Saturday, April 4, 2020

Epidemics Killed More People than Did Military Actions in Russian Civil War of 1918-1922

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 1 – Russia’s current experience with the coronavirus is prompting some there to revisit and reflect upon Russian losses as a result of epidemics, and one Novaya gazeta writer, Vladimir Voronov, notes that “epidemics killed more people in the Civil War of 1918-1922 than did military actions.”

            The current pandemic, the historian says, is “at times compared with ‘the Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918-1920.” The first wave of that epidemic “hardly touched” Russia, “but then came the second wave” and millions suffered and died (

            German soldiers appear to have brought it with them into Ukraine, but petty business traders and the armies, red and white, spread it to the Caucasus and much of the rest of Russia, with victory in theaters often going not to those who achieved supremacy on the battlefield but rather those who avoided the worst ravages of the flu.

            At the time and frequently since, the impact of the flu pandemic in Russia was downplayed because in the Red Army and the White units, most of those who in fact were suffering from the Spanish flu were classified as having typhus.  But in many cases, it was the flu not typhus that killed, carrying off at least a million lives between August 1919 and spring 1920.

            That is the fire given by Soviet officials and typically cited by historians, but the actual number was much larger, with 20 million or more infections and no fewer than 4.4 million deaths, Nikonov says.  It hid the armies on both sides especially hard, with the Red Army losing nearly 300,000 dead to the epidemic, and the Whites multiples of that.

            Figures for the civilian populations are harder to come by or trust. Soviet officials say that more than 7.5 million people in what became Soviet Russia suffered from typhus – and in most cases, that was likely the Spanish flu – and more than 700,000 died from it.  But the real figures are far higher.

            According to Nikonov, the real figures just for 1918 to 1920 were in the range of 25 million infections with “no fewer than three million” dead and mostly likely 1.5 to two times that number. If twice, that would mean the Spanish flu and related epidemics carried off some six million people in the civil population.

            Together with military losses, that would be more than ten million deaths in all, not from battles but from infections.

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