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SOURCE. Michael Ellman, "Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments," Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54 No. 7, November 2002, pp. 1151-72.

One long-running scholarly debate that up to now I have not felt inspired to mention in the RAS concerns the statistics of Soviet (mainly Stalin-era) political repression. How big was the Gulag? How many people were sent to the camps and how many perished there? How many were shot?

The main antagonists in this debate have been:

* Stephen Wheatcroft, a former colleague of mine at the University of Birmingham (England) Centre for Russian and East European Studies, currently at the University of Melbourne (Australia), and

* Robert Conquest, senior research fellow and scholar-curator of the Russia and CIS Collection at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) and author of many highly acclaimed works on Soviet repression (1)

On the surface the debate has revolved around the choice and interpretation of statistical sources. Wheatcroft prefers to rely on the official Soviet data that have become available in greater abundance as archives have opened up, while Conquest continues to put more trust in unofficial "literary" sources such as "guesstimates" presented by former prisoners in their memoirs.

However, the passion with which often abstruse statistical issues are argued points to another much more political clash not far beneath the surface. Conquest suspects that Wheatcroft favors the relatively low official figures because he is an apologist for the Soviet system, perhaps even for Stalin. Wheatcroft naturally finds Conquest's imputations on this score highly offensive.

The intervention that Michael Ellman of the University of Amsterdam has now made in this rather barren debate is most balanced and constructive. (2) On the one hand, he agrees with Wheatcroft that the worm's eye views of ex-prisoners cannot form the basis of an accurate global assessment. On the other hand, he demonstrates how a sufficiently critical interpretation of the official data yields results fully compatible with the qualitative picture so eloquently portrayed in Conquest's works.

Crucial is the distinction that Ellman draws between the Gulag's relatively modest "stocks" and its much greater "flows." "Only" a few million people were prisoners in the Gulag at any one time (at the end of 1940, "only" 1.5 million); nonetheless turnover was so high that according to the author's estimate "in the 27 years of the Gulag's existence (1930-56) the number of people who were sentenced to detention in prisons, colonies and camps was 17-18 million." (3)

Like Wheatcroft and several Russian researchers, Ellman concludes that the number of "repression deaths" in 1937 and 1938, the peak years of the great terror, was about one million (more precisely, in the range 950,000--1,200,000). Most of these deaths were deliberate NKVD killings ("executions"), deaths in detention accounting for the remainder.

But although this is the best numerical estimate obtainable, it omits an important hidden category -- deaths that occurred after release but were caused by detention in the Gulag. Of the 644,000 people recorded as being released from the Gulag in 1937-38, how many died shortly afterward as a direct result of the way they were treated there? We do not know, but the number must be very substantial because it was common practice to release from camp prisoners who were no longer strong and healthy enough to work. This improved the camp's indicators for both mortality and labor productivity. (4)

The author points out that despite the large number of people repressed the demographic impact of repression was less than that of war, famine, and disease, especially in the periods with the highest rates of excess deaths (1918-23, 1931-34, and 1941-45).

Or should the victims of repression and of famine be lumped together, counting them all as victims of the regime? Ellman discusses this controversial question in an appendix and concludes that the right answer is no. There is insufficient evidence to prove that Stalin deliberately sought the starvation of millions of peasants, although he was unwilling to come to their aid at the expense of goals more important to him, such as exporting grain to pay for the import of machinery. Such callousness had precedents in the history of China, India (under the British Raj), and other countries.


(1) Most important in this context is "The Great Terror" (Macmillan, 1968), later updated as "The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1990). Also highly pertinent is his book on collectivization: "Harvest of Sorrow" (Oxford University Press, 1986).

(2) Preceding articles in this debate appeared in the following issues of "Europe-Asia Studies": December 1996, November 1997, March 1999, September 1999, December 1999, September 2000.

(3) He notes that "this figure excludes the deportees, prisoners of war and internees, those in the post-war filtration camps, and those who performed forced labor at their normal place of work."

(4) The ploy did not always work. The decision to release some prisoners came too late. One woman was summoned to come collect her father who was to be released, but by the time she reached the camp he was already dead. This cannot have been an unusual experience.

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