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Can we make sense of the USSR Census of 1937 & 1939?

The Soviet government, under Josef Stalin, determined that it was time to schedule a census of the USSR for January 1937. We need to look at the results of those censuses from the perspectives of contemporary time and again in today’s time.

The purpose for taking the census in 1937 was to show the population growth that was due to the leadership of the Communist Party, under Stalin, and show how productive the Soviets were in comparison to the west. It would show that the Russian people were healthy, happy and working towards a growing nation. Stalin wrote: “With the years of Soviet authority, our country has become a wealthy and mighty socialist power. In the Soviet Union the population is growing with extraordinary speed. . . Mortality has become less, and fertility more, and the net growth appears incomparable more quickly. . . Everybody says that the material situation of workers has dramatically improved, that life has become better and more fun. It is of course true. But this has led the population to breed much faster than in the old days. The birth rate is higher, the death rate is lower and the pure population growth is far stronger. It is of course good and we welcome it.” (6).

It was decided to take the 1937 census over a single 24 hour period on 5-6 January 1937. That proved to be a serious miscalculation. “In the first place, 5-6 January happened to be the Orthodox Christmas, which meant that the data collection coincided with a religious festival as well as the end of the customary drunken New Year celebration. Large numbers of people were not in their usual places of residence, and many were actually in transit that night between family and work.” (2). The census results showed some under counting as well as some double counting, which made the total population count suspect. (3). As far as what included in the 1937 census, “The original questionnaire prepared by the Statistical Commission was very detailed and thorough, but Stalin dumbed it down to fourteen straightforward questions with endless possibilities for misinterpretation and deceit. . . The only question Stalin introduced, not present in the original questionnaire, was the question about religion.” (1). The results of the religion question showed that Stalin’s effort to eradicate religion and promote atheism were a failure.

The analysis of the 1937 census showed an actual increase in population of only 7.2 million whereas Stalin had projected and increase of 37.6 million. “The population gap spoke so graphically of unnatural death, and so belied the image of a healthy happy society, that the census was squelched.” (3). Keep in mind the 6 million deaths in the 1932-33 famine, especially the the Ukraine Holodomor, as well as the mass executions of “counter-revolutionaries” by the Soviet government during the 1930s purges. “More than 1.5 million ordinary people were ensnared by the secret police, interrogated, tortured and in many cases summarily executed. At the campaign’s height in 1937 and 1938 the execution rate was roughly a thousand per day, with people accused of being class enemies, saboteurs, oppositionists or speculators, some denounced by their own neighbors or relatives.” (7). The thought that the population would increase significantly clearly ignored the millions of deaths caused by the famine and the mass executions by Stalin’s Soviet government. This minimal population increase can clearly be attributed to Stalin’s leadership and his use of absolute power. Was Stalin unique in the 20th century? “Power seized through violence must be maintained by violence, although violence can be a blunt instrument. A dictator must rely on military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, torturers. But it is best to pretend that coercion is actually consent. A dictator must instill fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer.” (7). No Stalin was one of the few dictators in the 20th century that used absolute power to control the populations under his control. The results of the 1937 census were never published and many of the census takers, in the Central Statistical Department, were executed. (4).

Because the 1937 census results were not what was expected, another census was scheduled for January 1939 with hopefully a different result. The rational for taking a second census, as determined by the Soviet leadership, was that “But is was disrupted by contemptible enemies of the people – Trotsky-Bukharinite spies and traitors to the motherland, having slipped at that time into the leadership of the Central Director of the People’s Economic Accounting. . . The census of 1937 was conducted with the grossest violations of elementary principles of statistical science. . Thus, the 1937 census was done without a full count of the population. . .The unmasking of the hostile work in the 1937 census obliges Soviet and Party organizations to take special political responsibility for the upcoming census.” (5). So the poorly designed and executed 1937 census had to be blamed on others rather than the poor performance of the Soviet government. The results of the new 1939 census indicated a total population of 170.6 million although historians believe the actual figures were about 1.5 million less. (1).

Today we look back at the rule of Stalin with many questions. His dictatorial history and cruel excesses while leader of the USSR was “denounced” after his death by Khrushchev in 1956. The deaths of many millions Russian people lie directly at his hands. The 1937 and 1939 censuses do not make sense as the rational for taking them was only to support Stalin’s ego and to maintain himself in power.

In summary, “Whatever the motive behind the catastrophe of 1933, the calling and suppression of the 1937 census suggests, for example, miscalculation as well as deliberate and premeditated falsification. It confirms that one of the greatest dangers for authoritarian rulers lies in the possibility that they themselves may cease to discriminate between fact and deception. In Stalin’s case, the lines were obviously blurred. The result, less than a month after the census, was the unleashing of the great purge, a second Stalinist demographic upheaval in which, by the best accounts, a further 2 or more million lives were lost.” (2).

References: (1) The Soviet Census Debate of 1937, Kaushik Patowary, www.amazingplanet.com/2020/02/the-Soviet-census-debaacle-of-1937.html. (2) The 1937 Census and the Limits of Stalinist Rule, Catherine Merridale, The Historical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Mar 1996), Cambridge University Press. (3) The Soviet Censuses of 1937 and 1939: Some Problems of Data Evaluation, Mark Tolts, https://www.researchgate.net/publications233965646, (4) The Lost Census, Subject essay: James von Geldern, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (5) Duty of the Whole People, Original Source: Bol’shevik, No. 23-24 (December 1938), Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (6) the Most Important Government Task, Original Source: Pravda, 29 November 1938, p.1, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (7) How to be a Dictator – The cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, Frank Dikotter, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2019.

By Tom Patton

Senior citizen scholar auditing classes at Virginia Tech.

4 replies on “Can we make sense of the USSR Census of 1937 & 1939?”

Thanks so much for this, Tom. Your analysis of the census and the demographic disaster the regime tried to hide offer an important counterpoint to the images of “socialist construction” the focus attention on the transformation of the built environment, the conquest of new frontiers (polar explorers and aviation), and a happy soviet childhood.
We’ll need to keep the problems with the census in mind when we talk about the demographic legacy of WWII as well.
What a thoughtful post!

This was a very interesting post Tom! I’m very surprised that the organizers of the 1937 Census were ambitious enough to try and do it in a single day. The US Census is done over a couple months, but a quick Google search tells me that that still needs around 635,000 census-takers. Do you have any idea of how much manpower the Soviets had to marshal to attempt this? Not to mention the questionable wisdom of doing it on a holiday…

Very good article Tom it is very interesting to see how important figures such as the population but when you look at the death toll of WWII it could show that they did not have the losses that contributed to the monstrous total.

Michael, yes it was ambitious and required a large number of census takers. The article that I used stated that the 1937 census required six times more enumerators than the 1926 census with the total required as 900,000 takers with 130,000 instructors. As far a being on a single day this is not unique. We lived in Ankara Turkey in 2000 and we had a one day census on a Sunday. Everybody was told to stay at home and only the census takers were out and about. They stopped at our flat and when they determined we were foreigners, they left us alone.

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