Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (University of Alberta Press, 1986).

The Death Roll

No one was keeping count

There has been no official investigation of the rural terror of 1930-33; no statement on the loss of human life has ever been issued; nor have the archives been opened to independent researchers. Nevertheless, we are in a position to make reasonably sound estimates of the numbers who died.

First, we should consider the total loss for the whole cycle of events, both in the dekulakization and in the famine. In principle this is not difficult.

We need only apply to the population given in the Soviet census of 1926, the natural growth rate of the years which followed, and compare the result we obtain with that of an actual post-1933 census.

There are a few rather minor reservations. The 1926 census, like all censuses even in far more efficient conditions, cannot be totally accurate, and Soviet and Western estimates agree that it is too low by 1.2-1.5 million,1 (about 800,000 of it attributed to the Ukraine). This would mean an increase of almost half a million in the death roll estimates. But the convenience of an official established base figure, that of the census, is such that we shall (conservatively) ignore this in our calculations. Then again, 'natural growth rate' is variously estimated, though within a fairly narrow range. More of an obstacle, at first sight, is the fact that the next census, taken in January 1937, is unfortunately not available. The preliminary results seem to have been before the authorities on about 10 February 1937. The census was then suppressed. The Head of the Census Board, O.A. Kvitkin, was arrested on 25 March.2 It turned out that 'the glorious Soviet intelligence headed by the Stalinist Peoples' Commissar N.I. Yezhov' had 'crushed the serpent's nest of traitors in the apparatus of Soviet statistics'.3 The traitors had 'set themselves the task of distorting the actual numbers of the population', or (as Pravda put it later) 'had exerted themselves to diminish the numbers of the population of the USSR',4 a rather unfair taunt, since it was, of course, not they who had done the diminishing.

The motive for suppressing the census and the census-takers is reasonably clear. A figure of about 170 million had featured in official speeches and estimates for several years, a symbolic representation of Molotov's boast in January 1935 that 'the gigantic growth of population shows the living forces of Soviet construction'.5

Another census was taken in January 1939, the only one in the period whose results were published, but in the circumstances it has always failed to carry much conviction. All the same, it is worth noting that even if the official 1939 figures are accepted, they show a huge population deficit, if not as large as the reality.

But on the matter of the total of unnatural deaths between 1926 and 1937, the 1937 census totals are decisive, and these (though no other details of that census) have been referred to a few times in post-Stalin Soviet demographic publications. The most specific gives a population for the USSR of 163,772,000,6 others, a round 164 million.7

The total, in the lower projections made over previous years by Soviet statisticians, and on the estimates of modern demographers, should have been about 177,300,000.

Another, rougher approach is to take the estimated population of 1 January 1930 (157,600,000)8 and add to it Stalin's statement in 1935 that 'the annual increase in population is about three million'.9 This too gives a figure of 178,600,000, very near our other projection. The Second Five Year Plan had also provided for a population of 180.7 million for the beginning of 1938,10 which also implies between 177 and 178 in 1937. Oddly enough, the Head of the Central Statistical Administration in Khrushchev's time, V.N. Starovsky, attributes Gosplan's 180.7 million to 1937, comparing it with the census figure of 164 million 'even after adjustment'11 -- a phrase which implies significant upward inflation: an 'adjustment' of 5% would mean as a base figure the 156 million given to the Soviet scholar Anton Antonov-Ovseenko by a more junior official.12 But, in accord with our practice elsewhere, we will conservatively ignore the 'adjustment'. Without it Starovsky implies a deficiency of 16.7 million. The explanation may be that the Gosplan figure, like most Gosplan figures, is for the beginning of October 1937 -- in which case the deficiency would be about 14.3 million. But in this book's first edition I took a conservative interpretation (and ignored, too, even higher projections by Soviet demographers of the period) and accepted a deficiency of no more than 13.5 million.

However, in a source not then available to me, today's leading Soviet scholar of the collectivization states the population deficit in January 1937 as 15-16 million (V.P. Danilov in Arkheograficheski Ezhegodnik za 1968 god, Moscow, 1970, p 249). My lower estimate at least shows that my approach was indeed 'conservative', and is testimony to a sober and unsensational approach to the facts.

This 15-16 million is not entirely death. We have to subtract those unborn because of the deaths or separation of their parents and so on. Further study of this and similar periods of population catastrophe shows that it might be as high as 26-30 percent of the total deficit. This could give c. 4.5 million, leaving us withe. 11 million actual dead in the dekulakization and the famine.

(Another approach is to note that in 1938 there were c. 19,900,000 peasant households. In 1929 it had been c. 25,900,000. At an average of 4.2 persons per peasant family, this means c. 108,700,000 peasants in 1929 and c. 83,600,000 in 1938. With 24.3 million moved to towns, this should have been c. 105 million, a deficit of c. 21 million. Allowing for date and the unborn, this gives over 13 million dead.)

Taking it as 11 million odd we must add those peasants already sentenced, but dying in labour camp after January 1937 -- that is, those arrested as a result of the assault on the peasantry of 1930-33 and not surviving their sentences (but not including the many peasants arrested in the more general terror of 1937-8). This gives, (as we shall estimate later), not less than another 3.5 million, which would make the total peasant dead as a result of the dekulakization and famine about 14.5 million.


We must next consider the way in which this fearful total is divided between the dekulakization and the famine. Here we are on less certain ground.

It seems to be felt in demographic circles that of the fourteen million plus odd peasant deaths due to the rural terror, the casualties fell about equally between the two causes: that is about seven million plus from dekulakization and about seven million plus in the famine. However, we can examine this proposition in more detail.

Of the 14.5 million, the 3.5 million odd dying in camps in the post-193 7 period must be largely those sentenced before the decree of May 1933, though it certainly included an important component from the desperate villages of the Ukraine and the Kuban of the famine period. These last are not, however, specifically victims of the famine itself, and to discover the death roll from starvation we must go back to the eleven million dead before 1937, and attempt to divide that figure between deportation and famine victims.

We may start with the victims of the famine: and here we begin with the deficit in the Ukrainian population. (As we have said, this does not account for the whole of the famine victims, but unofficial figures imply that about 80% of the mortality was in the Ukraine and the largely Ukrainian areas of the North Caucasus).

For the deficit of Ukrainians we must first turn to the faked 1939 census, since, as we have said, no figures by nationality -- indeed nothing but the gross population result -- has been published even now from the genuine 1937 census on which we have hitherto relied.

The official figure for the Soviet population in the 'census' of January 1939 was 170,467,186. Western demographic work indicates that the real numbers were probably about 167.2 million. (Even this last figure indicates a sharp recovery from 1937, in spite of an estimated two to three million dead in camps or by execution in 1937 and 1938. It appears to be explained in part by natural and in part by legal factors. Recovery in the birthrate after disaster or famine is normal; the copulation and fertility rates which have gone down drastically in them improve later. On the official side, in 1936 abortion was made illegal, and contraceptives ceased to be sold; and other measures were taken).

Of the official figure of 170,467,186 the census gives Ukrainians as 28,070,404 (as against 31,194,976 in the 1926 census). There is no way of telling how the 3.4 million inflation in the 170.5 million is distributed, and it is normally assumed that each nationality group was proportionately exaggerated (though the better concealment tactics might imply a special attempt to give the Ukrainians an extra boost, considering their poor showing).

Given no more than equal exaggeration, the true Ukrainian figure in 1939 should have been about 27,540,000. But the 31.2 million of 1926 should have risen to about 38 million in 1939. The deficit is therefore about 10.5 million. Allowing about 1.5 million for unborn children, this gives a deficit of 9 million Ukrainians up to 1939.

This does not all represent death. By 1939 heavy pressures were being put on Ukrainians outside the Ukraine to register as Russian, and a significant transfer certainly took place. A Soviet demographer grants that between the 1926 and 1939 censuses 'the low rate of growth (!) in the number of Ukrainians is explained by the lowering of the natural growth as a result of a poor harvest in the Ukraine in 1932', but adds that 'people formerly thought of themselves as Ukrainians, in 1939 declared themselves Russians'.13 And we are told, for example, that people with forged documents often changed their nationality, as Ukrainians were always suspect to the police.14

This applied not in the Ukraine so much as among the Ukrainians elsewhere in the USSR. There were 8,536,000 of them in 1926, including 1,412,000 in the Kuban. The remnant of the Kuban Cossacks are definitely reported as being re-registered as Russian, but by now their numbers must have been very much lower than in 1926. Elsewhere it seems to have been a matter of pressure on individuals, and was doubtless a long-term process -- even in the 1959 census there were over 5 million Ukrainians in the USSR outside the Ukraine. If we assume a transfer of as many as 2.5 million from the Ukrainian to the Russian listings, that leaves us with 9 minus 2.5 = 6.5 million actually dead.

Subtracting about 500,000 for the Ukrainian dead of the dekulakization of 1929-32, we are left with six million dead in the famine.

This would be divided into five million in the Ukraine and one million in the North Caucasus. The figure for non-Ukrainians may be as little as one million dead. Thus the total famine deaths would be approximately seven million, about three million of them children. As we have pointed out, these are conservative figures.


A further clue to the numbers dying in the famine, or in its worst period, may be found in the difference between the Census Board's estimate of the population made shortly before the 1937 census, and the actual figures of that census. The prediction is 168.9 million;15 the actuality 163,772,000 -- a difference of just over five million. This is believed to be accounted for by the non-registration of deaths in the Ukraine after late October 1932 (see p.250), which meant that such figures were not at the disposal of the estimators; and in consonant with the other figures we have for deaths in the famine as a whole.

We also have a number of less direct estimates of the famine deaths, including some based on official leaks.

A Russian-born American citizen who had a pre-revolutionary acquaintance with Skrypnyk visited him in 1933, and also met other Ukrainian leaders. Skrypnyk gave him a figure of 'at least' eight million dead in the Ukraine and North Caucasus.16 He was also told by the Ukrainian GPU chief Balitsky that eight-nine million had perished: Balitsky added that this figure had been presented to Stalin, though only as an approximation.17 Another security officer writes that, perhaps at an earlier stage, the GPU gave Stalin a figure of 3.3-3.5 million famine deaths.18 A foreign Communist was given figures often million deaths for the USSR as a whole.19

Another foreign worker in a Kharkov factory, when the famine was still far from over, learnt from local officials that Petrovsky had admitted a death roll, so far, of five million.20

Walter Duranty told the British Embassy in September 1933 that 'the population of the North Caucasus and Lower Volga had decreased in the past year by three million, and the population of the Ukraine by four to five million', and that it seemed 'quite possible' that the total death roll was as high as ten million. It seems reasonable to suppose that Duranty's figures derive from the same source as those, also never printed, given one of his colleagues by another high official (see p. 310): or at any rate from similar official estimates circulating among authorities on the spot.

An American Communist working in Kharkov estimated a death roll of 4.5 million, from starvation alone, with millions more from the diseases of malnutrition.21 Another American was told by a high Ukrainian official that six million had died in 1933.22 A Ukrainian-Canadian Communist who attended the Higher Party School of the Ukrainian Central Committee was told that a secret report to this Committee gave a figure of ten million dead.23

As to other areas, decreases proportionally as high as the Ukraine, or nearly so, are reported in the Central Volga, Lower Volga and Don regions. The Director of the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, Lovin, told a foreign correspondent that more than a million had died in the Urals, Western Siberia and the Trans-Volga.24

These estimates, it should be noted, are not all necessarily comparable, since it is not always clear -- though it sometimes is -- if the total deaths in the Ukraine alone are referred to; or to what date the figures refer; or to whether deaths from famine-related diseases are included.

In any case, even the confidential official reports vary by several million. Nor need we assume that exact or even approximate figures were available (as, in fact, the report of Balitsky's estimate explicitly admits). As Leonid Plyushch says, 'party members cited a figure of five or six million . . . and others spoke of about ten million victims. The true figure probably lies in between'.25


While our figure of c. eleven million premature deaths in 1926-37 remains firm, the c. seven million share of it in famine deaths is best described as reasonable or probable. If it is correct it leaves c. four million of the deaths to dekulakization and collectivization (or those taking place before 1937).

Among this four million are included the dead of the Kazakh tragedy. Among the Kazakhs the population deficit between the 1926 and 1939 censuses (even accepting the latter's figures) was 3,968,300 minus 3,100,900: that is, 867,400. Correcting the 1939 figure by the national average (as we have done for the Ukrainians) gives us 948,000. But the 1926 population should have grown to 4,598,000 in 1939 -- (on the very conservative assumption that the average USSR growth rate of 15.7% prevailed, whereas in fact other Soviet Muslim populations grew much faster). That is, the population should have been over 1.5 million higher than it was. If we allow 300,000 for unborn children and 200,000 for successful emigration from the areas closest to Sinkiang, we have a death roll of one million.

Thus we are left with three million as the 1926-37 deficit attributable to the deportation of the kulaks. We have already discussed the numbers deported, and the reported death rates. Three million is a figure which is consonant with our estimates (if 30% of deportees died, it would mean 9 million deported; if 25%, then twelve million would be the deportation total).

By 1935, in one approximate view,26 a third of an estimated eleven million deportees were dead; a third in 'special settlement'; and a third in labour camp. Estimates of the total 1935 labour camp population run at around the five million level,27 and up till the mass arrests of officials in 1936-8, these are always reported as 'overwhelmingly', 70-80%, peasant.28

Of the four million odd peasants probably in camp by 1935, most probably survived until 1937 or 1938, but thereafter the likelihood is that no more than ten percent ever saw release, and we must thus, as we have noted, probably add a minimum of another c. 3.5 million deaths to the peasant account.


Throughout, our conclusions are based either on exact and certain figures, or on reasonably conservative assumptions. So when we conclude that no fewer than fourteen million odd peasants lost their lives as a result of the events recounted in this book we may well be understating. In any case, the eleven million odd excess dead shown by the 1937 census is hardly subject to serious amendment. The famine figures seem both reasonable in themselves and consonant with the census's shortfall; as do the dekulakization figures.

Why we cannot be more exact is obvious. As Khrushchev says in his memoirs, 'I can't give an exact figure because no one was keeping count All we knew was that people were dying in enormous numbers'.29

It is significant that statistics (even if unreliable) of the mortality of cattle were published, and those of human mortality were not -- so that for fifty years we have had some account of what happened to the livestock but not what happened to the human beings. In a much published speech a couple of years later Stalin was to say that more care should be taken of people, giving as an example something that supposedly happened to him in exile in Siberia: by a river-crossing with some peasants, he saw that they made every effort to save horses from being swept away, but cared little for the loss of a man, an attitude he deplored at some length. Even for Stalin, whose words seldom revealed his true attitudes, this was -- and particularly at this time -- a complete reversal of truth. It was he and his followers for whom human life was lowest on the scale of values.

We may now conveniently sum up the estimated death toll roughly as follows:

Peasant dead: 1930-37 11 million
Arrested in this period dying in camps later3.5 million
TOTAL14.5 million
Of these:
Dead as a result of dekulakization6.5 million
Dead in the Kazakh catastrophe1 million
Dead in the 1932-3 famine:
in the Ukraine5 million7 million
in the N. Caucasus1 million
elsewhere1 million

As we have said, these are enormous figures, comparable to the deaths in the major wars of our time. And when it comes to the genocidal element, to the Ukrainian figures alone, we should remember that five million constitutes about 18.8% of the total population of the Ukraine (and about a quarter of the rural population). In World War I less than 1 % of the population of the countries at war died. In one Ukrainian village of 800 inhabitants (Pysarivka in Podilia), where 150 had died, a local peasant ironically noted that only seven villagers had been killed in World War I.30

In the events which we have been describing the 'casualties' in a general sense, the 'walking wounded', constitute whole populations. Our concern, in this chapter, has been to establish as closely as maybe possible the actual dead. But we need not for a moment forget the dreadful effects suffered, and far into the future, by individuals and nations. Moreover, further terrors, inflicting yet further death on much the same scale, faced the survivors.

Let us once more emphasize that the figures we have given are conservative estimates, and quite certainly do not overstate the truth. And if we cannot be more exact, it is because the Soviet regime will not let us. It is not only a matter of Stalin concealing the true facts back in the 1930s.

We owe a number of useful details to honest and courageous Soviet scholars and writers: but, even today, Moscow permits no real investigation of these monstrous events. Which is to say that to this degree the regime remains the accomplice, as well as the heir, of those who fifty years ago sent these innocent millions to their deaths.



1. Yu.A. Korchak-Chepurkovsky, Tablitsy dozhyvannya i spodivanoho zhyttya ludnosty URSR, Kharkov, 1929, pp. 33, 72-9; idem, Visnik statystyky Ukrainy no. 2, 1928, pp. 154-8; idem, Izbrannye demograficheskie issledovaniya, Moscow, 1970, pp. 301-302. Also John F. Kattner and Lydia W. Kulchycka, The USSR Population Census of 1926: A Partial Evaluation, U.S. Bureau of Census, International Population Report, Series P. 95 no. 50, October 1957, pp.100-117.

2. S.I. Pirokov, Zhizn i tvorcheskaya deyatelnost OA. Kvitkina, Kiev, 1974.

3. Bolshevik no. 23-4,1938.

4. Pravda, 17 January 1939.

5. Pravda, 26 January 1935.

6. Naselenie SSSR. Chislennost, sostav i dvizhenie naseleniya, Moscow, 1975, p. 7.

7. Vestnik statistiki no. 11,1964, p. 11.

8. See Karcz, p. 479.

9. Pravda, 5 December 1935.

10. The Second Five YearPlan, English edition, New York, 1937, p. 458.

11. Vestnik statistiki no. 11, 1964, p. 11.

12. Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, The Time of Stalin, New York, 1981, p. 207.

13. V.I. Kozlov in Istoriya SSSR no. 4, 1983, p. 21.

14. Pidhainy, v. 2, p. 594.

15. I. Kraval in Planovoe khozyaystvo no. 12, 1936, p. 23.

16. Tawdul in New York American, 18 August 1935.

17. Ibid..

18. Orlov,p.28.

19. Tawdul in New York American, 19 August, 1935.

20. Beal, p.255.

21. Los Angeles Evening Herald, 29 April, 1935.

22. Lang, p. 260.

23. John Kolasky, Two Years in Soviet Ukraine, Toronto, 1970, p. 111.

24. Tawdul in New York American, 19 August, 1935.

25. Plyushch, p. 42.

26. Swianiewicz, p. 123.

27. David Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor in the Soviet Union, London, 1948, p. 54.

28. Swianiewicz, p. 59; Livre Blanc sur les Camps de Concentration, pp. 31-6; etc.

29. Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, p. 120.

30. Le Matin, 30 August 1933.