Joseph Stalin, who died 60 years ago in Moscow, was a small man -- no more than 5-foot-4. The abused son of a poor, alcoholic Georgian cobbler, Josef Vissarionovich Djughashvili (the future Stalin) also had a withered arm, a clubbed foot and a face scarred by small pox, but he stood very tall as one of history’s most prolific killers.
Stalin’s extremely brutal 30-year rule as absolute ruler of the Soviet Union featured so many atrocities, including purges, expulsions, forced displacements, imprisonment in labor camps, manufactured famines, torture and good old-fashioned acts of mass murder and massacres (not to mention World War II) that the complete toll of bloodshed will likely never be known.
An amoral psychopath and paranoid with a gangster’s mentality, Stalin eliminated anyone and everyone who was a threat to his power – including (and especially) former allies. He had absolutely no regard for the sanctity of human life.
But how many people is he responsible for killing?
In February 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet Union, a research paper by Georgian historian Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev published in the weekly tabloid Argumenti i Fakti estimated that the death toll directly attributable to Stalin’s rule amounted to some 20 million lives (on top of the estimated 20 million Soviet troops and civilians who perished in the Second World War), for a total tally of 40 million.
''It's important that they published it, although the numbers themselves are horrible,'' Medvedev told the New York Times at the time.
''Those numbers include my father.''
Medevedev's grim bookkeeping included the following tragic episodes: 1 million imprisoned or exiled between 1927 to 1929; 9 to 11 million peasants forced off their lands and another 2 to 3 million peasants arrested or exiled in the mass collectivization program; 6 to 7 million killed by an artificial famine in 1932-1934; 1 million exiled from Moscow and Leningrad in 1935; 1 million executed during the ''Great Terror'' of 1937-1938; 4 to 6 million dispatched to forced labor camps; 10 to 12 million people forcibly relocated during World War II; and at least 1 million arrested for various “political crimes” from 1946 to 1953.
Although not everyone who was swept up in the aforementioned events died from unnatural causes, Medvedev’s 20 million non-combatant deaths estimate is likely a conservative guess.
Indeed, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the literary giant who wrote harrowingly about the Soviet gulag system, claimed the true number of Stalin’s victims might have been as high as 60 million.
Most other estimates from reputed scholars and historians tend to range from between 20 and 60 million.
In his book, “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954,” I.G. Dyadkin estimated that the USSR suffered 56 to 62 million "unnatural deaths" during that period, with 34 to 49 million directly linked to Stalin.
In “Europe A History,” British historian Norman Davies counted 50 million killed between 1924-53, excluding wartime casualties.
Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, a Soviet politician and historian, estimated 35 million deaths.
Even some who have put out estimates based on research admit their calculations may be inadequate.
In his acclaimed book “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties,” Anglo-American historian Robert Conquest said: “We get a figure of 20 million dead [under Stalin], which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so.”
Quotes attributed to Stalin reflected his utter disregard for human life. Among other bons mots, he allegedly declared: “Death is the solution to all problems. No man -- no problem,” and “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
Part of the problem with counting the total loss of life lies with the incompleteness and unreliability of Soviet records. A more troubling dilemma has to do with the fact that many some deaths – like starvation from famines – may or may not have been directly connected to Stalin’s policies.
In any case, if the figure of 60 million dead is accurate that would mean that an average of 2 million were killed during each year of Stalin’s horrific reign – or 40,000 every week (even during “peacetime”).
If the lower estimate of 20 million is the true number, that still translates into 1,830 deaths every single day.
Thus, Stalin’s regime represented a machinery of killing that history – excluding, perhaps, China under Chairman Mao Tse-Tung -- has never witnessed.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.