Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, by Colonel-General G.F. Krisvosheev, editor, Greenhill/Stackpole, $39.95.
As long as we’re speaking of monsters, why not quote Stalin (who, in the murder department, made Alexander look like a piker): “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” I thought of that as I read through this careful new compilation by a team from the Russian general staff. Published for the first time in English, the book totes up Soviet casualties from the 191822 civil war (a startling 940,000 dead, as well as an equal number of Whites) to the end of the Red empire in 1989. The mortality figure, 9,763,366 (just under the population of Ohio), is dismaying, to say the least.
And, indeed, most of these figures have never been revealed before. Take the total of “irrecoverable losses” (nifty phrase, that) for World War II. Stalin himself put them on the low side, seven million–which, according to the authors, missed the actual total by a mere million and a half combatants, roughly equal to France’s KIAs in World War I. For the record, the estimate (it’s impossible to put down an absolute figure) is 8.6 million. There were, by Soviet standards, good reasons for keeping mum on the carnage of the Great Patriotic War. As the historian John Erickson writes in his foreword, “A war-ravaged, battle-damaged Soviet Union could not afford to reveal its weaknesses to the world, nor see Stalin indict himself and his system for vast profligacy with human life.”
It’s not just the overall figures but the particulars that stupefy. I had long assumed, for example, that the Soviets sustained their most cataclysmic World War II losses in the opening months of the Barbarossa operation in 1941. They were bad enough, to be sure, and we’ll probably never know their full extent. But marginally worse was the summer of 1943, when the Soviets fended off twin German thrusts toward Kursk and then went on the offensive, a drive that, with the predictable starts and stops, would only end in Berlin.
Other nuggets. In the entire Cold War only 16,000 Soviet soldiers died, most of them in Afghanistan. (The Soviets–and this is something of a revelation–lost 120 pilots and 335 aircraft in the Korean War. Thirteen advisers died in combat in Vietnam: there must be a story in them.) After so many deaths, perhaps the Soviets had learned a lesson: let others do your dying for you.
You could complain that the book only covers operations we know about and not ones that we don’t. Operation Mars in the fall of 1942, with its 500,000 casualties, which David M. Glantz described in a recent issue, is an instance, and there are others. But the compilers have rendered a valuable service, if an incomplete one, in spite of daunting obstacles. There were no accurate unit rolls to begin with, casualty records were kept in round numbers only–when they were kept–and even that most rudimentary record-keeping aid, the dog tag, was abolished early in the war. Surely this is not a final word on Soviet losses in all wars, but it’s a start, and one that does bring some manner of statistical closure to a murky subject.