THE closely-guarded secret of Russian population trends has been slightly unveiled recently. The total population of the Soviet Union was stated to be 200,000,000 at the end of 1949. Then, on November 7, 1951, the anniversary of the Communist Revolution, L. P. Beria [1] gave in the usual cryptic Soviet form some indication of how the population is developing. By analyzing this and other postwar information in the light of what we know about the prewar population we are able to do considerably more than merely peep through the Iron Curtain. The information as to birth rates and death rates revealed by Beria—the first to be given out since before the war—suggests a trend at odds with that supplied in Soviet propaganda and one which may in the long run modify the economic and even political picture in Russia. On the other hand, the age and sex structure of the current population points to a forthcoming period when the supply of human effectives will be favorable for Russian aggression.

The yearly net increase of the Russian population, according to the Beria statement, amounts to more than 3,000,000. "Mortality has been halved as compared with the prewar year of 1940." Beria emphasized the difference between the endeavor of the "imperialist cannibals" in the "capitalist camp" to reduce the birth rate, and Comrade Stalin's discovery that "people are the most precious capital."

A 3,000,000 natural increase of a population of 200,000,000 would mean a 15 per thousand excess of births over deaths. The last disclosed prewar figure for the Russian death rate is 20 per thousand in 1938. If we use this figure, and assume that the present death rate is half as high, it would be only 10 per thousand; that is, it would be among the lowest in the world, about the same as in the United States. "He that believeth shall be saved." Quite contrary to Beria's intention, this assumption would also reveal another incredible figure. If the excess births over deaths is 15 per thousand and the death rate is 10, then the birth rate would be only 25, approximately the same as that of the capitalist cannibals of the United States.

What is the solution of the riddle? Is it to be sought in the story of Sonichka and the oranges? Sonichka returned from a children's party and said that seven children had been present. Katia's mother had provided three oranges, she continued, and Katia had divided the oranges in such a way that everybody received half an orange and one-half was left over. Quite a riddle, of course, but the answer was simple: Sonichka was lying. I do not think the Beria speech should be interpreted in this way: Soviet spokesmen are more sophisticated. The best liar, said an English judge, is not the man who invents but the man who adapts. Let us see if we can discover the adaptation.

Beria does not compare the present death rate with that of 1938, about which we have some information, but with the 1940 death rate, which was never disclosed. There are several indications that mortality in 1940 was substantially higher than in 1938. In 1938 the food situation was favorable, due to the outstandingly good harvest of 1937; in 1940 it became worse, and farming and the possession of livestock by individual members of collectives was restricted. We have prewar vital rates for Kiev. Even here, where food shortage was certainly less felt than elsewhere on the average, mortality showed a rise of more than 6 percent between 1938 and 1940. Besides, the losses of the Soviet-Finnish war must be taken into account. It would hardly be an overestimate to assume that the 1940 death rate went up to 23 per thousand. According to Beria, mortality of that year has now been "halved"—a very general statement, probably intended as an approximation. Approximately one-half of the above estimate of 23 per thousand could mean a death rate of 11, 12 or 13.

A death rate of 13 per thousand is quite credible for Russia today. There has undoubtedly been a certain improvement in medical facilities, and, as elsewhere, medicine is likely to save lives almost irrespective of general living conditions. Primarily, however, what we meet in Russia is the well-known phenomenon of a sudden drop in mortality after a heavy blood-letting—a condition which may be only temporary. Hardships of the war and immediate postwar periods produced a certain natural selection, and the decline of the birth rate automatically reduced the weight of infant mortality upon the general birth rate. Thus, there has been a reduction of three population groups which mainly furnish clients for the graveyard: the sick, the aged and the infants.

A death rate of 13 per thousand would attest a marked decrease in mortality, but the significance of this in the Soviet Union should not be exaggerated. Mortality went down in all European nations. The death rate of the Soviet Union would still be the highest in Europe, with the exception of Rumania perhaps, which reported (for the last time) in 1945 a death rate of 20; and perhaps in Jugoslavia, which had a death rate of 13.1 in 1950. When combined with a natural increase of 15 per thousand, a death rate of 13 shows something else—a birth rate of 28 per thousand. This, too, is much lower than before the war. The ratio of less than four men to five women of procreative ages brought about by war, and the imprisonment of millions of men in concentration camps, may have contributed to the present low birth rate. Essentially, however, the decrease of fertility reflects rapidly progressing industrialization, and a more rational approach to family life.

In spite of all the efforts of the Soviet Government to increase the birth rate, Russia persistently goes the way of all westernized nations, with 45 births per thousand on the eve of World War I, less than 40 in 1930, around 35 in the later 1930's and less than 30 at present. The decrease in fertility is beginning to outstrip the decrease in mortality, so the rate of population growth is already somewhat slowed down. In 1939 Stalin boasted, "At present we have every year a net population increase of about 3,000,000; this means that every year we increase by an entire Finland." The natural increase also amounts to 3,000,000 at present, but the percentage is smaller, for the Soviet Union has more territory and a larger population. If continued, the trend could not fail to have social, economic and even political effects, slowing down the increase of Russian military and civilian manpower and making more favorable the ratio between population and developed resources.


But that is a long-run consideration. The significant question now is not the total size of Russia's population today and tomorrow, but the amount of military and economic manpower it includes. The first step in evaluating that is to find out how the population is distributed according to age and sex. No information of this kind has been revealed since the 1939 census, and to work it out we must resort to population "projection"—a method originated for predicting future population which consists of applying to each age group a rate of survival, and adding the number of newborn expected yearly. The method was first used in England, and after having been elaborated in Germany spread over Europe and America like a disease. Werner Sombart used to say: "Never predict for less than 50 years, and then your mistake will not be revealed." "Projections" of future populations are always fallacious, for the reason that demographic trends constantly change in a way that can never be completely foreseen. What "projections" can help us do, oddly enough, is to understand better the past and the present.

This is particularly apparent in the case of Russia. By projecting the 1939 Soviet population (including the population of territories annexed after 1939) to 1950, we can calculate the size of war losses and thus gain a better understanding of the composition of the present population. Had there been no war, the Soviet population in 1950 might have reached 225,000,000 or more. The actual 1950 population was reported to be 200,000,000; thus we may estimate that war losses were around 25,000,000 to 28,000,000. If the 3,000,000 loss which has been reported as due to migrations is subtracted from such an estimate, we may conclude that the remainder expresses the military and civilian mortality and the deficit in births caused by the war.

General Skobelev, who conquered Central Asia for the Tsar in the nineteenth century, was once dictating a message congratulating His Majesty on the capture of the fortress Geog-Tepe: "We lost 27 commissioned officers and 800 noncoms and privates," he said, glancing at his papers. "The enemy lost 30,000." His aide-de-camp looked at him in perplexity: "But, Your Excellency, the enemy did not have 30,000 troops in all." "So what?" the general retorted. "Do you pity the infidels?" A similar attitude is often taken toward Russian losses in the Second World War, and criticism of fantastic figures exceeding the theoretical maximum of 28,000,000 is rejected as an expression of misplaced sympathy—not for the victims but for their rulers in Moscow. Let us keep our estimates conservative, not out of pity for the infidels, but out of regard for logic and common sense.

What might the minimum estimate be? Stalin has referred to 7,000,000 war losses, and the Soviet historian Eugene Tarlé later specified that that figure referred to military losses. It was given in March 1946, and may or may not have included all of those who died from wounds or in captivity. Civilian losses, according to scattered official and semi-official data which do not cover the whole field, add up to 5,000,000. The impact of war on population appears not only in the increased number of deaths, but also in the reduced number of births as a consequence of mobilization. For World War I the birth deficit in Russia has been estimated at 6,000,000, and the net deficit of infants for World War II would be at least as high. The minimum figures of losses may therefore be summarized as follows: 3,000,000 migratory; 7,000,000 military; 5,000,000 civilian; and 6,000,000 birth deficit. By subtracting these sums from the derived total of 25,000,000 to 28,000,000 war losses, one obtains the relatively small number of 4,000,000 to 7,000,000 losses to be added to the above totals in various categories.

Military losses occur among men who are in the flower of their manhood. The Russian birth deficit is reflected in the 1950 population, mainly in the reduced number of children from five through nine years old. After having deducted these and other war losses from individual age-sex categories of the 1950 projected population, one obtains a corrected version of what is called the "age and sex pyramid." It reveals several interesting peculiarities. Men and women of 18 through 45 years of age—the main reservoir of military and civilian manpower—may be analyzed as a group. Although hardest hit by war casualties, the group numbers more than 85,000,000, or about 43 percent of the Soviet population. The United States has about the same percentage (42 percent) of its total population in these ages (63,000,000 in absolute figures). There are many more old people in the United States than in the U.S.S.R.; but the usually higher proportion of children in the Soviet Union was reduced by the wartime birth deficit.

The impact of war on this main reservoir of Soviet manpower is also evident in the ratio of men to women in the group. There are 129 females for each 100 males, or more than six women for every five men. (Women constitute half of the labor force, and since the men are continuously siphoned off into the cities, farming in Soviet Russia is on the way to becoming a woman's job.) The picture is different, however, when men of prime military ages, 18 through 25, are singled out: there are nearly 16,000,000 in the U.S.S.R. as against 9,000,000 in the United States. The young men in this group in 1950 were born in 1924-1931. The Soviet figure reflects the high fertility of the period of the New Economic Policy, and most of these men escaped the slaughterhouse of war.

With proper respect for its limitation, the projection method may be employed to estimate future population, remembering always how hazardous are predictions of upward or downward fluctuations of fertility rates and of forecasts about changing mortality rates. But the youngsters who will be 18 through 25 years old in three or five or ten years already exist today; and since in Russia (as in the Western World) their death rate is quite low, their numbers can be foreseen in advance with reasonable accuracy—if catastrophic changes do not occur!

In contrast to 1945, when the 18 through 25 age group in the U.S.S.R. had been decimated, the present group has been only slightly reduced in numbers as a result of military casualties. In a short time the 18 through 25 group will be entirely free of losses from this source; but the gain will be counterbalanced by losses from another source—the lessening of the birth rate during the lean years of collectivization. This will be most sharply felt in 1955. Then begins another upward swing, when the high fertility of the period between collectivization and World War II will raise the numbers in this age group. The peak year will come in less than ten years—1960-61—when nearly 19,000,000 Russian boys will be of prime military age. After that the number will decline, since those born during World War II will then be maturing.

After the technological progress in military science in World War II there was a tendency to minimize the importance of numbers in assessing military strength. The war in Korea has shown how important numerical strength is in any reckoning of military capabilities. Certainly it is wise to remember that the latter part of the 1950's may offer a time of great danger of Russian aggression—possibly the time of greatest danger. The supply of men in the prime military ages in the Soviet Union will then begin to approach its peak, and the Soviet rulers will be able to look forward to adding large contingents to the Russian armed forces in the succeeding three or four years. In the same period the Western armies will inherit the meager cohorts of the depression years and the result of the low fertility of the prewar years. Nor must we forget that only very few of the Russian troops who by then would bear the brunt of the fighting would with their own eyes have seen life in the West and shaken hands with friendly American G.I.'s. This will be the generation thoroughly indoctrinated and imbued with hatred for the capitalist monster.


To what degree is this huge reservoir of manpower indicative of the economic and military strength of the Soviet Empire? Various persons contend that it is less formidable than it seems, first, because a large part of Russian manpower—a much larger part than in the West—is swallowed up in the production of food; and secondly, because superiority in numbers, if any, is more than offset by inferior quality. But we must beware of wishful thinking.

It is true, of course, that the percentage of the Soviet labor force employed in agriculture is much higher than in the West. The point, however, must be qualified in two ways. First, a relatively smaller part of the Russian labor force is concerned with the production of the less essential goods and services for civilian consumption than is the case in the West. This means that a larger part of the non-agricultural labor force can be devoted to Soviet economic and military ends. Second, not all who are employed in agriculture are actually needed for food production. Before and after collectivization there was always "hidden unemployment" in the Russian village. Even in 1940, according to an official estimate, the "surplus" of labor in the collectives amounted to 5,000,000 persons. War and industry have now absorbed this surplus; probably for the first time since the seventeenth century there is no agrarian overpopulation in Russia. But, in recent years, mechanization and technological progress have more and more freed manpower for non-agricultural employment, and this trend can be intensified in the future.

Is Russian manpower inferior in quality? An upper layer of manpower in all countries is loosely described as consisting of all those who work primarily with their brains. The total number of these "brain-workers" in the United States has been estimated at 1,500,000. No corresponding figure is available for the Soviet Union, but certain categories may be compared as follows:


  U.S.A. U.S.S.R.
Engineers 400,000 300,000 (est.)
Physicians 209,000 180,000
Scientists 175,000 }150,000
College Teachers 200,000

Though the numbers are lower in the Soviet Union, the differences are not overwhelming. Certainly these figures do not reflect the imagined gulf between a Western civilization based on scientific reasoning and a traditionally half-barbaric Slavic Orient. The Soviet Union inherited the Russian intelligentsia, whose intellectual and moral standing was very high. Under Communist pressure it has been greatly corrupted, but it has preserved and developed the essential scholarly and technical qualifications. Pre-revolutionary remnants could transmit their knowledge to their more numerous successors in scientific institutions and the army. A decline of quality is certainly in progress, but the lethal grip of Communism on Russian minds will probably not really be felt until the next generation of "brainworkers."

The actual weakness in the structure of Soviet manpower is not an inadequate supply of brain-workers at the top, nor an insufficent reservoir of unskilled labor at the bottom. It is a shortage in the middle layer, particularly a lack of skilled workers. This, too, is an inheritance from old Russia. Even when the Russian economy required only 1,000,000 or so skilled workers they could not be found; and there are not enough of them now when Russia needs 20,000,000 or 30,000,000. For it is not only industry which needs mechanics; today, almost every soldier must be a technician. And only agricultural machinery, operated by skilled workers, can curtail the need for manpower in kolkhozes. Moscow propagandists boast that the Soviet Union uses the most modern machines everywhere: in canal-building, road-making, mining, etc. Even making allowance for what Saltykov-Shchedrin called "administrative exaltation," the demand for trained mechanics to handle this machinery must be great.

The Soviet Government tries to meet this demand; trade, railroad, mining and factory schools turn out about 500,000 graduates yearly. But we may well be skeptical when we are told that, in addition to these boys and girls, "qualifications" of 7,000,000 factory and office workers were "raised" in 1950 by means of individual and brigade apprenticeship and course training. To speak of "raising qualifications" can mean anything. The level of general education is undeniably being raised; almost the whole of Soviet youth is enrolled in the seven-year school course. But in spite of all the efforts of the Soviet Government, and of some substantial achievements, the shortage of skilled workers remains a weak point in the Soviet economy.

And yet, strange as it may seem, the need of broadening the middle strata may be a factor of political strength in the Soviet system. Less than one hundred years ago the French people, politically among the most advanced, endured the despotic and corrupt rule of Napoleon III for 20 years. His international adventures were certainly not glorious enough to obscure the reality of the internal situation, and to attribute his acceptance to the efficiency of his police organization seems superficial. The slogan, enrichissez-vous, could have lured but a fraction of the nation. Yet industry and commerce were expanding, and although living conditions of the masses—the rural and urban proletarians—were still very hard, great opportunities for achievements were open to individuals in the disinherited class. The existence of a chance to move up into a socially and economically higher group does much to explain the political attitude of the masses, not only under Napoleon III, but also under Josef I of present-day Russia.

In the "classless society" of the Soviet Union living conditions of the respective classes are much worse than before the Revolution especially for the intelligentsia and the skilled workers; but they are so for the class as such, not for all its members as individuals. Only a portion of the class are old-time intellectuals, semi-intellectuals and artisans, or their children; the overwhelming majority have risen from the social bottom. For those who aspire to a higher standing there is still ample opportunity to climb the social ladder. A peasant boy or girl becomes an electrician or a bookkeeper, perhaps even an engineer, and finds ready employment. Will he or she not welcome the better living conditions and higher social standing, and support the system which made them possible? There are certainly hundreds of thousands, probably millions, in Russia who are delighted to find that they have thus attained a superior status.

But there are others who are mortal enemies of the system. The existence of the concentration camps suggests how greatly the government fears them, and how numerous they are, though here too we shall be able to estimate the strength of our opponents better if we keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the statistical clouds. The number of inmates of concentration camps, or "forced laborers," in the Soviet Union has been fantastically exaggerated. In the famous issue of Collier's Arthur Koestler referred to a total of 15,000,000 to 20,000,000. A total of 12,000,000 is usually given as a rather conservative estimate.

"Do you pity the infidels?" Dare anyone doubt that Stalin would hesitate to put away 12,000,000 or even 20,000,000 men? Before we answer, let us think what that would mean for the social organism. All reports suggest that Soviet deportees include not more than 10 percent women and probably fewer, and relatively few people aged 50 years and more. The number of males in the working ages of the population of the U.S.S.R.—that is to say, more than 18 and less than 50 years of age—can be calculated at slightly more than 40,000,000; when we subtract the members of the M.V.D. and the regular armed forces, the figure would be around 35,000,000. The assumption that there are 12,000,000 forced laborers ("only" 12,000,000) leads to the amazing conclusion that every third male of working age is in a concentration camp. There is also another social aspect of such a fantastic assumption—the drop in fertility it would entail. At the peak of Russian mobilization during World War I, when 14,000,000 were in the army, the birth rate dropped by more than two-fifths. What would have been the effect of childbearing in Russia—not only after but even before World War II—if 12,000,000 men had been excluded from family life?

An indirect approach to a plausible estimate of the number of forced laborers is to attempt to gauge the full complement of "deportees," including those in concentration camps, by comparing election data with figures on the general population. In contradistinction to age-sex distributions based on the projection techniques, this method is often a very inaccurate one—as are all calculations relying on residual quantities. Nevertheless, it may be employed here with caution, since our purpose is to indicate roughly the size of a classification which includes the inmates of concentration camps as merely one of its components. From the total adult Soviet population (those 18 years of age and over) for 1947, 1950 and 1951, let us accordingly subtract voters registered in the elections of 1947, 1950 and 1951. Since registration is compulsory, this yields the number of non-voting adults—about 13,000,000. In order to obtain the number of deportees (in and outside of concentration camps), three other groups of non-voters must be excluded: aliens (about 0.5 percent); persons omitted in the process of registration (say 1 percent); and the insane, ordinary criminals disfranchised for five years, and persons under investigation (altogether about 2 percent). The remaining non-voting population for each of these three years amounts to about 9,000,000 persons—a total which includes not only inmates of concentration camps, but also deportees who were never in concentration camps and those who have served their time or have been pardoned. A Russian D.P. recently recounted how, [2] after having been in a concentration camp and while legally still a deportee and disfranchised, he registered with the G.P.U. and worked as a high school teacher and then as a bookkeeper in the local cooperative administration. In still other cases, the original sentence is to an assigned domicile and disfranchisement. Deportees of this kind were particularly numerous after the war, when masses of returned prisoners of war were "pardoned," with the obligation of expiating their "treason" through assigned work.

How many, then, of the residual 9,000,000 mentioned above really are forced laborers living in the notorious concentration camps? A pure guess would be 5,000,000; it seems the maximum compatible with the mass of deportees to be found outside of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union and with what we otherwise know about social and demographic conditions there. An estimate of the 1940-1941 camp labor force has been thoroughly worked out by Naum Jasny, on the basis of the secret 1941 Plan which listed capital investments to be carried through by the N.K.V.D. (now the M.V.D.) and its main camp organizations. Mr. Jasny arrived at a total of 3,500,000 concentration camp inmates used for work. This calculation excluded completely disabled inmates and those en route to camps or from one working place to another. As for the changes which took place since 1941, huge numbers of deportees are reported in all categories; they may or may not outnumber those liberated to be enlisted in the army. If we allow for these special factors, we get results which are not inconsistent with the guess which puts the number at nearly 5,000,000.

But this is an astounding and shocking total, which tells a great deal about the limitations of the peasant boy-and-girl success story in the U.S.S.R. At the end of the nineteenth century, George Kennan (the great uncle of the present American Ambassador to the Soviet Union) visited Siberia, and his description of the life of political deportees and exiles caused his readers in Europe and America to shudder. In comparison to the conditions in present Soviet concentration camps, the life of these earlier deportees was an idyl. Their number, in all categories, never surpassed 100,000—that is, 2 percent of the present number of apprehended and convicted enemies of the state.

In many quarters there is a tendency to depict the whole concentration camp system as a huge profit-making enterprise and a pillar of Soviet industrialization. It has even been said that deportation is regulated primarily by the needs of the government for labor. If so, the existence of millions of slave laborers would be no proof of anti-government feeling of the Soviet people. But is it so? The idea that a government would expect to profit by deliberately maintaining a mass of unpaid workers is plausible only for those who have no idea of the rudiments of political economy. Slave labor is much less productive than labor performed under economic incentives. The same writers who emphasize the profits of the slave-holding M.V.D. put the productivity of a slave worker at less than half of that of other Russian workers. The Soviet Government knows very well that it is much more profitable to use economic incentives than brute force. Long columns of advertisements in the Soviet papers ask for engineers, bookkeepers, foremen, technicians, workers belonging to the so-called "first six" categories who, according to a decree of 1940, can be sent wherever they are needed, even against their wishes. Why does the state attempt to lure them by higher wages? The Soviet overlords are too refined to rely on mere force in order to squeeze the highest product out of the worker.

An unlimited supply of slaves is the prerequisite to a large-scale slave economy, but the Soviet supply is by no means unlimited. The Soviet rulers do not suppose they are profiting when they employ engineers for woodcutting. Use of forced labor may be helpful economically for such work as gold-washing and lumbering in the notorious Kolyma and other subarctic regions, which free labor will not undertake. But such tasks would require only a fraction of the actual number of slave laborers. Millions have been sent to concentration camps not because they are needed there, but because the Soviet rulers would rather take the economic and social loss of having them behind barbed wire than run the political risks of permitting them at large. Undoubtedly some are seized who are innocent—"to encourage the others." The willingness of the Soviet Government to weaken the labor force shows how conscious Stalin and his acolytes are of the anti-Communist feelings among the Russian people and their dread that these feelings may be expressed in actions.

[1] Beria is a Deputy President of the Council of Ministers and one of the most powerful members of the Politburo.

[2] Novoy Russkoye Slovo, September 7, 1951.

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