Monday, April 11, 2016

How many people did Joseph Stalin really kill?


When discussing the merits and achievements of the Soviet Union, detractors of various stripes, from anti-communist to anti-Leninist, often point to a 2013 International Business Times article named How Many People Did Joseph Stalin Kill?” by Palash Ghosh. The article, which depicts Soviet leader J. V. Stalin as an inhuman cold-blooded mass murderer, claims that up to 60 million people, nearly one-third of the USSR’s 1941 population, were killed on the part of the government and the leadership of the country.[1][2] But do these figures actually hold up? Through a careful read of the article, one can find glaring problems with the logic and the conclusion and deduce that the article is not much more than crude propaganda.

The article, having been published on the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, introduces Stalin as “one of history’s most prolific killers”, proceeding to list various events as atrocities. Included in the list are “imprisonment in labor camps”, “manufactured famines” and “forced displacements”, all of which are implied to be inherently atrocious like the other items listed. While these are indeed atrocious events, this should raise the question of hypocrisy, as a neo-liberal news publication lists these events with the intention of portraying a socialist leader as a “prolific killer” when historically they have happened on a number of occasions in the imperialist states and their semi-feudal colonies à la the American internment of Japanese and Germans in World War II, the systematic depopulation of indigenous lands by the US government, and the number of famines in British India in the 19th and 20th centuries. One might in response concede that the USSR was by no means alone if it is responsible for such atrocities, but,nevertheless, the actions of other nations does not absolve the Soviet Union. This is true. Therefore, we move on to see Ghosh’s backing for the assertion of Stalin as a mass murderer.

Ghosh makes the following assertion, which is entirely subjective and opinionated, in the next paragraph, “An amoral psychopath and paranoid with a gangster’s mentality, Stalin eliminated anyone and everyone who was a threat to his power – including (and especially) former allies. He had absolutely no regard for the sanctity of human life.” Psychopathy, an actual personality disorder that requires long-term management, seems to be the favorite baseless accusation of liberals and anti-communists against non-Western leaders such as Stalin. Likewise, the author’s claim of Stalin’s elimination of all opponents and former allies lacks so much as names and details. One can assume that Ghosh is referring to the Moscow Trials and the prosecution of Bolshevik leaders in those trials as a personal plot by Stalin, however they would still need to provide details and backing here.

After three paragraphs of sheer demonization, the author finally arrives at the data. Ghosh initially reports 40 million deaths, as calculated by a Georgian historian, which obscenely blames the Soviet government for all of the Soviet deaths in World War II, despite the fact that the blood for these wartime deaths is in the hands of Hitlerite Germany which occupied parts of the country for nearly four years and had a plan to depopulate the country through mass murder and deportation to make way for German settlement.[3] Ghosh then lays out the findings of the Georgian historian, which is the first time that we see extensive data in this article. Problems with the data appear almost immediately, as most of the figures are listed as arrests, imprisonments and exiles, none of which equate to being killed. As the author themselves is forced to admit, “Although not everyone who was swept up in the aforementioned events died from unnatural causes, Medvedev’s 20 million non-combatant deaths estimate is likely a conservative guess.”

The only two major events listed where there are mass deaths are the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine, which is listed as “artificial” and thus blamed on Stalin and the Communist Party, and the 1937-1938 Great Terror which is also blamed on Stalin. While both events did occur in the 1930s, the nature of the events is up for question. There is firm evidence that the 1932 famine had natural causes, as it was preceded by several other famines in the early 20th century and, over the course of a year, ended with the onset of collectivization. Contrary to being Ukraine’s only major famine or the first famine, the “Holodomor” was actually the last famine of its kind.4 The death toll is disputed, with a reasonable estimate being 1-2 million people. As for the Great Terror, it is most likely true that nearly a million people were killed, many of whom being innocent. 

These killings, however, may have been part of a plot against the Soviet leadership rather than a plot by it, as the loyalty of the NKVD leadership to the Soviet government was questionable.[5] Even if both of these events were on Stalin’s informed orders and resulted in the maximum death tolls alleged by this historian, the total would be at 8 million people, less than half the original claim of 20 million. In fact, a total of 20 million can only be reached by assuming that all of the people arrested, imprisoned, sent to camps and exiled were later killed on Stalin’s orders, which would require absolute and incontrovertible proof. Since the burden of proof lies on those making the claim and yet this proof is not shown, there is very little reason to believe the claim that 20 million people died.

In the next several short paragraphs, Ghosh commits to the bandwagon fallacy by listing the estimates of various writers without expounding on the data, instead implying that the readers of the article should go through all of the works themselves. Doing so, however, does not answer Ghosh’s question in the title of the article, rather clouding it by suggesting that anywhere between 20 million and 60 million can be the correct figure.
Yet the most damning part of Ghosh’s article is the false attribution of two quotes to Stalin. The first is a quote that was debunked in 1998 in a letter by author Semyon Lipkin, who acknowledged that it was written instead by author Anatoly Rybakov.[6] The second quote originates from the 1925 work Französischer Witz(French Wits) by author Kurt Tucholsky.[7] Ghosh attempts to evade criticism by using the word “allegedly”, while regardless treating the quotes as evidence that Stalin had no interest in human life.

As the article concludes, Ghosh contradicts an earlier statement about the “Holodomor” as an artificial event, saying that starvation “may or may not have been directly connected to Stalin’s policies” before moving on to set the enormous range of 20 to 60 million as the final figure, which almost directly contradicts the question that the author sought to answer.
The author concludes by making a very brief reference to Mao Zedong, likewise as a “mass murderer” without any evidence or backing of any kind, thus concluding an article founded on fallacies, allegations and unproven claims with a transparently-poor attempt to attack socialism, considering that Mao and Stalin were leaders in the two greatest socialist revolutions in history.
If we are to take the word of the article, the most reasonable death toll we can reach is the sum of the deaths from the 1932-1933 famine and the 1937-1938 Great Terror as calculated by the historian and recited by Ghosh, which would be 8 million. If we are to go with the more reasonable and easier to prove claim of 1-2 million for the famine and the recorded number of 680,000 executions in the Great Terror, the death toll would be less than three million. Neither of these figures are anywhere near the 20 million “minimum” claimed by the author, and considering the efforts by the Soviet state to end the famine and Stalin’s possible lack of authority on the Great Terror, there is little to no evidence to the idea that Joseph V. Stalin was a cold-blooded mass murderer.
  1. Andreev, E.M., et al., Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991. Moscow, Nauka, 1993.