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Mass killings under communist regimes

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Mass killings under communist regimes occurred throughout the 20th century. Death estimates vary widely, depending on the definitions of the deaths that are included in them. The higher estimates of mass killings account for the crimes that governments committed against civilians, including executions, the destruction of populations through man-made hunger and deaths that occurred during forced deportations and imprisonment, and deaths that resulted from forced labor.

In addition to "mass killings," terms that are used to define such killings include "democide", "politicide", "classicide", and "genocide."

Attempts to propose a common terminology

Different general terms are used to describe the intentional killing of large numbers of noncombatants.[1][a][b][c][d][e] According to historian Anton Weiss-Wendt, the field of comparative genocide studies, which rarely appears in mainstream disciplinary journalsm, despite growth of research and interest, due to its humanities roots and reliance on methodological approaches that did not convince mainstream political science,[2] has very "little consensus on defining principles such as definition of genocide, typology, application of a comparative method, and timeframe."[3][f] According to Professor of Economics Attiat Ott, mass killing has emerged as a "more straightforward" term.[g]

Several authors have attempted to propose a common terminology to describe the killings of unarmed civilians by communist governments, individually or as a whole, some of them believing that government policies, interests, neglect, and mismanagement contributed, directly or indirectly, to such killings, and evaluate different causes of death, which are defined with various terms. According to this view, which has been either ignored or criticized by other genocide scholars and scholars of communism, it is possible to have an estimated communist death toll based on a "generic communism" grouping. For example, Michael David-Fox states that Martin Malia is able to link disparate regimes, from radical Soviet industrialists to the anti-urbanists of the Khmer Rouge, under the guise of a "generic communism" category "defined everywhere down to the common denominator of party movements founded by intellectuals."[4]

Common or notable terms used by authors, not all of whom may share acceptance of the "generic communism" grouping, include the following:[g]

  • Classicide – Sociologist Michael Mann has proposed classicide to mean the "intended mass killing of entire social classes."[5][h] As summarized by the Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, classicide is considered "premeditated mass killing" narrower than genocide in that it targets a part of a population defined by its social status, but broader than politicide in that the group is targeted without regard to their political activity.[6]
  • Crime against humanity – Professor of History Klas-Göran Karlsson uses crimes against humanity, which includes "the direct mass killings of politically undesirable elements, as well as forced deportations and forced labour." Karlsson states that the term may be misleading in the sense that the regimes targeted groups of their own citizens but considers it useful as a broad legal term which emphasizes attacks on civilian populations and because the offenses demean humanity as a whole.[7] Mann and historian Jacques Sémelin[8] believe that crime against humanity is more appropriate than genocide or politicide when speaking of violence by communist regimes.[9]
  • Democide – Political scientist Rudolph Rummel defined democide as "the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command."[10] His definition covers a wide range of deaths, including forced labor and concentration camp victims, killings by unofficial private groups, extrajudicial summary killings, and mass deaths due to the governmental acts of criminal omission and neglect, such as in deliberate famines, as well as killings by de facto governments, such as warlords or rebels in a civil war.[11][i] This definition covers any murder of any number of persons by any government,[12] and it has been applied to killings that were perpetrated by communist regimes.[13][14]
  • Genocide – Under the Genocide Convention, the crime of genocide generally applies to the mass murder of ethnic rather than political or social groups. The clause which granted protection to political groups was eliminated from the United Nations resolution after a second vote because many states, including the Soviet Union under Stalin,[15][j] feared that it could be used to impose unneeded limitations on their right to suppress internal disturbances.[16][17] Scholarly studies of genocide usually acknowledge the UN's omission of economic and political groups and use mass political killing datasets of democide and genocide and politicide or geno-politicide.[18] The killings that were committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia has been labeled a genocide or an autogenocide, and the deaths that occurred under Leninism and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, as well as those that occurred under Maoism in China, have been controversially investigated as possible cases. In particular, the Soviet famine of 1932–1933 and the Great Chinese Famine, which occurred during the Great Leap Forward, have both been "depicted as instances of mass killing underpinned by genocidal intent."[k]
  • HolocaustCommunist holocaust has been used by some state officials and non-governmental organizations.[19][20][21] The similar red Holocaust, which was coined by the Munich Institut für Zeitgeschichte,[l][22] has been used by Professor of Comparative Economic Systems Steven Rosefielde for communist "peacetime state killings", while stating that it "could be defined to include all murders (judicially sanctioned terror-executions), criminal manslaughter (lethal forced labor and ethnic cleansing), and felonious negligent homicide (terror-starvation) incurred from insurrectionary actions and civil wars prior to state seizure, and all subsequent felonious state killings."[m] According to historian Jörg Hackmann, such terms are not popular among scholars in Germany or internationally.[l] Historian Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine writes that usage of those terms "allows the reality it describes to immediately attain, in the Western mind, a status equal to that of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazi regime."[n][23] Political scientist Michael Shafir writes that the use of such terms supports the "competitive martyrdom component of Double Genocide", a theory whose worst version is Holocaust obfuscation.[24] George Voicu states that fellow historian Leon Volovici has "rightfully condemned the abusive use of this concept as an attempt to 'usurp' and undermine a symbol specific to the history of European Jews."[o]
  • Mass killing – Professor of Psychology Ervin Staub defined mass killing as "killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership. In a mass killing the number of people killed is usually smaller than in genocide."[25][p] Referencing earlier definitions,[q] Professors Joan Esteban (Economic Analysis), Massimo Morelli (Political Science and Economics), and Dominic Rohner (Political and Institutional Economics) have defined mass killings as "the killings of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under the conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims."[26] Mass killing has been defined by political scientist Benjamin Valentino as "the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants", where a "massive number" is defined as at least 50,000 intentional deaths over the course of five years or less.[27] This is the most accepted quantitative minimum threshold for the term;[26] Valentino applied this definition to the cases of the Soviet Union's Stalin era, China's Mao era, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and seeked to explain why many other communist regimes have avoided "this level of violence", commenting on how "most regimes that have described themselves as communist or have been described as such by others have not engaged in mass killing", and could not confirm or verify whether "mass killings on a smaller scale", which also appear to have been carried out by regimes in various nations in Africa, Eastern Europe, North Korea, Vietnam, and other Soviet allies, fit the mass killing category.[28] Political scientist Jay Ulfelder has used a threshold of 1,000 killed.[r] Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Alex J. Bellamy states that 14 of the 38 instances of "mass killing since 1945 perpetrated by non-democratic states outside the context of war" were by communist governments.[s] Professor of International Relations Atsushi Tago and Professor of Political Science Frank Wayman use mass killing from Valentino and commented that, even with a lower threshold (10,000 killed per year, 1,000 killed per year, or just 1 killed per year), "autocratic regimes, especially communist, are prone to mass killing generically, but not so strongly inclined (i.e. not statistically significantly inclined) toward geno-politicide."[t] According to Professor of Economics Attiat F. Ott and his postdoctoral associate Sang Hoo Bae, there is a general consensus that mass killing constitutes the act of intentionally killing a number of non-combatants, but that number can range from as few as four to more than 50,000 people.[29] Associate Professor of Sociology Yang Su uses a definition of mass killing from Valentino but allows as a "significant number" more than 10 killed in one day in one town.[u] Yang has used collective killing for analysis of mass killing in areas smaller than a whole country that may not meet Valentino's threshold.[v]
  • Politicide – The term is used to describe the killing of groups that would not otherwise be covered by the Genocide Convention.[30][j] Genocide scholar Barbara Harff studies genocide and politicide—sometimes shortened as geno-politicide—in order to include the killing of political, economic, ethnic, and cultural groups.[w] Political scientist Manus I. Midlarsky uses politicide to describe an arc of large-scale killing from the western parts of the Soviet Union to China and Cambodia.[x] In his book The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, Midlarsky raises similarities between the killings of Stalin and Pol Pot.[31]
  • Repression – Soviet specialist Stephen Wheatcroft states that in the case of the Soviet Union, terms such as the terror, the purges, and repression are used to refer to the same events. Wheatcroft believes that the most neutral terms are repression and mass killings, although in Russian the broad concept of repression is commonly held to include mass killings and it is sometimes assumed to be synonymous with it, which is not the case in other languages.[32]

Estimate attempts

According to Klas-Göran Karlsson, discussion of the number of victims of communist regimes has been "extremely extensive and ideologically biased."[33] Rudolph Rummel and Mark Bradley have written that, while the exact numbers have been in dispute, the order of magnitude is not.[y][z] Rummel and other genocide scholars are focused primarily on establishing patterns and testing various theoretical explanations of genocides and mass killings. In their work, as they are dealing with large data sets that describe mass mortality events globally, they have to rely on selective data provided by country experts, so precise estimates are neither a required nor expected result of their work.[34]

Any attempt to estimate a total number of killings under communist regimes depends greatly on definitions, and the idea to group together different countries such as Afghanistan and Hungary has no adequate explanation.[35] During the Cold War era, some authors (Todd Culberston), dissidents (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), and anti-communists in general have attempted to make both country-specific and global estimates, although they were mostly unreliable and inflated, as shown by the 1990s and beyond. Scholars of communism have mainly focused on individual countries, and genocide scholars have attempted to provide a more global perspective, while maintaining that their goal is not reliability but establishing patterns.[34] Scholars of communism have debated on estimates for the Soviet Union, not for all communist regimes, an attempt which was popularized by the introduction to The Black Book of Communism and was controversial.[35] Among them, Soviet specialists Michael Ellman and J. Arch Getty have criticized the estimates for relying on émigre sources, hearsay, and rumor as evidence,[36] and cautioned that historians should instead utilize archive material.[37] Such scholars distinguish between historians who base their research on archive materials, and those whose estimates are based on witnesses evidence and other data that is unreliable.[38] Soviet specialist Stephen G. Wheatcroft says that historians relied on Solzhenitsyn to support their higher estimates but research in the state archives vindicated the lower estimates, while adding that the popular press has continued to include serious errors that should not be cited, or relied on, in academia.[39] Rummel was also another widely used and cited source[aa] but not reliable about estimates.[34]

Notable estimate attempts include the following:[aa]

  • In 1978, journalist Todd Culbertson wrote an article in The Richmond News Leader, republished in Human Events, in which he stated that "[a]vailable evidence indicates that perhaps 100 million persons have been destroyed by the Communists; the imperviousness of the Iron and Bamboo curtains prevents a more definitive figure."[ab][aa]
  • In 1985, John Lenczowski, director of European and Soviet Affairs at the United States National Security Council, wrote an article in The Christian Science Monitor in which he stated that the "number of people murdered by communist regimes is estimated at between 60 million and 150 million, with the higher figure probably more accurate in light of recent scholarship."[ac]
  • In 1993, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, wrote that "the failed effort to build communism in the twentieth century consumed the lives of almost 60,000,000."[40][aa][ad]
  • In 1994, Rummel's book Death by Government included about 110 million people, foreign and domestic, killed by communist democide from 1900 to 1987.[41] This total did not include deaths from the Great Chinese Famine of 1958–1961 due to Rummel's then belief that "although Mao's policies were responsible for the famine, he was misled about it, and finally when he found out, he stopped it and changed his policies."[42][43] In 2004, Tomislav Dulić criticized Rummel's estimate of the number killed in Tito's Yugoslavia as an overestimation based on the inclusion of low-quality sources, and stated that Rummel's other estimates may suffer from the same problem if he used similar sources for them.[44] Rummel responded with a critique of Dulić's analysis[45] but was not convincing.[46] In 2005, a retired Rummel revised upward his total for communist democide between 1900 and 1999 from 110 million to about 148 million due to additional information about Mao's culpability in the Great Chinese Famine from Mao: The Unknown Story, including Jon Halliday and Jung Chang's estimated 38 million famine deaths.[42][43] Karlsson describes Rummel's estimates as being on the fringe, stating that "they are hardly an example of a serious and empirically-based writing of history", and mainly discusses them "on the basis of the interest in him in the blogosphere."[47]
  • In 1997, Stéphane Courtois's introduction to The Black Book of Communism, an impactful yet controversial[35] work written about the history of communism in the 20th century,[48] gave a "rough approximation, based on unofficial estimates" approaching 100 million killed. The subtotals listed by Courtois added up to 94.36 million killed.[ae] Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, contributing authors to the book, criticized Courtois as obsessed with reaching a 100 million overall total.[49] In his foreword to the 1999 English edition, Martin Malia wrote that "a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million."[af] Courtois' attempt to equate Nazism and communist regimes was controversial, and remains on the fringes, on both scientific and moral grounds.[50][ag]
  • In 2005, Benjamin Valentino stated that the number of non-combatants killed by communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia alone ranged from a low of 21 million to a high of 70 million.[ah][ai] Citing Rummel and others,[aa] Valentino wrote that the "highest end of the plausible range of deaths attributed to communist regimes" was up to 110 million."[ah]
  • In 2010, Steven Rosefielde, whose main point is that communism in general, although he focuses mostly on Stalinism, is less genocidal and that is a key distinction from Nazism, wrote in Red Holocaust that the internal contradictions of communist regimes caused the killing of approximately 60 million people and perhaps tens of millions more.[51]
  • In 2011, Matthew White published his rough total of 70 million "people who died under communist regimes from execution, labor camps, famine, ethnic cleansing, and desperate flight in leaky boats", not counting those killed in wars.[aj]
  • In 2012, Alex J. Bellamy wrote that a "conservative estimate puts the total number of civilians deliberately killed by communists after the Second World War between 6.7 million and 15.5 million people, with the true figure probably much higher."[ak]
  • In 2014, Julia Strauss wrote that while there was the beginning of a scholarly consensus on figures of around 20 million killed in the Soviet Union and 2–3 million in Cambodia, there was no such consensus on numbers for China.[al]
  • In 2016, the Dissident blog of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation made an effort to compile ranges of estimates using sources from 1976 to 2010, positing that the overall range "spans from 42,870,000 to 161,990,000" killed, with 100 million the most commonly cited figure.[am]
  • In 2017, Stephen Kotkin wrote in The Wall Street Journal that communist regimes killed at least 65 million people between 1917 and 2017, commenting: "Though communism has killed huge numbers of people intentionally, even more of its victims have died from starvation as a result of its cruel projects of social engineering."[52][an]

Criticism is mostly focused on three aspects, namely that the estimates are based on sparse and incomplete data when significant errors are inevitable,[53][54][55] the figures are skewed to higher possible values,[53][56][ao] and victims of civil wars, Holodomor, and other famines, and wars involving communist governments should not be counted.[53][57][58] Criticism of the high-end estimates such as Rummel's have focused on two aspects, namely his choice of data sources and his statistical approach. Historical sources Rummel based his estimates upon can rarely serve as sources of reliable figures.[59] The statistical approach Rummel used to analyze big sets of diverse estimates may lead to dilution of useful data with noisy ones.[59][60]

Another common criticism, as articulated by anthropologist and former European communist regimes specialist Kristen Ghodsee and other scholars, is that the body-counting reflects an anti-communist point of view and is mainly approached by anti-communist scholars, and is part of the popular "victims of communism" narrative,[61][62] with 100 million being the most common, popularly used estimate,[63][ap] which is used not only to discredit the communist movement but the whole political left.[64][aq] Anti-communist organizations seek to institutionalize the "victims of communism" narrative as a double genocide theory, or the moral equivalence between the Nazi Holocaust (race murder) and those killed by communist regimes (class murder).[61][65] Alongside philosopher Scott Sehon, Ghodsee wrote that "quibbling about numbers is unseemly. What matters is that many, many people were killed by communist regimes."[65] The same body-counting can be easily applied to other ideologies or systems, such as capitalism.[63][ar][65][as]

Proposed causes


Klas-Göran Karlsson writes: "Ideologies are systems of ideas, which cannot commit crimes independently. However, individuals, collectives and states that have defined themselves as communist have committed crimes in the name of communist ideology, or without naming communism as the direct source of motivation for their crimes."[66] Academics such as Daniel Goldhagen,[67] Richard Pipes,[68] and John Gray[69] have written books about communist regimes for a popular audience, and scholars such as Rudolph Rummel consider the ideology of communism to be a significant causative factor in mass killings.[53][70] In the introduction to The Black Book of Communism, Stéphane Courtois claims an association between communism and criminality, stating that "Communist regimes ... turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government",[71] while adding that this criminality lies at the level of ideology rather than state practice.[72]

The last issue, printed in red ink, of Karl Marx's journal Neue Rheinische Zeitung from 19 May 1849

Professor Mark Bradley writes that communist theory and practice has often been in tension with human rights and most communist states followed the lead of Karl Marx in rejecting "Enlightenment-era inalienable individual political and civil rights" in favor of "collective economic and social rights."[z] Christopher J. Finlay posits that Marxism legitimates violence without any clear limiting principle because it rejects moral and ethical norms as constructs of the dominant class, and states that "it would be conceivable for revolutionaries to commit atrocious crimes in bringing about a socialist system, with the belief that their crimes will be retroactively absolved by the new system of ethics put in place by the proletariat."[at] Rustam Singh states that Marx had alluded to the possibility of peaceful revolution; after the failed Revolutions of 1848, Singh states that Marx emphasized the need for violent revolution and revolutionary terror.[au]

Literary historian George Watson cited an 1849 article written by Friedrich Engels called "The Hungarian Struggle" and published in Marx's journal Neue Rheinische Zeitung, stating that the writings of Engels and others show that "the Marxist theory of history required and demanded genocide for reasons implicit in its claim that feudalism, which in advanced nations was already giving place to capitalism, must in its turn be superseded by socialism. Entire nations would be left behind after a workers' revolution, feudal remnants in a socialist age, and since they could not advance two steps at a time, they would have to be killed. They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dung-heap of history."[73][av][undue weight? ] Watson's claims have been criticized for dubious evidence by Robert Grant, who commented that "what Marx and Engels are calling for is ... at the very least a kind of cultural genocide; but it is not obvious, at least from Watson's citations, that actual mass killing, rather than (to use their phraseology) mere 'absorption' or 'assimilation', is in question."[74] Talking about Engels' 1849 article, historian Andrzej Walicki states: "It is difficult to deny that this was an outright call for genocide."[75] Jean-François Revel writes that Joseph Stalin recommended study of the 1849 Engels article in his 1924 book On Lenin and Leninism.[aw]

According to Rummel, the killings committed by communist regimes can best be explained as the result of the marriage between absolute power and the absolutist ideology of Marxism.[76] Rummel states that "communism was like a fanatical religion. It had its revealed text and its chief interpreters. It had its priests and their ritualistic prose with all the answers. It had a heaven, and the proper behavior to reach it. It had its appeal to faith. And it had its crusades against nonbelievers. What made this secular religion so utterly lethal was its seizure of all the state's instruments of force and coercion and their immediate use to destroy or control all independent sources of power, such as the church, the professions, private businesses, schools, and the family."[77] Rummels writes that Marxist communists saw the construction of their utopia as "though a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism and inequality. And for the greater good, as in a real war, people are killed. And, thus, this war for the communist utopia had its necessary enemy casualties, the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, rich, landlords, and noncombatants that unfortunately got caught in the battle. In a war millions may die, but the cause may be well justified, as in the defeat of Hitler and an utterly racist Nazism. And to many communists, the cause of a communist utopia was such as to justify all the deaths."[76]

Benjamin Valentino writes that "apparently high levels of political support for murderous regimes and leaders should not automatically be equated with support for mass killing itself. Individuals are capable of supporting violent regimes or leaders while remaining indifferent or even opposed to specific policies that these regimes and carried out." Valentino quotes Vladimir Brovkin as saying that "a vote for the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not a vote for Red Terror or even a vote for a dictatorship of the proletariat."[78] According to Valentino, such strategies were so violent because they economically dispossess large numbers of people,[ax][s] commenting: "Social transformations of this speed and magnitude have been associated with mass killing for two primary reasons. First, the massive social dislocations produced by such changes have often led to economic collapse, epidemics, and, most important, widespread famines. ... The second reason that communist regimes bent on the radical transformation of society have been linked to mass killing is that the revolutionary changes they have pursued have clashed inexorably with the fundamental interests of large segments of their populations. Few people have proved willing to accept such far-reaching sacrifices without intense levels of coercion."[79] According to Jacques Sémelin, "communist systems emerging in the twentieth century ended up destroying their own populations, not because they planned to annihilate them as such, but because they aimed to restructure the 'social body' from top to bottom, even if that meant purging it and recarving it to suit their new Promethean political imaginaire."[ay]

Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley write that, especially in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia, a fanatical certainty that socialism could be made to work motivated communist leaders in "the ruthless dehumanization of their enemies, who could be suppressed because they were 'objectively' and 'historically' wrong. Furthermore, if events did not work out as they were supposed to, then that was because class enemies, foreign spies and saboteurs, or worst of all, internal traitors were wrecking the plan. Under no circumstances could it be admitted that the vision itself might be unworkable, because that meant capitulation to the forces of reaction."[az] Michael Mann writes that communist party members were "ideologically driven, believing that in order to create a new socialist society, they must lead in socialist zeal. Killings were often popular, the rank-and-file as keen to exceed killing quotas as production quotas."[ba] According to Vladimir Tismăneanu, "the Communist project, in such countries as the USSR, China, Cuba, Romania, or Albania, was based precisely on the conviction that certain social groups were irretrievably alien and deservedly murdered."[bb] Alex Bellamy writes that "communism's ideology of selective extermination" of target groups was first developed and applied by Joseph Stalin but that "each of the communist regimes that massacred large numbers of civilians during the Cold War developed their own distinctive account",[bc] while Steven T. Katz states that distinctions based on class and nationality, stigmatized and stereotyped in various ways, created an "otherness" for victims of communist rule that was important for legitimating oppression and death.[bd] Martin Shaw writes that "nationalist ideas were at the heart of many mass killings by Communist states", beginning with Stalin's "new nationalist doctrine of 'socialism in one country'", and killing by revolutionary movements in the Third World was done in the name of national liberation.[be]

Political system

Prosecutor General Andrey Vyshinsky (centre) reading the 1937 indictment against Karl Radek during the second Moscow Trial

Anne Applebaum writes that "without exception, the Leninist belief in the one-party state was and is characteristic of every communist regime" and "the Bolshevik use of violence was repeated in every communist revolution." Phrases said by Vladimir Lenin and Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky were deployed all over the world. Applebaum states that as late as 1976, Mengistu Haile Mariam unleashed a Red Terror in Ethiopia.[80] To his colleagues in the Bolshevik government, Lenin was quoted as saying: "If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and White Guardist, what sort of revolution is that?"[81]

Robert Conquest stressed that Stalin's purges were not contrary to the principles of Leninism but rather a natural consequence of the system established by Lenin, who personally ordered the killing of local groups of class enemy hostages.[82] Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, architect of perestroika and glasnost and later head of the Presidential Commission for the Victims of Political Repression, elaborates on this point, stating: "The truth is that in punitive operations Stalin did not think up anything that was not there under Lenin: executions, hostage taking, concentration camps, and all the rest."[83] Historian Robert Gellately concurs, commenting: "To put it another way, Stalin initiated very little that Lenin had not already introduced or previewed."[84]

Stephen Hicks of Rockford College ascribes the violence characteristic of 20th-century socialist rule to these collectivist regimes' abandonment of protections of civil rights and rejection of the values of civil society. Hicks writes that whereas "in practice every liberal capitalist country has a solid record for being humane, for by and large respecting rights and freedoms, and for making it possible for people to put together fruitful and meaningful lives", in socialism "practice has time and again proved itself more brutal than the worst dictatorships prior to the twentieth century. Each socialist regime has collapsed into dictatorship and begun killing people on a huge scale."[85][undue weight? ]

Eric D. Weitz says that the mass killing in communist states is a natural consequence of the failure of the rule of law, seen commonly during periods of social upheaval in the 20th century. For both communist and non-communist mass killings, "genocides occurred at moments of extreme social crisis, often generated by the very policies of the regimes",[86] and are not inevitable but are political decisions.[86] Steven Rosefielde writes that communist rulers had to choose between changing course and "terror-command" and more often than not chose the latter.[bf] Michael Mann posits that a lack of institutionalized authority structures meant that a chaotic mix of both centralized control and party factionalism were factors in the killing.[ba]


Professor Matthew Krain states that many scholars have pointed to revolutions and civil wars as providing the opportunity for radical leaders and ideologies to gain power and the preconditions for mass killing by the state.[bg] Professor Nam Kyu Kim writes that exclusionary ideologies are critical to explaining mass killing, but the organizational capabilities and individual characteristics of revolutionary leaders, including their attitudes towards risk and violence, are also important. Besides opening up political opportunities for new leaders to eliminate their political opponents, revolutions bring to power leaders who are more apt to commit large-scale acts of violence against civilians in order to legitimize and strengthen their own power.[87] Genocide scholar Adam Jones states that the Russian Civil War was very influential on the emergence of leaders like Stalin and it also accustomed people to "harshness, cruelty, terror."[bh] Martin Malia called the "brutal conditioning" of the two World Wars important to understanding communist violence, although not its source.[88]

Historian Helen Rappaport describes Nikolay Yezhov, the bureaucrat who was in charge of the NKVD during the Great Purge, as a physically diminutive figure of "limited intelligence" and "narrow political understanding. ... Like other instigators of mass murder throughout history, [he] compensated for his lack of physical stature with a pathological cruelty and the use of brute terror."[89] Russian and world history scholar John M. Thompson places personal responsibility directly on Joseph Stalin. According to him, "much of what occurred only makes sense if it stemmed in part from the disturbed mentality, pathological cruelty, and extreme paranoia of Stalin himself. Insecure, despite having established a dictatorship over the party and country, hostile and defensive when confronted with criticism of the excesses of collectivization and the sacrifices required by high-tempo industrialization, and deeply suspicious that past, present, and even yet unknown future opponents were plotting against him, Stalin began to act as a person beleaguered. He soon struck back at enemies, real or imaginary."[90] Professors Pablo Montagnes and Stephane Wolton posit that the purges in the Soviet Union and China can be attributed to the personalist leadership of Stalin and Mao, who were incentivized by having both control of the security apparatus used to carry out the purges and control of the appointment of replacements for those purged.[bi] Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek attributes Mao allegedly viewing human life as disposable to his "cosmic perspective" on humanity.[bj]

Soviet Union

Sign for the Solovetsky Stone, a memorial about repression in the Soviet Union at Lubyanka Square which was erected in 1990 by the human rights group Memorial in remembrance of the more than 40,000 innocent people shot in Moscow during the Great Terror

Adam Jones writes that "there is very little in the record of human experience to match the violence which was unleashed between 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power, and 1953, when Joseph Stalin died and the Soviet Union moved to adopt a more restrained and largely non-murderous domestic policy." Jones states that the exceptions to this were the Khmer Rouge (in relative terms) and Mao's rule in China (in absolute terms).[91]

Stephen G. Wheatcroft says that prior to the opening of the Soviet archives for historical research, "our understanding of the scale and the nature of Soviet repression has been extremely poor" and that some scholars who wish to maintain pre-1991 high estimates are "finding it difficult to adapt to the new circumstances when the archives are open and when there are plenty of irrefutable data", and instead "hang on to their old Sovietological methods with round-about calculations based on odd statements from emigres and other informants who are supposed to have superior knowledge", although he acknowledged that even the figures estimated from the additional documents are not "final or definitive."[92][93] In the 2007 revision of his book The Great Terror, Robert Conquest estimates that while exact numbers will never be certain, the communist leaders of the Soviet Union were responsible for no fewer than 15 million deaths.[bk]

Some historians attempt to make separate estimates for different periods of Soviet history, with casualty estimates varying widely from 6 million (the Stalinist period)[94] to 8.1 million (ending in 1937)[95] to 20 million[71][bl] to 61 million (the 1917–1987 period).[96]

Red Terror

The Red Terror was a period of political repression and executions carried out by Bolsheviks after the beginning of the Russian Civil War in 1918. During this period, the political police (the Cheka) conducted summary executions of tens of thousands of "enemies of the people."[97][98][99][100][101] Many victims were "bourgeois hostages" rounded up and held in readiness for summary execution in reprisal for any alleged counter-revolutionary provocation.[102] Many were put to death during and after the suppression of revolts, such as the Kronstadt rebellion of Baltic Fleet sailors and the Tambov Rebellion of Russian peasants. Professor Donald Rayfield writes that "the repression that followed the rebellions in Kronstadt and Tambov alone resulted in tens of thousands of executions."[103] A large number of Orthodox clergymen were also killed.[104][105]

According to Nicolas Werth, the policy of decossackization amounted to an attempt by Soviet leaders to "eliminate, exterminate, and deport the population of a whole territory."[106] In the early months of 1919, perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 Cossacks were executed[107][108] and many more deported after their villages were razed to the ground.[109] Historian Michael Kort wrote: "During 1919 and 1920, out of a population of approximately 1.5 million Don Cossacks, the Bolshevik regime killed or deported an estimated 300,000 to 500,000."[110]

Joseph Stalin

Estimates of the number of deaths which were brought about by Stalin's rule are hotly debated by scholars in the fields of Soviet and Communist studies.[111][112] Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the archival revelations which followed it, some historians estimated that the number of people who were killed by Stalin's regime was 20 million or higher.[94][113][114] Michael Parenti writes that estimates on the Stalinist death toll vary widely in part because such estimates are based on anecdotes in absence of reliable evidence and "speculations by writers who never reveal how they arrive at such figures."[115]

After the Soviet Union dissolved, evidence from the Soviet archives became available, containing official records of the execution of approximately 800,000 prisoners under Stalin for either political or criminal offenses, around 1.7 million deaths in the Gulags and some 390,000 deaths which occurred during kulak forced settlements in the Soviet Union, for a total of about 3 million officially recorded victims in these categories.[bm] According to Golfo Alexopoulos, Anne Applebaum, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Michael Ellman, official Soviet documentation of Gulag deaths is widely considered inadequate, as they write that the government frequently released prisoners on the edge of death in order to avoid officially counting them.[116][117] A 1993 study of archival data by J. Arch Getty et al. showed that a total of 1,053,829 people died in the Gulag from 1934 to 1953.[118] In 2010, Steven Rosefielde posited that this number has to be augmented by 19.4 percent in light of more complete archival evidence to 1,258,537, with the best estimate of Gulag deaths being 1.6 million from 1929 to 1953 when excess mortality is taken into account.[119] Alexopolous estimates a much higher total of at least 6 million dying in the Gulag or shortly after release.[120] Dan Healey has called her work a "challenge to the emergent scholarly consensus",[bn] while Jeffrey Hardy has criticized Alexopoulos for basing her assertions primarily on indirect and misinterpreted evidence.[121]

According to historian Stephen G. Wheatcroft, Stalin's regime can be charged with causing the purposive deaths of about a million people.[122] Wheatcroft excludes all famine deaths as purposive deaths and posits that those which qualify fit more closely the category of execution rather than murder.[122] Others posit that some of the actions of Stalin's regime, not only those during the Holodomor but also dekulakization and targeted campaigns against particular ethnic groups, such as the Polish operation of the NKVD, can be considered as genocide[123][124] at least in its loose definition.[125] Modern data for the whole of Stalin's rule was summarized by Timothy Snyder, who stated that under the Stalinist regime there were six million direct deaths and nine million in total, including the deaths from deportation, hunger, and Gulag deaths.[bo] Ellman attributes roughly 3 million deaths to the Stalinist regime, excluding excess mortality from famine, disease, and war.[126] Several popular press authors, among them Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, Soviet/Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov, and the director of Yale's "Annals of Communism" series Jonathan Brent, still put the death toll from Stalin at about 20 million.[bp][bq][br][bs][bt]

Mass deportations of ethnic minorities

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria (in the foreground), who was responsible for mass deportations of ethnic minorities as head of the NKVD

The Soviet government during Stalin's rule conducted a series of deportations on an enormous scale that significantly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. Deportations took place under extremely harsh conditions, often in cattle carriages, with hundreds of thousands of deportees dying en route.[127] Some experts estimate that the proportion of deaths from the deportations could be as high as one in three in certain cases.[bu][128] Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who initiated the 1948 Genocide Convention and coined the term genocide himself, assumed that genocide was perpetrated in the context of the mass deportation of the Chechens, Ingush people, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, and Karachays.[129]

Regarding the fate of the Crimean Tatars, Amir Weiner of Stanford University writes that the policy could be classified as ethnic cleansing. In the book Century of Genocide, Lyman H. Legters writes: "We cannot properly speak of a completed genocide, only of a process that was genocidal in its potentiality."[130] In contrast to this view, Jon K. Chang posits that the deportations had been in fact based on genocides based on ethnicity and that "social historians" in the West have failed to champion the rights of marginalized ethnicities in the Soviet Union.[131] This view is supported by several countries. On 12 December 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament issued a resolution recognizing the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars (the Sürgünlik) as genocide and established the 18th of May as the Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide.[132] The Parliament of Latvia recognized the event as an act of genocide on 9 May 2019.[133][134] The Parliament of Lithuania did the same on 6 June 2019.[135] The Parliament of Canada passed a motion on 10 June 2019, recognizing the Crimean Tatar deportation as a genocide perpetrated by Soviet dictator Stalin, designating the 18th of May to be a day of remembrance.[136] The deportation of Chechens and Ingush was acknowledged by the European Parliament as an act of genocide in 2004, stating:[137] "Believes that the deportation of the entire Chechen people to Central Asia on 23 February 1944 on the orders of Stalin constitutes an act of genocide within the meaning of the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 and the Convention for the Prevention and Repression of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948."[138]

Soviet famine of 1932–1933

Within the Soviet Union, forced changes in agricultural policies (collectivization), confiscations of grain and droughts caused the Soviet famine of 1932–1933 in the Ukrainian SSR (Holodomor), North Caucasus Krai, Volga region, and Kazakh SSR.[139][140][141] The famine was most severe in Ukrainian, where it is often referenced as the Holodomor. A significant portion of the famine victims (3.3 to 7.5 million) were Ukrainians.[142][143][144] Another part of the famine was that in Kazakhstan, also known as the Kazakh catastrophe, when more than 1.3 million ethnic Kazakhs (about 38% of the population) died.[145][146]

While there is still a debate among scholars on whether the Holodomor was a genocide, some scholars say the Stalinist policies that caused the famine may have been designed as an attack on the rise of Ukrainian nationalism[147] and may fall under the legal definition of genocide by the United Nations's Genocide Convention.[139][148][149][150] The famine was officially recognized as genocide by the Ukraine and other governments.[151][bv] In a draft resolution, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared that the famine was caused by the "cruel and deliberate actions and policies of the Soviet regime" and was responsible for the deaths of "millions of innocent people" in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Russia. Relative to its population, Kazakhstan is believed to have been the most adversely affected.[152] Regarding the Kazakh famine, Michael Ellman states that it "seems to be an example of 'negligent genocide' which falls outside the scope of the UN Convention of genocide."[153]

Great Purge

Mass graves dating from 1937–1938 opened up and hundreds of bodies exhumed for identification by family members[154]

Stalin's attempts to solidify his position as leader of the Soviet Union led to an escalation of detentions and executions, climaxing in 1937–1938, a period sometimes referred to as the Yezhovshchina' after Cheka official Nikolay Yezhov, or Yezhov era, and continuing until Stalin's death in 1953. Around 700,000 of these were executed by a gunshot to the back of the head.[155] Others perished from beatings and torture while in "investigative custody"[156] and in the Gulag due to starvation, disease, exposure, and overwork.[bw]

Arrests were typically made citing Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code) about counter-revolutionary laws, which included failure to report treasonous actions and in an amendment added in 1937 failing to fulfill one's appointed duties. In the cases investigated by the State Security Department of the NKVD from October 1936 to November 1938, at least 1,710,000 people were arrested and 724,000 people executed.[157] Modern historical studies estimate a total number of repression deaths during 1937–1938 as 950,000–1,200,000. These figures take into account the incompleteness of official archival data and include both execution deaths and Gulag deaths during that period.[bw] Former kulaks and their families made up the majority of victims, with 669,929 people arrested and 376,202 executed.[158]

The NKVD conducted a series of national operations which targeted some ethnic groups.[159] A total of 350,000 were arrested and 247,157 were executed.[160] Of these, the Polish operation of the NKVD, which targeted the members of Polska Organizacja Wojskowa, appears to have been the largest, with 140,000 arrests and 111,000 executions.[159] Although these operations might well constitute genocide as defined by the United Nations convention,[159] or "a mini-genocide" according to Simon Sebag Montefiore,[160] there is as yet no authoritative ruling on the legal characterization of these events.[125] Citing church documents, Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev has estimated that over 100,000 priests, monks, and nuns were executed during this time.[161][162] Regarding the persecution of clergy, Michael Ellman has stated that "the 1937–38 terror against the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and of other religions (Binner & Junge 2004) might also qualify as genocide."[163] In the summer and autumn of 1937, Stalin sent NKVD agents to the Mongolian People's Republic and engineered a Mongolian Great Terror[164] in which some 22,000[165] or 35,000[166] people were executed. Around 18,000 victims were Buddhist lamas.[165] In Belarus, mass graves for several thousand civilians killed by the NKVD between 1937 and 1941 were discovered in 1988 at Kurapaty.[167]

Soviet killings during World War II

Following the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, NKVD task forces started removing "Soviet-hostile elements" from the conquered territories.[168] The NKVD systematically practiced torture which often resulted in death.[169][170] According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, 150,000 Polish citizens perished due to Soviet repression during the war.[171][172] The most notorious killings occurred in the spring of 1940, when the NKVD executed some 21,857 Polish POWs and intellectual leaders in what has become known as the Katyn massacre.[173][174][175] Executions were also carried out after the annexation of the Baltic states.[176] During the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, the NKVD and attached units of the Red Army massacred prisoners and political opponents by the tens of thousands before fleeing from the advancing Axis powers forces.[177] Memorial complexes have been built at NKVD execution sites at Katyn and Mednoye in Russia, as well as a "third killing field" at Piatykhatky, Ukraine.[178]