Alexander Cockburn And Stalin

As a public service, I thought it helpful to remind readers of Alexander Cockburn’s attempt to sanitise Stalin in 1989:

A million here, a million there by Alexander Cockburn

These heady days in Moscow, Soviet intellectuals will do anything to
get their names in the papers, in a kind of bidding frenzy for the
favors of glasnost. At the start of February the tabloid Argumenti i
Fakti reported that the historian Roy Medvedev had proposed that
Stalin’s victims amounted to some 20 million. From Moscow, Bill
Keller relayed this to his editors at the New York Times, who on
February 4 ran a front-page headline announcing, “Major Soviet Paper
Says 20 Million Died As Victims of Stalin,” with the lead paragraph
reiterating Medvedev’s claim that “about 20 million died in labor
camps, forced collectivization, famine and executions.”

My immediate reservation about this was that the total figure seemed
to have an insouciant roundness and also that there seemed to be a
suspect symmetry about the number 20 million, which is the same total
normally reckoned for Soviet losses in the war against Hitler.

Looking through Medvedev’s breakdown, one may rapidly perceive that
the word “million” really means “a lot,” with no substantive
precision beyond this vague imputation of magnitude.
As relayed by
Keller these volumes are expressed as “one million imprisoned or
exiled from 1927 to 1929,” or “nine to 11 million of the more
prosperous peasants driven from their lands,” and so on. In the end
we are left with an overall figure of 40 million who, on Medvedev’s
account, had an awful or terminal time of it between 1927 and 1953,
with 20 million actually killed.

I have been interested to find that well-qualified historians of the
Soviet Union and demographers in the United States who have studied
the period and the enormously contentious numbers regard Medvedev’s
claims as absurd. Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the
University of Texas in Austin, tells me there is “no serious basis for
his calculations” and that privately some Soviet demographers and
historians find Medvedev’s calculations embarrassingly bad. She gave
a couple of examples to explain why she thought Medvedev’s numbers
were ridiculous.

Medvedev claims that 9 million to 11 million prosperous peasants were
driven from their lands and another 2 million to 3 million arrested or
exiled in the forced collectivization of the early 1930s. But
Fitzpatrick says, Medvedev makes no distinction between those who left
their villages voluntarily and those who left by force. This was the
era of industrialization, and many of Medvedev’s millions were moving
to the towns. Medvedev also bases his figures on the assumption that
the average peasant family in the late 1920s had eight members,
whereas in fact five was the normal size.

Fitzpatrick cited the famous conversation of 1942 between Churchill
and Stalin as another flimsy source often used by some to show that 10
million peasants died in collectivization. In his war memoir “The
Hinge of Fate,” Churchill describes how he raised with Stalin the topic
of collectivization:

“Tell me,” I said, “have the stresses of this war been as bad to you
personally as carrying through the policy of the Collective Farms?”

This subject immediately aroused the Marshall.

“Oh, no,” he said, “the Collective Farm policy was a terrible

“I thought you would have found it bad,” said I, “because you were not
dealing with a few score thousands of aristocrats or big landowners,
but with millions of small men.”

“Ten millions, ” he said, holding up his hands. “It was fearful. Four
years it lasted. It was absolutely necessary for Russia, if we were
to avoid periodic famines.”

It’s clear enough that Stalin was here indicating the number of
peasants he had to deal with, not the number who died. Fitzpatrick
said that in a recent issue of Pravda the Soviet Historian Victor P.
Danilov concurred with several historians in the West that
approximately 3 million to 4 million died in the famine. But where
does that leave us on the matter of the purges?

In 1946 the demographer Frank Lorimer, studying data from the Soviet
census of 1926 and of 1939 and all available information on fertility
and mortality between those dates, calculated in his renowned work
“The Population of the Soviet Union” that the ‘excess’ deaths — that
is, in Lorimer’s case, a comparison of the reported total population
in 1939 with the expected population at that date, given the counting
in 1925 and everything known about fertility, mortality and migration
between the two years — amounted to somewhere between 4.5 million and
5 million, though this total included perhaps several hundred thousand
emigrants, such as those Central Asian nomads moving into Sinkiang to
avoid collectivization. In their 1979 volume, “How the Soviet Union
is Governed,” Jerry Hough and Merle Fainsod generally supported
Lorimer’s calculations and concluded that more extreme Western
estimates “cannot be sustained.” Rather, “a smaller m– but still
horrifying — number” of “maybe some 3.5 million” emerges as the
direct or indirect result of collectivization in the early 1930s.

With respect to the purges of 1937 and 1938, Hough and Fainsod again
criticize excessive Western estimates and report that on the evidence
of extant demographic data “the number of deaths in the purge would
certainly be placed in the hundreds of thousands rather than in the
excess of a million.” Indeed, “a figure in the low hundreds of
thousands seems much more probably than one in the high hundreds of
thousands, and even George Kennan’s estimate of ‘tens of thousands’ is
quite conceivable, maybe even probable.”

At the far end of the spectrum from Hough and Fainsod is the British
chevalier de la guerre foide Robert Conquest, who has counted 20
million excess deaths under Stalin before 1939, this estimate being
cited in “The Stalin Question Since Stalin” by the limber Steven
Cohen. In this essay Cohen informs his readers that Conquest’s 20
million figure and kindred estimates are “conservative,” without
mentioning other counts by scholars which make Conquest’s figure
wildly inflated. He concludes his observation by saying, “Judging by
the number of victims, and leaving aside important differences between
the two regimes, Stalinism created a holocaust greater than Hitler’s.”

In this decade the most significant scholarly battle on the subject
has been waged between Stephen Wheatcroft and Steven Rosefielde, with
the former taking the latter to task for demographic crudities and
sensationalism. In Slavic Review for 1985 Wheatcroft wrote, “All of
these extremely large estimates ignore basic demographic changes in
Soviet society and accept inaccurate and non-comparable population
figures.” Wheatcroft reckons “these wildly unscholarly estimates
serve neither science or morality” and writes, “It is no betrayal of
them [the victims] nor an apologia for Stalin to stat4e that there is
no demographic evidence to indicate a population loss of more than six
million between 1926 and 1939 or more than 3 to 4 million in
the famine. Scholarship must be guided by reason and not by emotion.”

In an essay that has received widespread respect, Barbara Anderson and
Brian Silver supported Wheatcroft. Their “Demographic Analysis and
Population Catastrophes in the USSR,” also in Slavic Review for 1985,
dismisses Rosefielde and estimates excess deaths from 1926 to 1939, to
persons alive in 1926, as anywhere from 0.5 million to 5.5 million,
depending on high, medium or low assumptions about life expectancy,
with the medium figure at 3.5 million. They regard some estimates of
those born between 1927 and 1938 as inflated, and calculations of same
“extremely sensitive to any inaccuracy in the data.”

Conquest, now at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, told my colleague
Rich McKerrow that Medvedev’s numbers are “obviously in the right
range,” though “perhaps he’s spread them wrong” and “I’m not sure
where he gets them from.” He slighted Anderson and Silver’s work as a
product of demography rather than sovietology and derided Hough and
Fainsod’s figures as “improbably.”

From the University of Michigan, Professor Anderson told us that
Conquest “wouldn’t know a number if it bit him” and noted that her
work with Silver had won respect from Soviet demographers and also
from Danilov. Medvedev’s computations she found to be “ludicrous.”

No doubt some will be eager to conclude that the foregoing is somehow
an attempt to exonerate Stalin, dismiss the purges as got up by
Western propaganda. By way of response, the following observation of
Hough and Fainsod is salutary:

“Some persons seem instinctively to object to [our] figures on the
ground that the Great Purge was so horrible that the number of deaths
cannot have been so ‘low.’ We must not become insensitive to the
value of human life, however, what we dismiss tens of thousands of
deaths as insignificant and need to exaggerate the number by ten,
twenty, thirty forty times to touch our feelings of horror.”

The task is obviously to try to arrive at truth, but many such
estimates evidently have a regulatory ideological function, with an
exponential momentum so great that now any computation that does not
soar past 10 million is somehow taken as evidence of being soft on
Stalin. One can find an analogy in current writing on the French
Revolution, where the passionately anti-Jacobean Rene Sedillot has
produced a book addressing the matter of the Revolution’s human cost
in which he boils up, by very questionable means, a casualty figure of
400,000, far in excess of any previous estimate. Professor Charles
Tilly of The New School in New York counts total deaths in the
Revolution, including the Terror, famine and war, at no more than

The symmetry that calculations such as Medvedev’s seeks to establish
between Stalin and Hitler performs, in its service to ideology,
similar injury to history. Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews
and the gypsies, and though accuracy is important, it does not alter
the moral scale of this horror one iota to propose that in pursuit of
his design Hitler may have in reality killed a million less or a
million more than the conventional estimate. Evil though he was,
Stalin did not plan or seek to accomplish genocide, and to say that he
and Hitler had the same project in mind (or, as right-wing German
historians now argue, that Stalin somehow put Hitler up to it) is to
do disservice to history and to truth.”