossessed, stripped of citizenship, herded into railway wagons, and dumped into some of the most remote and inhospitable places in the USSR.
In other cases deportation was supposedly not punitive but merely an “administrative” measure to clear strategic areas of those populations which were merely secretly suspected, rather than openly accused, of being prone to disloyalty. These “administrative settlers” did not lose their citizenship, but because so little planning and resources went in the forcible transfer, could—depending on their place of exile—still experience vastly increased mortality rates.
The first major wave of deportations accompanied the forced collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. It resulted in the punitive deportation of some 2,332,000 (of these 1.8 million in 1930-31) “kulaks”; supposedly wealthy peasants but in reality any peasants who resisted collectivization.
The next wave of deportations between 1935 and 1938 was comparatively smaller, and was technically an “administrative” measure. It meant the wholesale deportation of 172 thousand Koreans, as well as a partial deportations of a host of other nationalities from the borderlands, chiefly Germans and Poles. One of the groups forcefully transferred were “Kharbintsy” —Russians who had spent time manning the railways in Manchuria.
The third wave lasted from 1940 and into 1942 and was much akin to the preceding one. Having pushed its border westwards in 1939 and 1940 the Soviet Union now discovered it had an entirely new western borderland which likewise “needed” to be cleared of potential spies. This deportation wave was marked mainly by the partial “administrative” deportation of Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians.
The next wave was triggered by the German invasion in 1941. As Axis armies were advancing the Soviets forcefully transferred populations they though would be susceptible to siding with the invaders to the interior. This meant primarily the wholesale deportation of the remaining 905 thousand Germans, and some hundred thousand Finns. Actually, the deportation of the Germans was not “wholesale” in the sense that Wehrmacht captured some settlements populated by Soviet Germans before the Soviets could deport them. The Soviets went back and forth on whether these were administrative or punitive deportations.
The fourth and last major wave of internal deportations took place in 1943-44 after the tide of the war shifted and the Soviets began reclaiming areas they had previously lost. It meant the wholesale deportation of seven nationalities; Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks, whom the authorities now accused of having sided with the enemy. In reality the accused nationalities had been less willing to see themselves conscripted into the Soviet war effort, but had not collectively sided with the Germans either. As had been the case with the Germans and the Finns earlier, numerous “disloyal” deportees were snatched directly from Red Army ranks where some had earned decorations for bravery (as had some Germans).
After the war the demographic engineering of the borderlands, particularly in the Caucusus continued, and more Soviet citizens found themselves deported but the groups targeted were small and the numbers of deportees therefore much lower than before.
Deaths due to Internal Forced Migrations
Deportations were not carried out to kill. They were carried out to secure the frontier and the countryside, to control populations that were not trusted, and to transfer labor to areas that the central planners estimated faced acute labor shortages. Nonetheless deportations most definitely did kill.
The Russian demographer D.M. Ediev has calculated that among the 2,581,000 deportees from the ten wholly deported nationalities excess deaths amounted to 502 thousand. Ediev’s estimate is based on grueling work examining age pyramids for the ten ethnicities recorded in the population censuses and can be taken as reliable. The challenge is estimating losses among the rest of the 3,434,000 deportees.
Ediev puts the deaths from all other deported groups at 343 thousand, for a combined 845 deaths due to forced migrations. This later estimate, however, is based only on a very crude calculation where Eduiev simply took the 19.4% morality rate that he arrived at for the ten wholly deported nationalities, halved it, and applied it to all the other deportees.
Ediev thus assumes that mortality rates among other deportees was far lower than among the ten wholly deported peoples. However, at least for the 2.33 million kulaks, particularly the 1.8 million deported in 1930-31, that is not very likely.
The basic reason that internal exiles suffered mass mortality is because the central planners satisfied themselves with chaotic and improvised, ad hoc transfers which devoted far too few resources for the survival of the transferred masses. Mortality was thus the worst in the largest operations that put the biggest strain on resources, and for groups whose early years of exile—when they were at their most vulnerable—coincided with country-wide crises and shortages.
Nine of the ten wholly deported peoples were moved in two massive operations transferring 1 million people in 1941, and another 1 million in 1943-44. Likewise their early years of exile coincided with the crisis war years and the famine of 1946-47.
However, the kulak operation was just as chaotic. 1.8 million were on the move at the same time, in transfers which actually kicked off in the dead of winter. Moreover the early kulak exile coincided with the deadly famine of 1932-33. On the other hand, well over 300,000 deportees escaped places of special settlement in the first three years of the kulak exile, before the NKVD mastered its guard duties. Though the strong were the likeliest to flee this would have nonetheless saved tens of thousands.
Among the other 1.1 million forced migrants it is more likely that mortality rate was as low as Ediev assumes. This is because they were moved in relatively smaller operations, outside crisis years, and tended to be administrative settlers. An additional reason is that 250,000 of these were Poles who were only added as citizens in 1939. Their exile turned out to be very brief. They were deported in 1940, but in August 1941, as per agreement with the Polish government in exile, some 30% of them were amnestied, and the rest in June 1943.
Applying the 19,4% mortality rate Ediev calculated for the ten wholly deported peoples to the entire 6,015 thousand strong deportee population would mean 1,168 thousands deaths, but as shown this is not highly likely either. Most likely the number of lives lost due to forced migrations is between this number and the 845 thousand estimated by Ediev.
The approximate mid-point of 1 million may be a good point estimate of the number of deaths due to deportations, with that corresponding to 502 thousands deaths among the wholly deported peoples, and 498 thousand among all other deportees, perhaps three quarters of them kulaks.
That is roughly in line with estimates of other kulak deportation deaths. Lynne Viola, a prominent historian of the Soviet collectivization and the kulak exile estimates “roughly half a million people” perished as kulak special settlers. Based on archival data the Russian historian O.V. Khlevniuk reports there were 389,521 deaths in special settlements 1932 through 1940. The Russian historian N.A. Ivnitskii reports 100,000 deaths in 1930, and another Russian historian, V.N. Zemskov, reports 89,754 deaths in 1932 and 51,601 deaths in 1933. Ie, the numbers suggest Ediev is wrong to assume deportations before the forced ressetlement of nationalities were less deadly.
The Nature of Deportations
Deportation always involved the transfer of an entire family as it was meant to be permanent. Deportees (“special settlers”) were not accused of a crime as individuals and then sentenced at a trial to be forcefully transferred. Instead they were rounded up and deported because they belong to a category of people (eg “kulak”, Chechen, Polish intellectual…) targeted for “resettlement”.
Population transfer was primarily intended as a control measure. It was to preempt or break resistance to Soviet policies. A secondary motive was to attempt to develop and exploit natural sources in remote and inhospitable parts of the country. Thinning out the numbers of deportees was not the aim of deportations — dead people could not be exploited for their labor, and there was no need to kill people who were already being effectively controlled.
Nonetheless, so few resources were devoted to the resettlement that they routinely resulted in mass mortality. Essentially, over and over again people would be dumped in some of the harshest environments known to man with few supplies and provisions and told to build their new settlements and grow their own food — all the while also having to fulfil their labor duties to the state.
Resettlements did not aim at killing, but kill they did — through callousness and chaos that were so characteristic of Stalinist mega-projects. All said and told one of six special settlers perished, compared to one in ten inmates of the gulag. The reason for this was that deportations transferred entire families — the old, the infirm, and the very young were the first to die.
The high mortality and general ineffectiveness of special settlements in developing natural resources in remote areas in the early 1930s was part of the reason why Soviet authorities in mid 1930s dreamt up the labor camps and colonies of the gulag. These would be places where only healthy adults would be sent to. Free of “ballast” (actual term) it was assumed such camps would be more successful economically.
Even so, albeit this major problem of special settlements was discovered they were not discontinued. As the settlements gradually emptied as kulaks were being slowly rehabilitated they would be again replenished by new arrivals — suspected disloyal nationalities.