THE question of the size of the postwar population of the Soviet Union is not the least of the enigmas which have been baffling students of Russian affairs. Hardly any estimate or evaluation of an economic, sociological or military character for the U.S.S.R. can be made meaningful without an accurate knowledge of the demographic base.

The last reliable population figure was that of the census of January 17, 1939, which showed a population of 170,500,000. Since that date, both before and after the war, there have been incorporated into the Soviet Union territories with a prewar population of about 24,000,000. For the postwar population of the enlarged territory of the U.S.S.R., Soviet sources offer only an estimated figure of 193,000,000, disclosed in January 1946 by G. F. Alexandroff, then Chief of Propaganda of the Communist Party Central Committee.[i]

Mistrusting this estimate, which was made in a political speech practically without substantiation, two outstanding scholars of Russian origin have attempted to evaluate independently the postwar population of the Soviet Union on the basis of other available information. Professor S. N. Prokopovich based his estimate mainly on the number of voters registered for the elections of February 1946.[ii] Assuming that they constituted the same percentage of the total population as in the elections of 1937, Prokopovich estimates the postwar population of the Soviet Union as 180,500,000. This computation leaves out of account the changing age distribution and the increasing numbers of disenfranchised persons.

Nearly the same figure (181,000,000) is obtained by Professor N. S. Timasheff.[iii] He estimates the postwar population in a new and original way, calculating separately three age groups: 1, up to seven years; 2, from eight to 17 years; and 3, 18 and over (let us call them respectively infants, adolescents and adults). However, this attempt, too, can hardly be considered successful, in spite of the copious data utilized by the author and his skillful interpretation of them.

The number of infants in 1946 is computed by Timasheff at 36,000,000, on the basis of prewar data and assuming a wartime birth deficit of 10,900,000. Probably this figure is too high, since both components of the birth deficit -- the so-called normal birth rate and its relative wartime decrease -- are exaggerated. However, my main objections are methodological. As matters stand, the estimates of birth rate and birth deficit which can be made are too rough to be of any use for calculating the population. Data on the wartime birth rate and mortality are lacking. By analogy with all the belligerent countries in World War I the assumption can be made that the decline of the birth rate was somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, or even less. This may mean a difference of 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 infants.

Nor do we know how many children were born in the U.S.S.R. between the 1939 census and the outbreak of the war. The birth rate was changing greatly in the last recorded years. In 1935 the number of births was less than 5,000,000; in 1936 it was above 5,000,000; and 1937 and 1938 it approached 6,500,000. This increase is due primarily to the fact that from 1936 on candidates for marriage were supplied by the populous classes of those born in 1917-19, i.e. between the return from the Imperial Army and mobilization for the Red Army in the Civil War. In the following years, 1939-1941, the same cause might have continued to raise the number of births still more, but the numbers of marriageable persons might also have been already diminished. On such an uncertain basis we may trace in general outlines the trends of population evolution, but we may not calculate the number of postwar infants, i.e. of children who in the course of seven years were actually born and survived the wartime hardships.

No more successful is the calculation of the number of adolescents in the postwar population. Professor Timasheff estimates the size of this group on the basis of figures for pupils in primary and secondary schools. In 1939, when persons of eight to 17 years within the old Soviet borders numbered 39,600,000, the number of pupils was 31,000,000. In 1947-48 in the enlarged territory there were only 31,300,000 pupils. From this figure Timasheff infers that in 1946 the number of adolescents was still 39,000,000. However, even on the assumption that the prewar level of educational facilities had been fully restored by 1947-48 -- which is too optimistic -- the figure of pupils is indicative only of persons seven to 13 years old since they constitute the great bulk of the school population. After the war this age group was certainly relatively smaller, not only as a consequence of war losses but also because into this group moved the small numbers of those born during the period of collectivization and famine of the early thirties. Neither this consideration nor the small figure of the 1947-48 school population applies to persons 14 to 17 years old. This group may influence the total of adolescents in such a way that it may be much higher than in 1939, in spite of the same low number of pupils. Thus the attempt to calculate the second age group separately leads to dubious results.

In estimating the number of adults, however, a solid starting point is available: the number of voters. For the elections of February 9, 1946, 101,700,000 were registered. Under Soviet conditions, almost all of those entitled to vote are registered. In order to obtain the total of the adult population who have reached the voting age of 18 years, we have to add to the number registered the mass of disenfranchised persons, including the inmates of the concentration camps.

Here is the crux of the matter. According to Timasheff, the number of nonvoters does not exceed 4,000,000. He based this estimate on the assumption that in 1937 there were but 3,300,000 adult non-voters, a figure corresponding to the difference between the calculated percentage of voters in the 1937 elections (56.3 percent of the total population) and that of persons of 18 years and more, which, according to the 1939 census, was 58.3 percent [iv] of the total population. This reasoning is methodologically objectionable. Calculations of residual quantities are hazardous if the two compared figures are derived from different sources. Apart from this general consideration, which makes questionable a meticulous comparison of census returns and voting lists, the two sources (1937 elections and 1939 census) are not even synchronous. And it was just between 1937 and 1939 that a sharp shift in the age distribution occurred. Two and a half million more children were born in 1937-38 than in the two preceding years. Likewise, a smaller number advanced into the adult age, because this group included those born during the civil war. Accordingly, the percentage of adults was substantially higher in 1937 than in 1939 and the difference between the adult and the voting population should have surpassed the assumed 3,300,000. But in any case the number of non-voters calculated for 1937 is not convincing for 1946.

True, the number of political deportees in the Soviet Union has been grossly exaggerated; fantastic rumors of 12,000,000 or more inmates of concentration camps have been uncritically repeated by political writers. But we should not go from one extreme to another. There is ample evidence of numerous concentration camps not simply in the polar region where a great prison population could not be supported, but also in various other parts of the Soviet Union. An estimated total of 4,000,000 non-voters would reduce the number of concentration camp slave-laborers to a very small figure. This is because at least 1 percent, i.e. 1,000,000, must be written off for inevitable defects of the voting register. Another 1,000,000 comprise insane persons and criminals deprived by courts of electoral rights. Furthermore, just on the eve of the 1946 elections 5,000,000 repatriated prisoners of war and civilian workers were being investigated, and obviously a considerable part of these could not yet be included in the electoral lists. The remainder of the assumed 4,000,000 non-voters, representing inmates of concentration camps, would be rather insignificant.

Answering my article in Novoye Russkoye Slovo,[v] Prokopovich admitted that part of the millions which he considered as war victims might be inmates of concentration camps. On the other hand, he considers it as equally possible that deportees were allowed to vote, since they were deported on administrative orders without trial. However, this assumption is refuted by numerous former inmates of concentration camps who have described the mock trials in which they were sentenced to confinement in "labor camps." It is true that many "forced colonists," such as the kulaki and some minority national groups, have been deported without trial and are living at large in remote regions, and even might be allowed to vote. But the general tendency is toward eliminating all politically unreliable elements from voting.[vi] In order to substantiate his low population estimate, Prokopovich proposed the number of workers and employees as another indicator of the adult population. In 1946 it was down to what it was in 1937 on a much smaller territory. However, comparability is ruled out by three reasons: the much larger number of people in the armed forces, the increased employment of women, and the mass of invalids in 1946.

Thus estimates of the postwar population made by scholars outside the Soviet Union are not only unconvincing but also in contradiction with other information which has passed the Iron Curtain. Alexandroff's figure of 193,000,000 remains the only estimate of the postwar population that seems to be usable. In contrast with the estimates discussed above, it is quite compatible with the well-founded assumption that in the Communist paradise millions of citizens are enduring the horrors of concentration camps. Even though they do not number 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 they certainly reach at least 5,000,000 -- surely an enormous enough figure! On the other hand, the actual decline of the population by about 7,000,000 during the four and a half years between the German invasion and 1946, while putting a check on unfounded exaggerations, nevertheless suggests a hecatomb of war victims without historic precedent.[vii]

The difference between the expected population of 215,000,000 to 217,000,000 and the reported figure of 193,000,000 shows a loss of 22,000,000 to 24,000,000. Deducting from this figure some 2,000,000 who left the Soviet Union (migratory loss), and eliminating a birth deficit of 8,000,000 to 10,000,000, we obtain an excess mortality of 10,000,000 to 14,000,000 which might be evenly distributed between military and civilian deaths. The higher figure is the more probable.[viii] In other words, as a result of World War II, Russia lost as many human lives as all other European countries taken together. Russia's losses during the four years of the last war equalled her losses in the course of the nine-year period which comprises the first World War, the Russian civil war and the Great Famine. Military losses, which numbered 2,000,000 in World War I and over 1,000,000 in the civil war (1918-1921), were considerably greater in World War II because of the progress of means of destruction and the higher mortality among prisoners of war.

On the other hand, civilian losses were higher in the years 1914-22, amounting to about 9,000,000,[ix] because the civil war (not World War I) and the famine had resurrected the scourge of former times -- epidemic diseases. True, in World War II this rôle was assumed by the Germans; but the ideologically-imbued Nazi pest seized Jews primarily for methodical extermination; other subjugated peoples had to fulfill their destiny by serving the master race as slaves. Accordingly, Jews constituted the majority of civilians killed by Germans in occupied territories having a considerable Jewish population, as was demonstrated with regard to countries for which reliable statistics are available. Thus, the Czechoslovak Statistical Office estimated the number of civilians who were killed at 138,000 Jews and 55,000 non-Jews. The Netherlands Bureau for War Documentation put the figure for Holland at 114,000 Jews and 17,000 non-Jews. According to the Belgian Government Information Center, which does not account separately for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, the total of Belgian civilians killed was 40,564; but apart from them are listed as German victims 20,000 non-citizen Jews. In these three countries Jews formed only 1 to 2 percent of the population.

The Soviet territory occupied by the Germans had a prewar population of some 85,000,000, of whom nearly 5 percent were Jews. The number of Jews killed was about 2,500,000. The number of non-Jews who perished under the German rule hardly could be higher and probably was smaller. If, therefore, the number of civilian losses in the German-occupied territory [x] did not exceed 4,000,000 to 5,000,000, the figure for the uninvaded territory probably was not higher than 2,000,000 to 3,000,000. This gives us a total approaching 7,000,000, as compared with 9,000,000 during 1914-1922.

The purpose of these remarks is not to minimize Russia's civilian losses. Indeed, a total of about 7,000,000 is, proportionately to the population, twice as high as the corresponding figure for Axis-ruled Europe outside the U.S.S.R. Rather, it is intended to warn against an uncritical acceptance of figures, with preference for the highest available, as if a million corpses were somehow trifling. An UNRRA representative reported a Ukrainian Government estimate of 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 civilian losses. A well-known American writer reported for the Ukraine a figure of 6,000,000. A medical officer of UNRRA estimated the excess mortality in Belorussia at 2,200,000. A leading Polish Communist gave an estimate of military and civilian losses of the Soviet Union at 17,000,000 (not including excess mortality from harsh living conditions).[xi] We know what difficulties there are in the way of computing civilian losses. We know also, in particular since Delbrück's methodological researches, the tendency of the human mind grossly to exaggerate losses from wars and other disasters. Certainly there is less reason to accept the above hearsay evidence from Soviet sources (albeit reported by dependable persons) than to reject the postwar population figure disclosed by an influential Soviet spokesman, even though this figure is inconsistent with fantastic estimates of war losses.

As long as there is no postwar census, any suggested population figure will not be more, in view of radical wartime changes, than an intelligent guess. Nor can Alexandroff's figure of 193,000,000 claim greater validity. However, the information on which it is based is certainly better and more abundant than that at our disposal. Some persons have suspected that it is nothing but a prewar figure founded on the 1939 census for the old Soviet territory. However, Alexandroff stated that 100,000,000 of the reported total population were born after the October 1917 revolution. This figure could not possibly be deduced from the 1939 census. There seems no doubt, then, that it is a postwar population estimate. It is the only one given by Soviet sources which is not admittedly based on prewar data, and probably it is used for official purposes. Its principal virtue is that it does not lead to exaggerating or minimizing either war losses or the population of the concentration camps.

[i] Associated Press dispatch from Moscow, January 22, 1946; Pravda, January 23, 1946.

[ii] Novoye Russkoye Slovo, November 27, 1947, and January 23, 1948.

[iii] American Journal of Sociology, September 1948.

[iv] The precision of this figure is open to some doubt, since the census data were not tabulated separately for the age groups of 18 and 19 years.

[v] December 25, 1947.

[vi] See the report of an eyewitness, "Elections to the Supreme Council," The Socialist Courier, November 30, 1948.

[vii] It may be of more than academic interest that during the Tsarist régime the peak number of convicts at hard labor was 52,000 in 1913. In addition, 25,000 were sent into exile in 1901-10 and 27,000 in 1911-14. According to a rough estimate of M. Rosanov (Novoye Russkoye Slovo, December 21, 1948), who claims that he worked in the planning department of an important regional correction camp's administration, the number of inmates in 1941 was 7,000,000 to 8,000,000. Rosanov reveals for the first time an essential fact with regard to the 1939 census, namely that it listed deportees according to their former legal domicile.

[viii] The figure of 7,000,00 was disclosed by Stalin (United Press dispatch from London, March 13, 1946; New Times, Moscow, May 1, 1946). It is unlikely that the figure was intentionally minimized, since it was contained in a statement emphasizing the losses of Russia in comparison with those of her allies. However, though it seems to refer mainly to military losses, it also mentions losses from occupation and deportation. In a broadcast from Moscow, May 4, 1947, the outstanding Soviet historian, Tarlé, blamed "some people in Western Europe and America" who "are at times little inclined to full justice and pay the well-deserved tribute to the memory of the 7,000,000 Soviet soldiers who laid down their lives."

[ix] See my "Europe on the Move," p. 71.

[x] The bulk of civilian losses occurred in the German-occupied territory. The situation of besieged Leningrad, which lost 650,000 inhabitants, was unique in non-occupied Russia.

[xi] These estimates have been compiled by Timasheff, op. cit. His own estimate of excess mortality amounts to 25,000,000 (7,000,000 military and 18,300,000 civilian losses). The same total has been given by Prokopovich.

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  • EUGENE M. KULISCHER, former consultant on demographic problems with O.S.S. and the Department of the Army; author of "Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 1917-1947" and "The Displacement of Population in Europe."
  • More By Eugene M. Kulischer