The Lost Census

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Normally a safe occupation, census taker was a dangerous profession in the Soviet Union. Directors of the 1937 Soviet census suffered a shocking casualty rate. Counted in January, the census claimed its first victim in Ivan Adamovich Kraval, chief of the Central Statistics Department (CSD). His assistants followed shortly thereafter. The problem was that calculations of natural population growth had projected a population of 186.4 million, an increase of 37.6 million since the 1926 census; the actual increase turned out to be only 7.2 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. On September 26, Pravda published a communiqué of the Sovnarkom claiming “crude violations of the principles of statistical science.”

The 1939 census produced the more agreeable, though still far from encouraging result of 170 million Soviet citizens. Close attention would still have suggested profound traumas to the Soviet population, but the numbers were published in such a way as to obscure that reading. Historians have claimed that the probability of fudged numbers completely discredits the 1939 Census, and while there is much to say for this opinion, there is still much to learn from the census. Soviet officials certainly did. In the aborted 1937 census they had queried adults as to their beliefs and religious affiliation; the shocking tally of believers in 1937 was confirmed by the hostility shown to census-takers in 1939 by rural folk. Many believers treated census takers as representatives of a malevolent state.

Although questions about religious belief were absent from the 1939 form, questions about nationality mirrored an ongoing debate on the composition of Soviet society. National self-determination was fundamental to Soviet being, yet by 1939 state ethnographers and anthropologists had compiled lists that categorized groups as major nationalities, ethnic groups or national minorities. Although meant to acknowledge and solidify nationalities within the Soviet state, the lists often marginalized them. Many groups had disappeared from the lists by 1939, “consolidated” into larger groups. Crimean Tatars, Mishars, Nagaibaks and others were united under the rubric “Tatar”; Turks of the Fergana, Samarkand and other regions were unified as “Uzbeks.” Consolidations could have profound effect these groups in later years, depriving them of a voice and presence in Soviet society.

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