The USSR played the leading role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which the majority of Europeans recognized in 1945 even if half a century of Hollywood propaganda successfully displaced it in the public imagination in favor of the USA. But what about within the USSR itself?
Back in January 2015, during his brief nationalist phase after the return of Crimea, Putin declared that Russians played the leading role in the defeat of Nazism and paid the highest sacrifices. That seems like a dream today. Official rhetoric proclaims that “we achieved victory together” played over footage of Ramzan Kadyrov and Tajik workers wearing St. George’s ribbons (in the meantime, Tajikistan has banned the Immortal Regiments march on the grounds that it is un-Islamic).
So who’s right: Putin 2015, or Putin 2017?
Predictably, Russians bore the highest number of absolute losses – some two thirds of the 8.7 million total.
Together with the Ukrainians and Belorussians that figure rises to 85%.
Moreover, Russians also bore the highest relative military losses as a percentage of their population, together with the Buryats.
The Ukrainians and Belorussians were somewhat lower, though this is explainable on account of them being occupied for part of the war, and incurring a greater share of civilian deaths as a result. There would have been be a similar dynamic with respect to the Jews, a large percentage of whom unfortunately fell within the Nazi zone of occupation.
I recall reading a history paper (can’t find it at the moment) where it was claimed that the USSR would create ethnic minority units from the Finno-Ugric peoples and intentionally send them to the hottest fronts so as to make them incur heavier casualties and shift the demographic balance in favor of Russins. That is obviously nonsense based on these figures, though that said, they did almost do their fair share.
The Central Asians, especially the Uzbeks and Tajiks, are underrepresented – the latter by a factor of almost three. This is perhaps not that bad a thing, since they had a reputation for technical incompetence; even in the late USSR, conscripts from those regions tended to go into “Class C” rear divisions with simple, obsolete equipment.
Of the major ethnicities, the worst group in terms of its lack of contribution were the restive Muslim provinces of the North Caucasus. Dagestan underdid its fair share by a factor of four, while the Chechens and Ingush as is known pretty much defected to the Germans en masse (hence the deportations).
I didn’t include any figures for the Balts and Moldovans. They were annexed by the USSR after the 1939 Census, so their percentages would be meaningless.
For comparison, the Germans lost approximately 6.1% of their population as military losses in WW2, including: Germany proper: 6.4%; Austria: 3.9%; The German diaspora in Eastern Europe: 7.2%, according to Rüdiger Overmans’s calculations.
|Nationality||Population (1939)||WW2 Mil. Deaths||% All Mil. Deaths||% Deaths Population|
|Kabardians & Balkars||206,870||3,400||0.04%||1.64%|
|Chechens & Ingush||500,088||2,300||0.03%||0.46%|