Masking — hiding both strengths and weaknesses — long has been a Russian forte. The Soviet regime masked its losses in the Great Patriotic War for decades. Today, Vladimir Putin’s regime masks its losses in his “special military action” against Ukraine. Hiding the magnitude of these losses also masks the shortcomings of Kremlin decision-making and obscures the ugly indifference of Russian leaders to human life.
In Ukraine, as in World War II, Russia has masked its bad planning and battlefield defeats by pushing more soldiers, many poorly trained and equipped, into extreme danger. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv has released reliable numbers, but Western agencies have reported that Russia’s casualties, dead and wounded, probably exceeded 220,000 so far — a smaller per-capita toll than Ukraine’s losses (closer to 150,000 civilian and military), from a much smaller population struggling to survive.
Victory against Nazi Germany was achieved at enormous human cost — at least 26 million Soviet lives, military and civilian, compared to 419,400 total U.S. losses and 450,000 British. Joseph Stalin and his successors masked the war’s death toll for more than 60 years with what Russian historian Igor Ivlev in the War Historical Archive in 2012 termed a “General (or Generalized) Lie.” Thus, in 1946, the Stalin regime said the USSR lost 7 million in the war. Twenty years after the war, the Supreme Soviet admitted that 20 million died, of whom 8.7 million were soldiers. In the early 2000s, other Russian estimates put the number of civilians killed at 18 million.
Ivlev found that total Soviet losses from 1941 to 1945 were 38.5 million, including 20.5 million members of the military — not the 8.7 million reported by the Ministry of Defense for 20 years. However, Ivlev accepted earlier reports that civilian deaths amounted to about 18 million.
Ivlev’s estimate of Soviet losses was based in part on census numbers before and after the war that showed a huge deficit of males killed in combat. But Ivlev’s totals may be too low. He does not mention that many of those in German detention were later arrested and incarcerated (such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or executed by Soviet forces. Nor does Ivlev include the nearly 3 million Soviet citizens, including Tatars from Crimea, who died in wartime and post-war deportations, massacres and other kinds of repression carried out by Stalin’s agents, not by Adolf Hitler’s.
The same journal published a rebuttal by Viktor N. Zemskov, “On the Dimensions of Human Losses in the USSR in the Great Patriotic War (In Search of the Truth),” who concluded that total Soviet losses were about 16 million — 11.5 million were civilians and 4.5 million military. He noted that typical mortality would have ended the lives of many citizens, regardless of the war.
Zemskov granted that 16 million deaths was a huge loss, but he accused those posting higher war losses of having ulterior motives — degrading Stalin’s leadership, the military authorities and the entire Soviet system. He even claimed they wanted to magnify the successes of Nazis and their (unnamed) accomplices.
A colleague of Ivlev, the parliamentarian Nikolai Zemskov, informed the State Duma in 2017 that Soviet losses in World War II numbered nearly 42 million.
Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s Minister of Culture until 2020, also entered the dispute. According to Medinsky, every fifth person in the USSR died as a result of World War II. The total Soviet population was reduced by 37.2 million people during the war. Natural-cause deaths were 11.9 million during the war, to which we must add 1.3 million children who died shortly after they were born. Medinsky claimed that experts arrived at the final figure of 26.6 million lives lost.
Why was it important for the world to know these numbers? Medinsky denounced the attempts to erase the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany. The European Union went so far as to accuse the USSR of unleashing World War II. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states officially declared that the USSR did not liberate them from Nazism but, rather, occupied them and enslaved their people.
The British economist Mark Harrison accepted estimates by Russian demographers of 26 million to 27 million total losses.
Whether Soviet losses in World War II were 16 million, 26 million, 38.5 million or 42 million, their magnitude underscored the heavy price paid for victory. Their scale confirmed that Stalin was not only cruel but also a fool. Having weakened the Soviet body politic, the economy and military leadership in the 1930s, Stalin appeased Hitler — and then ignored warnings of an imminent German blitzkrieg. The only way he could stop and drive back the Germans was by pushing millions of human beings into the maw of the Nazi war machine.
While Stalin eventually got the free world to ally with him against Hitler, Putin has alienated NATO and the European Union, who are helping Ukraine to resist and repulse. On the battlefields, quality Western weaponry and economic might have combined with Ukrainian skill and spirit against the quantity of human life and bombs that Putin has mustered. Guided by the arrogance of personal power and hubris, Putin — like Stalin — has proved himself to be not just brutal but foolish.
Walter Clemens is an associate of the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of political science, Boston University. His book, “Blood Debts: What Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims,” will be released in July.
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