The governments and public opinions of the countries that took part in the Second World War have tended to overstate their wartime losses, especially where and when such statistics were hard to ascertain. The Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation have been the only exception from the rule. Until recently, every effort was made to diminish such losses, especially with regard to the armed forces. This year the State Duma’s hearings, in conjunction with Project Immortal Regiment, revealed a semiofficial death toll of 41.979 million, including 19.4 million servicemen, in stark contrast to the previous 26.6 million, including 8,668,400 servicemen.
These statistics belong to Igor Ivlev, a noted Russian investigative historian. In his estimates he relied also on a population survey carried out by the Soviet Gosplan (State Planning Committee) in July 1945. Assessing wartime losses relies on two basic factors: the number of Soviet residents in mid-1941 and in 1945. Mr. Ivlev used a criterion which is close to mine, namely that by the time WW II broke out the Soviet Union had a population of some 205 million. Hence the wartime death toll of 41,979 million. Close enough to my estimates: between 40.1 and 40.9 million. However, my Red Army losses are considerably higher than his: 26.9 million since June 22, 1941, until September 2, 1945. Let me stress that this death toll does not include the partisans who didn’t serve in the Red Army but were members of the opolcheniye people’s volunteer corps and destruction battalions.
Mr. Ivlev’s death toll of Soviet servicemen (19.4 million) remains to be explained, considering that one of his assessment methods yields figures that practically coincide with mine. This noted and remarkably exacting researcher analyzed the number of KIA and MIA notices served the killed and missing servicemen’s families in Arkhangelsk oblast alone, but later it transpired that the local voyenkomat military commissariats had data covering only 75 percent of those who had died during the war. There are statistics of such voyenkomat notices served in Russia. Considering that they also reflect only three quarters of the actual death toll across Russia – and assuming that this death toll reflects the same proportion with regard to the population in Russia in 1941 – the sum total can be set at 26.99 million, or higher than mine by only 90,000. Mr. Ivlev preferred to reduce that number by one-third, probably so that the manpower losses sustained by the Red Army and the Wehrmacht wouldn’t look so frighteningly different.
As a matter of fact, Russia’s defense ministry refused to recognize Mr. Ivlev’s statistics and insisted on the previous official 8,668,400. That number was obtained by Grigoriy Krivosheyev’s team when coping with the hard task of overstating civilian losses in order to bring those of the Red Army to a minimum, and bring them close to those sustained by the Wehrmacht, using all kinds of statistical tricks. Their task was to make one believe that the Red Army and the Wehrmacht had fought on almost equal terms – and all this for reasons of patriotic education of the Russian youth. Regrettably, some of Russia’s outwardly perfectly democratic historians and demographers support this “declassified data” approach. Practically all independent historians have lashed out at it.
Here is an example. According to Grigoriy Krivosheyev, in the course of the Battle of Debrecen (called by the Red Army the Debrecen Offensive Operation, from October 6 through 28), the 2nd Ukrainian Front, including four combined and one tank army, two cavalry-mechanized groups (CMGs) and one tank corps, lost 19,713 officers and men. In reality, General Issa Pliyev’s cavalry-mechanized group alone lost 25,662 – and this considering that it was reinforced by General Sergei Gorshkov’s CMG that numbered not less than 40,000 officers and men. In other words, the actual manpower losses must have surpassed 65,000.
My estimates of the Red Army’s losses rely on the monthly 1942 KIA reports published by the noted Russian historian, Dmitri Volkogonov, in 1993. I chose November, when there were practically no POWs on record on the Soviet side and when the manpower losses were calculated most accurately. There were a total of 10,000 POWs, the least number in 1941-42. Then I looked up monthly wounded in action reports in terms of average monthly percentage during the war, published in 1979 by Yefim Smirnov, ex-head of the Red Army’s Chief Military Sanitary Directorate. Relying on these statistics, I arrived at a ratio of one percent of the average monthly number of wounded per 5,000 killed in action – or who died of war wounds. Adding here the number of those who died as POWs and for other noncombatant reasons, I received a sum total of 26.9 million Red Army KIAs, compared to the Wehrmacht’s 2.6 million on the Eastern front. Until early June 1944, the Red-Army-Wehrmacht KIA ratio remained even more dramatic: 16.6:1.
This ratio changed to 6.6:1 after the Normandy landings (e.g., D-Day), when most elite Nazi divisions were transferred to the Eastern Front. Even then it was in Nazi Germany’s favor. Finland, then Germany’s ally, had an army that practically matched the Wehrmacht, and the ratio was 7:1. Two Latvian and one Estonian Waffen SS Division that first engaged the Red Army in 1944 showed a 5:1 ratio. Romanian troops fought the Red Army on practically even terms and the ratio was 1:1, whereas those of Hungary and Italy were perhaps lower by twice.
In the Red Army, the number of wounded in action practically matched that of those killed. Therefore, the [stated] 1.2 million of officers and men who died of war wounds occupied a modest place in the Soviet war losses statistics. Gravely wounded Red Army men stood a slim chance of making it to a [field] hospital. Most died on the battlefield, adding to the KIA statistics.
When checking the official number of 26.9 million KIAs against the Soviet censuses, I discovered that the number of male able-bodied residents had been largely understated until 1979, with the understatement ratio varying from one census to the next. It was reduced to nil only in the 1979 census. Therefore, it is impossible to assess the Red Army’s WW II manpower losses by extrapolating statistics dating from the 1940s to any later censuses.
When assessing these losses, it is also important to bear in mind that the available statistics rely on army reports made and received on various levels; also that the original reports submitted by platoon, company, and battalion commanders were not kept in the archives. Such reports were handwritten and couldn’t be fully trusted, considering that the commanding officer stated the KIA number after seeing, hearing, or being told about his men’s death. At the time, it was common practice for the commanding officer to understate the number of men killed, in order to look good in the Red Army command’s eyes, and reasonably believing that his colleagues were doing the same. KIA statistics were tampered with at the army headquarters that received the original handwritten reports, ranging from regiment to army HQ. This was especially true of MIA statistics, considering that any of those missing in action could turn out to be a defector. Each of the headquarters understated its manpower losses and overstated those of the enemy to send a report up the chain of command that would prove its efficient performance.
In some cases the number of POWs was overstated by dozens of times, even though toward the end of the war each Soviet HQ was required to report the exact number of enemy officers and men taken prisoner of war or killed in action, ranging from privates to junior, senior, and general staff officers. This could not curb the reporting commanding officers’ fantasy. They reduced the number of staff officers compared to that of senior officers, ditto junior officers and privates. Soviet manpower losses were tangibly understated on the Army and Front HQ levels. Reports sent from divisions proved more accurate than those from Army and Front headquarters, but less than half of them are to be found in the archives.
I have repeatedly cited examples of a Soviet division or regiment losing more officers and men during the day, in 1941-43, than 9-18 Wehrmacht divisions during ten days of combat, in order to demonstrate that the losses sustained by the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were of different order. I haven’t heard any perspicuous criticism from my opponents, with most arguing that my statistics aren’t valid simply because they can’t be true.
Apparently, the losses sustained by the Red Army during WW II can be assessed using scientific methods. The problem is accepting the results of this or that assessment method. Such results are more often than not rejected by those who still accept the Soviet concept of the war. Their stand is shattered by the actual wartime losses statistics. Russia’s current political situation is a big obstacle in discarding the Soviet stereotypes concerning that epoch. These stereotypes have become part and parcel of Russia’s politics, especially its foreign policy. The truth about the manpower losses of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, especially their ratio, destroys the currently popular Russian myth about Stalin as the greatest builder of the Soviet empire. That empire was built on human blood and left nothing but human blood after its collapse.