Was the Soviet 1923 Male Birth Cohort Doomed by World War II?
Writing about web page http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/moreorless/moreorless_20141213-0600d.mp3
Tim Harford's BBC Radio programme "More or Less" asked me to comment on a claim that is widely repeated on the internet, for example on Buzzfeed:
Almost 80% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.
Here's the numbers I worked from on the programme(in thousands, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand). Each of the lines is sourced below.
- Males born in the Soviet Union in 1923: 3,400
- Infant (0-1) mortality: 800
- Childhood (1-18) mortality, famine, and terror: 800
- Surviving to 1941: 1,800
- Wartime mortality: 700
- Surviving to 1946: 1,100
The Buzzfeed claim is overstated, although not by a wide margin. Around two thirds (more exactly, 68%) of the original 1923 male birth cohort did not survive World War II. But the war is not the most important reason for the poor survival rate; almost half of them died before the war broke out.
The babies of 1923 were born at an awful time and faced a dismal future. The country they were born in was poor and violent. Between 1914 and 1921 their families had endured seven years of war and civil war, immediately followed by a major famine. Their society lacked modern sanitation, immunization programmes, and antibiotics. Rates of infant mortality and childhood mortality were shockingly high. Moreover, violence and famine were not a thing of the past. The 1923 cohort would be aged nine in the first year of the next major famine (1932) and fourteen in the year of Stalin's Great Terror (1937). They turned eighteen just as Germany attacked their country (1941).
The German invasion of 1941 was a deep national trauma. The young men born in 1923 were inexperienced conscripts for an army that was repeatedly shocked, taken by surprise, encircled, and pulverized. It suffered terrible losses. In the first six months, three million troops were killed or taken prisoner, and most of those taken prisoner did not survive. If they survived that, they faced more years of battlefield attrition or else and exhaustion on the home front. In all the Soviet Union suffered around 25 million war deaths, plus or minus a million (Harrison 2003). Red Army deaths alone were 8.7 million.
The overall mortality of the Soviet 1923 male birth cohort can be distributed over four stages of life. Around 800 thousand died in their first year. These died of birth defects, disease, accidents, abuse, and neglect. Another 800 thousand died between the ages of 1 and 18 from a range of causes that included those just mentioned and extended beyond them to famine and political violence. Then, from age 18 to 22, another 700 thousand were carried off in the war. That left just over a million to live on into middle and old age.
It may be surprising that war was not the major cause of premature death up to 1946 for the young men born in 1923. But in this there should be two harsh reminders. The first reminder is that nature is wasteful: everywhere until very recently only a minority of babies survived to adulthood, even in peacetime. This was still the situation for the Soviet Union in 1923. The second reminder is that 700,000 wartime deaths from a single birth cohort of young men is still a shocking figure. It is, for example, more than twice the total number of British military and civilian casualties in World War II.
I took the data from Andreev, Darskii, and Khar'kova (1993). These three Russian demographers reworked the Soviet census and registration records immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the archives for independent research. Everyone abbreviates the reference to ADK so I will too. ADK (p. 118) give the total of births in the Soviet Union in 1923 as 6,523 thousand. Assuming a normal male/female split of 107/100, male births were 3,372 thousand. This is the size of the 1923 male cohort that we have to reckon with.
ADK do not give exact figures for the numbers of the 1923 male cohort surviving to 1941 and 1946, but you can read them off a chart (p. 79) as approximately 2 million and 1.2 million, implying 800 thousand wartime deaths. For our purpose, however, these figures require adjustment for border changes. In 1946 Soviet borders were wider than in 1923. In 1939/40 the Soviet Union expanded to absorb the Baltics, eastern Poland, and some other territories. Because of this the population was boosted (p. 118 again) from 168.5 to 188.8 million, or about 12 percent). So we need to multiply by 168.5/188.8 to take the 1923 male birth cohort as reported in 1946 back to the original borders of 1923. This gives survivors to 1941 as 1,785 thousand, wartime deaths as 714 thousand, and 1,071 thousand survivors to 1946.
If these figures are right, two thirds (rather than 80 per cent) of the original 1923 male birth cohort were dead by the end of World War II. But the war was not the largest cause of death, for nearly half of them were dead by 1941, before the war broke out. How reasonable is that?
There are two factors that explain heavy peacetime mortality. First, infant mortality: ADK give infant mortality in 1923 (p. 135) as 229 per thousand (with 220 as a lower bound and 238 as an upper bound). Applying their central estimate gives 770 thousand deaths in the first year of life, leaving 2,600 thousand survivors to 1924.
Second, childhood mortality, famine, and violence. For consistency with 1,785 survivors in 1941, we obtain deaths over the period from 1924 to 1941 as a residual, and the number of these is found to be 814 thousand, which is a larger number than the number of deaths in the first year of life. Is that reasonable? Elsewhere (pp. 19, 20. 35), ADK give survival tables for male newborns based on the three interwar censuses, from which it is clear that male child mortality over 1 to 3 years was never much less than over 0 to 1. Taking into account famine, terror, etc., a figure for 1-18 mortality that slightly exceeds 0-1 mortality is plausible.
Soviet demography is not an exact science. All these figures are more fuzzy than might appear at first sight -- one reason my opening summary rounds everything to the nearest hundred thousand. On the same programme you can hear Mike Haynes (he and I reach similar conclusions) reminding listeners that the error margin on Soviet war deaths, plus or minus one million, is another number that is greater than the number of British war deaths. The one thing that saves us from complete confusion is that demographic accounts have to be consistent, both internally and externally. The requirement of consistency helps us to judge that some claims are reasonable and others are ruled out.
- Andreev, E. M., L. E. Darskii, and T. L. Kharkova. 1993. Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991. Moscow: Nauka.
- Harrison, Mark. 2003. Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment. Europe-Asia Studies 55:6, pp. 939-44.