Rosstat’s new data shows that Russia as it is today is very much a product of the Second World War, at least in terms of demography.
At first I thought it was a little bit hokey, but Rosstat’s decision to celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in world war two with the publication of a “jubilee statistical compilation” was actually a brilliant one.
By their very nature wars inevitably give rise to enormously strong emotions: the dislocation, pain, loss, and suffering that are inherent to armed conflict are remembered much more vividly than “normal” civilian life.
And, as readers of this column undoubtedly know, there’s not another war anywhere in the world that is remembered with more passionate intensity than the Great Fatherland War is in Russia. Even after 70 years, Russians’ memories of the struggle against Germany have a strength to them that has long since ceased to be the case in the West. Yes they can be (and, unfortunately, often are) cynically used by the authorities, but it seems safe to say that Russians’ emotions about the war are genuine and are not simply the imagined creation of Kremlin propaganda. Indeed it would be rather strange if a country that suffered as much as Russia did during the war didn’t remember things just a little more strongly than is the case in the United States or Great Britain.
But emotions can often obfuscate more than they illuminate, hinder as much as they help. No one’s memories should be discounted offhand, but when trying to understand a historical occurrence with the magnitude and mind-bending level of violence and destruction of the Second World War it helps to start from a position of objective fact. Only after one comes to a general understanding of the war’s cost (how many people fought, how many people died, how many weapons they used and where they used them) can its constituent parts be placed in the appropriate context.
I’ve not seen another publication that so concisely and so straightforwardly presents the nightmarish costs incurred by the Soviet people in the triumph over fascist Germany as the recent Rosstat publication. There’s (thankfully!) almost none of the hysterical rhetoric than often creeps up when Russian government organs try to explain the “triumph over fascism,” there’s simply a long list of charts and figures that distill enormously complicated events into easily digestible bits of information.
The most amazing comes on the report’s 28th page. There’s nothing particularly complicated about it at first glance: it’s a simple graphical description of the Soviet population’s “age and gender structure” at the beginning of 1946 (an “age pyramid” in the often dry and boring parlance of demographers). The figure is color coded to indicate both the actual condition of the Soviet population at that time as well as what it would have been if the demographic trends of 1940 had continued uninterrupted.
I’ve been looking at these sorts of charts for a long time, but I almost dropped my coffee when I saw this one. The human costs of the war really do beggar belief.
The first and most obvious costs are the people (primarily men between the ages of 19 and 40) who were actually killed in combat. And, as you might expect, these losses were positively enormous: in some age cohorts, fully half the men who should have been alive in 1946 were not.
Somewhat surprisingly the biggest absolute and proportional losses seem to have fallen on those men who were roughly 30 years old when the war started. In most cinematic depictions of the war that I’ve seen the average rank and file soldier is presented as a fresh-faced recruit straight out of high school, but this evidently isn’t a particularly accurate presentation of what actually happened.
Another thing that was somewhat surprising was the relative paucity of losses among the female part of the population. The German occupation of the Baltics, Ukraine, and large sections of European Russia was famously barbaric. Civilians living in those areas were treated brutishly, often for a period of many years. Any number of films (“Come and See” for example) display in quite excoriating detail the horrific ways in which the Nazis treated the people whom they occupied. But unlike the entire generation of young men that was “missing” as a result of the war, from a demographic standpoint Soviet women were not impacted to nearly the same degree. Given what I had read about the egregious losses among civilians in places like Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Rostov this was unexpected.
But what really blew me away was the “unseen” demographic cost of the war: those children that would have been born had pre-war fertility patterns been sustained throughout the 1940’s. Here the losses are even more nightmarish than those suffered by young males of prime combat age. In 1946 there were roughly 2.5 million children between the ages of 0 and 5 living in the Soviet Union. There should have been around 6.5 million. These losses of four million lost births won’t show up anywhere on a monument or a casualty roster, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Indeed, from the standpoint of their impact on Russia’s future they were likely even more significant than the millions of young men who died in combat, permanently lowering Russia’s potential population.
The Rosstat publication shows that, in a very literal sense, Russia as it is today is very much a product of the Second World War. Had the cataclysmic war with Germany not taken place, or had it not been so enormously costly, Russia would be a totally different country inhabited by many more (and very different) people than is actually the case.