Seumas Milne on ‘Stalin’s missing millions’

September 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm (apologists and collaborators, crime, grovelling, Guardian, hell, history, Human rights, Jim D, murder, Russia, stalinism)

This article by Seumas Milne, written shortly before the final collapse of the USSR, appeared in the Guardian of March 10 1990. It is not available anywhere else online (as far as I can tell), nor is it included in the new book, wonderfully entitled The Revenge of History, made up of the “cream” of Milne’s Guardian columns. We publish the piece as a service to the international workers’ movement and in the interests of the study of moral and political bankruptcy:


From THE GUARDIAN Saturday March 10 1990

The figure of 25 million deaths that is being attributed to the Stalin regime should be revised in the light of glasnost reports. Seumas Milne analyses new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations

Stalin’s missing millions

All over South-east of England billboards have appeared in the past week declaring: “Once upon a time there was an uncle who murdered  25 million of his children.” Next to this startling slogan is a photograph of the man who was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union for a generation, hugging an Aryan-looking Young Pioneer with pigtails.

The advertisement is a trailer for Thames Television’s  block-buster documentary series on the life of Stalin, which begins on Tuesday. Forthcoming press publicity will follow a similar theme, setting out the kind of absurdities which could have led to arrest and execution at the height of the Soviet Terror in the late 1930’s.

The programmes come as glasnost has provoked a stream of new information and memoirs about the Stalin era in the Soviet Union itself, 30 years after Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing his former boss led to the first phase of revelations and rehabilitations. For the most part attention in the Soviet media has turned to more pressing problems. But the flood of new horror stories has emboldened an academic and political current which is bent on overturning the consensus view of Hitler and Nazism as the supreme evil of 20th century history.

Not only is it increasingly common for Stalin to be bracketed with Hitler as the twin monster of the modern era, even in the Soviet Union, but in West Germany and Austria a significant “revisionist” academic trend — represented by historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hilgruber, and Ernst Topitsch — goes on to argue that the Stalinist system was actually responsible for the Nazis and the second world war.

Central to these debates is the issue of the number of Stalin’s victims. Controversy about the scale of repression in the Stalin era has rumbled on in Western universities for many years, and has now been joined by Soviet experts who are equally divided. Thames Television, with its 25 million deaths, has opted for the furthest extreme.

Hitherto, the British writer Robert Conquest who in the 1950’s worked for the Foreign Office propaganda outfit IRD, led the field with his view that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths. Phillip Whitehead, one of the Stalin series producers, says he is not to blame for the advertising campaign but thinks a 25 million figure can be defended if the Soviet dead in the first three months of the Nazi invasion of 1941 are included on the grounds of Stalin’s negligence.

But even that is not enough for Thomas Methuen, publishers of of the companion book to the series, who bid up the figure to 30 million in their publicity and — in an echo of the German revisionists — describe Stalin as “the greatest mass killer of the 20th century.” The record estimate so far has been 50 million, made in the Sunday Times two years nago.

There are three basic catagories of people usually regarded as Stalin’s victims: first there are those executed for political offences, most of whom died in the Terror years of 1937-8. Then there are those who died in the labour camps or in the process of mass deportations. Finally — and almost certainly the biggest number — there are the peasants who died during the famine of the early 30s.

In the complete absence of any hard evidence from the Soviet Union, estimates for a grand total of all three have been made by extrapolating the number of “excess deaths” from census figures. This process is fraught with statistical problems, including the fact that the 1937 census was supported, and the 1939 census is thought to have been artificially inflated by terrified Soviet statisticians.. Add to that disputes about the size of peasant families and the possibilities for discrepancies multiply.

Among Soviet specialists and demographers in the West, the majority view appears to be that the kind of numbers used by Robert Conquest and his supporters are wildly exaggerated. Prof Sheila Fitzpatrick, of Chicago University comments: “the younger generation of Soviet historians tend to go for far lower numbers. There is no basis in fact for Conquest’s claims.”

Some of the most recent Western demographic analysis, by Barbera Anderson and Brian Silver in the US, estimates that the most likely figure for all the “excess” deaths — whether from purges, famine or deportations — between 1926 and 1939 lies in a range with a median of 3.5 million, and a limit of eight million.

Estimates of that order have found support across a broad range of academic work, from Frank Lorrimer’s pioneering post-war analysis to Prof Jerry Hough’s 1979 study to the 1980s research by the British academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, now at the University of Melbourne. But this growing consensus has been thrown on the defensive by Soviet specialists like Roy Medvedev, who — using the same data — have apparently backed Conquest’s position, or something like it.

When it comes to the famine deaths, an exact figure will almost certainly never be known. But suddenly, after years of working in the dark, specialists are obtainingv some hard Soviet data. Last month, the KGB published for the first time the records of the number of victims of the Stalin purges.

Between 1930 and 1953, the report states, 3,778,234 people had been sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities or anti-state crimes,of whom 786,098 were shot. From his office at the Hoover Institute in California yesterday, Conquest said it was difficult to say whether the figures were right, but he thought “they could be true.”

Even more remarkably, the records originally made by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) of those held in labour camps and penal colonies during the Stalin years are now becoming available. An article from a “restricted access” Soviet Interior Ministry journal has been passed to the Guardian, which lists the total Gulag populations during the 1930s and 1940s.

Originally collated for Khrushchev in the 1950s, the figures show how the camp numbers rose relentlessly from 179,000 in 1930 to 510,307 in 1934, to 1,296,494 in 1936, to 1,881,570 in 1938 at the height of the Terror. The population fell during the war, but reached its peak in 1950 when 2,561,351 people are recorded as detained in camps or colonies.

These figures published openly here for the first time are huge: but they are a long way from the 19 million camp population estimated by Robert Conquest. The Soviet report records that an average of 200,000 were released every year, and puts the death-rate in the camps at 3 per cent a year per on average, rising to more than 5 per cent in 1937-8. The camps were mostly emptied of political prisoners after Stalin’s death.

Are the figures credible? In the context of the current political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and the fact that they were in a restricted publication, it seems improbable that they have been tampered with. Of course, they do not cover the famine and other disasters. But they do begin to add credence to the mainstream academic view that the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies was closer to 3.5 million than 25 million.

Why do numbers matter anyway? After all Robert Conquest may be out by a factor of five or 10, but the repressions were still enormous.

If, however, a figure of 20 million or 25 million becomes current currency, it adds credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison. Already, anyone who questions these figures — even in the academic debates — is denounced as a “neo-Stalinist.”

As the Irish writer Alexander Cockburn who started what turned into a highly emotional exchange last year in the American journal, the Nation, puts it: “Any computation that does not soar past 10 million is somehow taken as being soft on Stalin.” And by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war.


JD adds: when the Soviet archives were fully opened in 1991, they yielded new data that most reputable scholars consider to broadly confirm Robert Conquest’s position if not (quite) the figure of 20 million deaths directly resulting from Stalin’s rule and policies.

In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of  his pioneering work, The Great Terror (first published in 1968) Conquest stated that in the light of documents released since 1991 from the Presidential, State, Party and Police archives, and the declassification by Russia’s Federal Security Service of some 2 million secret documents:

“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million.”


According to his friend, Kingsley Amis, when his (Conquest’s) publishers asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest suggested the new version of the book be entitled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.


  1. Bob-B said,

    A true successor to Walter Duranty.

  2. Michael Moran said,

    You and the other Jew shagging queers in the AWL really do yourselves so many favors by supporting ‘research’ done by the FO propagandist, Robert Conquest.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Are you for real, Michael Moran?

      • Colin Adkins said,

        Moran by name. Moron in views.

  3. Michael Moran said,

    I smear, therefore I am

    • Jim Denham said,

      “I smear, therefore I am”: well, you certainly don’t *think*, do you?

    • Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce said,

      Moran aptly named. Utter scum as well.

  4. Faster Pussycat Miaow! Miaow! Miaow! said,

    Okhrana agent and counter-revolutionary Stalin was a monster in the mould of Ivan IV — Tsarist despotism with modern methods. This doesn’t suit the narrative of scum like Service and Sebag Montefiore, who are concerned with the defence of capitalism and imperial power and discrediting real, i.e. workers’ democracy. It wouldn’t do for their chief bogie man to be revealed as having been their ‘boy’ all along.

    That said, pace Orwell, these crimes did not happen any the less because Service and Sebag Montefiore have discovered them. However we must also ask ourselves, if the right is correct and the Stalinists murdered a third of Soviet men and put most of the rest in labour camps, who the fuck was it fought the nazis and their allies back across Europe? Martians? Hitler’s Wehrmacht and SS murdered 25 million Soviet citizens in three years, showing the Stalinists up as amateurs at mass killing (Global capitalism kills at least that many every year, but as long as someone’s making a buck the right think that’s fine).

    Right wingers inflate the figures, the latter day Stalinists minimise them — the two ‘camps’ standing on piles of corpses, shouting at each other. The truth lies somewhere between.

    Meanwhile, the former Eastern Bloc states insist that ‘Stalin was worse than Hitler’ in order to divert attention from their enthusiastic participation in nazi barbarism (whether ratting out their neighbours to the SS and Wehrmacht, or actually joining them by wrapping themselves in the cloak of national victimhood — ‘what the USSR did to us was (of course) worse than the justly deserved comeuppance dished out to the Christ-killers (not that that was us, but they did deserve it).’ This victimhood also ‘explains’ modern ills, which have nothing whatsoever to do with capitalism, at all, don’t you know.

    • Faster Pussycat Miaow! Miaow! Miaow! said,

      I was going to say that sometimes the capriciousness of the editorial policy here surprises me, but actually it doesn’t. For some unknowable crime, Blerggghy has been excised. Was his critique of apologists for imperialism too robust? We will never know. That was an excellent quotation from Badiou by the way, shame on you for consigning it to the bit bucket. Meanwhile you give a nazi a platform, just to appear ‘even handed’. What of the serried ranks of apologists for imperial power, mass slaughter, capital accumulation and all out war on humanity? Look the other way. Isn’t it?

      • Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

        some of my best werK has – in the past -also been expunged from this here blergghh. Indeed some of the best interchanges between myself and BlerggHHY that have ever appeared on the internet anywhere have been deleted. Probably by that cyclophobia woman and Sauce contributor who wears gloves while singing (or more accuartely) when strangling little kittens).

  5. Faster Pussycat Miaow! Miaow! Miaow! said,

    Btw Jim, being a ‘Jew shagging queer’ sounds quite agreeable don’t you agree? An order of magnitude better than a counter-revolutionary boss class collaborator.

  6. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Well found.

    Now all we need is some 80s articles on the mad mullahs of Afghanistan and their evil war against the glorious Red Army…

    And it occurs to me that I’ve never to the best of my recollection actually shagged a Jew of either gender – would this serious error in my life really be rectified if I joined the AWL?

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  8. Frank Bath said,

    That photo is so phoney.

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  11. Political tourist said,

    Don’t really think the AWL were really into shagging.
    Think that was more a WRP/Militant thing.

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      Churchill went one further and tried to convince us that Stalin was a great guy. Then gifted him 1/2 of Europe. The tories didn’t deselect him, so why worry about a no-mark like Seuman Milne?

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