[This essay was delivered on Vermont Public Radio on May 10, 2010. To hear it, visit here.]
For 45 years, the Cold War made it politically incorrect to recognize Soviet sacrifices and victories in defeating Hitler in World War II. Yet the Cold War has now been over for 20 years, so it seems a good time to unequivocally acknowledge the primary contribution of the Soviets in the winning of that war.
The Soviet regime had a very cavalier attitude toward statistics. If something didn’t compute, it was hidden. And even if something wasn’t hidden, it probably still didn’t add up.
So it was with Soviet statistics on World War II. While the Soviet leadership commonly pronounced that 20 million citizens died in what they called The Great Patriotic War, we now know that this astonishing statistic was a vast and purposeful understatement.
In 1941, the population of the Soviet Union was nearly 197 million. In 1946, after the war was over, it was just over 170 million – reduced by a shocking 13%.
Today, official military records indicate that more than eight and a half million Soviet soldiers died in combat. Yet more than twice that many civilians perished during the war.
According to historian Olga Verbitskaya, best estimates are that roughly 18 million Soviet civilians died during WWII, including eight and a half million from famine, bombings, relocations and occupation, more than 2 million from forced labor in Germany, and nearly seven and a half million in German concentration camps, jails and ghettos.
Further, Verbitskaya notes, we should not forget to calculate “indirect losses,” meaning those who died prematurely after the war was over, due to poor living and medical conditions, injuries sustained during the war, and declining birth rates, which fell 30-50% versus the pre-war era. In all, it is estimated that nearly 50 million Soviets (one quarter of the pre-war population) had their lives cut short by what some have been so bold to call “The Good War.”
Yet in spite of these terrible losses - caused primarily by the Nazis, but also by strategic errors and the genocidal policies of Stalin and his cohorts - there is also the reality of victory.
The facts are unequivocal: 80-90% of all German and Axis forces killed in Europe during World War II died on the Russian front. It was the largest theater of warfare in history and, as historian Chris Bellamy wrote, the “single most decisive component of World War II.”
It is therefore my hope that, as we observe the 65th anniversary of the end of war in Europe, we will also fully acknowledge the 26 million Soviets who laid down their lives defending their homeland – and by extension - all of us.
Such recognition would not diminish the sacrifices and accomplishments of American soldiers or those of any other nation. But it might well strengthen our relations with Russia, at a time when our two countries are once again allied in a worldwide war against terror and evil.
WWII in Russian Cultural Memory
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