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The Soviet Census Debacle of 1937

soviet census of 1937

In 1937, the Soviet Union conducted its first population census in eleven years. Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, had great expectations on its outcome. He predicted that the population growth would be over 35 million citizens from the last census. Demographic figures from the census would illustrate how productive the Soviets were compared to the west, and project an image of a healthy, happy, and growing nation. In a speech he made to Soviet Party leaders in 1935, Stalin beamed:

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.

But the results were opposite, and more in tune with the real issues of the Soviet society and the cost of Stalin’s leadership. The census revealed that only 7 million more citizens were added to the country, far less than the projected growth rate—the result of alarmingly high deaths caused by the famine of 1932-34, the World War and the almost ritualistic, politically-driven purges carried out by Stalin against any person and community he disagreed with. Stalin was also surprised when more than half of the population declared themselves to be religious. After a decade of anti-religious persecution, he had hoped that there would be more atheists.

soviet census of 1937

Information poster for the 1937 Census

soviet census of 1937

Information poster for the 1937 Census

The Soviet leaders decided that the data was too compromising to print, so they had it suppressed, claiming that census directors committed “crude violations of the principles of statistical science.” The people who collected the samples and the chiefs of most of the regional statistical centers, including senior statistician with decades of experience, were arrested and executed. Even statisticians, newly appointed to replace those arrested, were soon arrested themselves. Many managers appointed to lead the statistical organizations avoided showing up for work in desperate attempts to escape persecution.

The census itself was a momentous enterprise, for it was conducted on the course of a single day. Early census stretched on for months and even for years and were very inaccurate, because during that time the population had time to change dramatically. To conduct a one-day census, nearly a million enumerators were employed to collect data. They had to ski over snowdrifts, and wade through deep snow and muds in order to reach remote settlements. While the majority of those questioned were friendly towards the enumerators, some were hostile. These people took out years of anger and discontent for the government on the enumerators. Some enumerators were beaten up, while others were stabbed and punched.

soviet census of 1937

Employees processing data collected during the census of 1937.

The data collection itself was not very well thought-out. 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. Questions about ethnicity and birthplace were removed prompting many foreigners to identify themselves as “Russians” despite being born elsewhere. Other questions about the social structure and income were significantly simplified or removed altogether. The date of the census, the night from 5 to 6 January, was also very unfortunate, because it coincided with the eve of the Russian Orthodox Christmas, a night when many Russians were in transit visiting families. This made them unavailable for interview. The original questionnaire had that shortcoming covered by accounting for those temporarily absent. But Stalin had struck that section out. The only question Stalin introduced, not present in the original questionnaire, was the question about religion.

A government official asking about religion created great suspicion and was met with the widest resistance. Believing that all believers would be persecuted, some lied about their religion. Others hoped that if enough people identified themselves as religious, the authorities would have to open the churches. Still others preferred to hide in the woods when the enumerators visited the village.

Eventually, a new census was ordered in 1939. The question on religion was eliminated because the results were too troubling. This time the figures were fudged to show a total population of 170 million, so as to match exactly the numbers stated by Stalin in his report to the 18th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party. Historians believe that the actual figures were about 1.5 million less.

population of the USSR from 1927 to 1939

The population of the USSR from 1927 to 1939. Published data versus actual data.

While Stalin’s reaction to the census of 1937 might appear totalitarian and in line with his personality, it was not without cause that the first people he executed were the demographers of the central statistical office. For years, the central statistical office had been feeding their leader false data on the severity of the famine of the 1930s, because they knew very well that the messenger would be first one to get shot. The head of the statistical office, I. A. Kraval, had been sending reports to Stalin describing only modest falls in birthrate and a small decrease in the population of Ukraine where the famine hit the hardest with 4 million dead. So while Stalin knew about the famine, he may have grossly underestimated the extent of the damage. When the preliminary findings of the 1937 census emerged, it shocked even those bureaucrats who anticipated far worse.

The documents relating to the census of 1937 were locked up for nearly half a century. They emerged only after the break up of the Soviet Union.

References:
# Catherine Merridale, The 1937 Census and the Limits of Stalinist Rule, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2639947
# Demoscope, http://www.demoscope.ru/weekly/knigi/polka/gold_fund08.html
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Census_(1937)

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