All the above raises a couple of questions. First: was it a great victory if the losses Ukraine suffered are taken into account? Second: should 9 May be a celebration, or a day of commemoration? In seeking an answer to these questions, let us look at the historic research calculating how many lives Ukraine lost in its massive opposition to two totalitarian leaders who desired power and land.
Soviet historiographers worked full-bore to create powerful myths, including regarding the Great Victory which became the linchpin in the creation of a new type of a person – “homo sovieticus”, or “Soviet man”. With that purpose in mind, historiography was bent to the requirements of the ideology, masking the real number of losses and the stupid blunders of Soviet military commanders in 1941-1945. While in other countries the question of the number of military losses takes the same place as other historical research, Soviet academics were encouraged to find ways to minimize the real numbers, to hide the real facts and to justify the defeats. This is why masses of documents concerning the Great Patriotic War were and still are strictly classified, with only officially sanctioned versions of the events published and promoted. The “historians” of Stalin’s time claimed that overall Soviet losses did not exceed 7 million. Khrushchev’s relaxation of restrictions led to the number of losses being increased significantly, up to 20 million. Brezhnev’s historians put the number at more than 20 million, while Gorbachev raised the number slightly higher, to 27-28 million people.
The latest statistical research aimed at finding an accurate overall number of victims of the Great Patriotic War was conducted in Russia in the mid-90s, the results of which are now considered official and historically grounded, giving a number of 27 million Soviet dead in 1941-1945. This research, however, elides an accurate estimate of Ukrainian losses in the war for several reasons. First, Ukraine had been occupied by Germany for two years. Today, it is no secret that the Soviets simply treated the people who lived on occupied territories as collaborators, with many sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Second, it was important to stress that the victory was due to “Soviet soldiers,” without disaggregating the numbers by nationality, although Ukrainians accounted for, by some estimates, up to 1/3 or even ½ of Red Army personnel.
Closer to Ukraine’s context
According to recent research, Ukraine suffered the heaviest losses in the Great Patriotic War of all the Soviet republics, with damage to the economy comprising 44% of the overall USSR losses. 714 Ukrainian urban centres were demolished and more than 28 000 villages destroyed, leaving more than 10 million people homeless.
Regarding human losses, the report of the Medical Academy of UkSSR (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), published immediately after the war, offers a number of 6 million Ukrainian victims. The editorial board of the official Russian statistical research journal cites approximately 5 million in overall military and civilian losses, plus more than 2 million deported as labourers to Germany, giving us a total of 7 million. However, Ukrainian historians since the country’s independence, having worked in Russian archives, claim that these numbers are greatly diminished.
A Tragic Number
A rough calculation gives us the following: by 1941 the official register of the Red Army shows about 5 million servicemen. Although the Soviets mobilized nearly 29 million people during the war, on 1 June 1945, records show a little more than 11 million survivors, meaning 23 million in human losses. If we assume that Ukrainians made up 1/3 of the armed forces, we arrive at a figure of nearly 8 million dead Ukrainian servicemen and women.
Taking the data of the 1939 official census, there were approximately 41 million people living in Ukraine before the war. By 1945, this number had dropped significantly, to about 27 million, meaning around 14 million people had disappeared. Remember that Germany lost a little less than 6 million people and their estimates are accurate and objective.
The official web site of the Embassy of Ukraine to the Federal Republic of Germany published an article by Ukrainian historian Korol, who claims that Ukraine’s demographic losses totalled nearly 17 million, of whom nearly 7 million were military servicemen.
In other words, Ukraine lost somewhere from a minimum of 8 million to a maximum of 17 million, demonstrating not only the scale of the human tragedy war brought to Ukraine, but also the careless attitude of the Soviet rulers to human life. In March 1942, Stalin ordered that the issue of soldiers’ “dog tags” – metal medallions worn around a soldier’s neck, carrying his vital statistics - be discontinued. The same year, the Red Army refused to register a number of victims by name, introducing instead the category of “missing” people. This category included those whose names we’ll never know, because their documents were destroyed, in order that future generations would not know the “enemies of the people,” i.e., those who were in German captivity, those who worked for German soldiers on occupied territory (remember, Ukraine was occupied for two years), those who refused to fight and die “for the Motherland, for Stalin” and those who survived liberation from German concentration camps. All these millions went “missing” in Soviet concentration camps or were dragooned into so-called “penal battalions”. According to Korol’s documentation, approximately 280 000 soldiers were simply shot as “traitors” by the Soviets. This is the number for the soldiers executed following conviction by a military tribunal. However, in August 1941 and July 1942, Stalin gave orders to shoot any soldier from a unit that found itself encircled, as well as any soldiers who fell behind in attack. It seems reasonable to assume that there were hundreds of thousands of similar cases, all going unrecorded in the official calculation of losses.
My mother-in-law’s father served in this type of battalion. He was unlucky enough to be captured by the Germans, but was later released. He came home, only to be called up for service in the Red Army again in 1941, for the defence of Kyiv. His daughter, born the same year, never saw her father, since being sentenced to “shtrafbat” service was equivalent to a sentence of death. Only much later, she was told by her father’s comrade that her father wanted only to be wounded in the chest or belly, in which case he would be honoured as a hero and his family would receive state benefits. In the end, 28-year old Pavlo was seriously wounded in the belly, but did not survive the operation. Documents show that he was later buried with military honours in Kyiv region. My husband made desperate, yet unsuccessful attempts to find his grandfather’s grave, as the village mentioned in the documents contained no such grave of honour. This story again reflects the callous treatment on the part of the Soviets of those who fought and died for Stalin’s great victory.
The 1943 liberation of Kyiv from fascist occupation provides a shining example of poor military execution on the part of the Red Army, as well as a complete lack of good sense. Stalin ordered that Kyiv be liberated before the anniversary of the October Revolution. The order was, of course, carried out and Kyiv was freed of German forces on 6 November, but at the staggering cost of 500 000 lives!
Another senseless waste of human life was the operation to capture Berlin in 1945. Official Russian statistics list nearly 300 000 victims, while the latest estimates put the number at nearly 700 000 lost; victims of a battle, the outcome of which was pre-determined.
A Sacrifice too Great to Declare Victory
Considering all of the above... was it really a victory? Was it a victory for the millions of dead, or even the millions of survivors, parted forever from beloved husbands, children, fathers, grandfathers, brothers and sisters? And is there anything for Ukraine to celebrate on 9 May, while this country and its people remained captive to another totalitarian regime for the 46 years following Europe’s liberation from Hitler’s grasp? Finally, was it a Great Patriotic War for Ukrainians, enslaved by the Soviets and forced to sacrifice so many lives for the glory of the oppressor? The answer suggests itself.