Stalin was without doubt one of the most ruthless world leaders of the 20th Century, responsible for millions upon millions of deaths. But estimates of the number of deaths he caused vary wildly – from 3 million to 60 million.

So, how many people did Stalin kill? And was he really the 20th century’s most ruthless dictator?


Stalin – his name meant “man of steel” – was leader of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1952. His control was so total that, effectively, he was a dictator in all but name.

Stalin’s vision was ‘Socialism in one country’ and his goal was to turn the Soviet Union from a country shattered by revolution and civil war into an industrialised military power.

His route to this goal was forced labour, a reign of terror and the ruthless extermination of all who opposed him.

Stalin – Books we Recommend
1 Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives
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Stalin’s atrocities

Forced collectivisation moved millions of people from the countryside to the cities, allowing the Soviet Union to industrialisation. The upheaval caused by this massive forced movement of people contributed to the Soviet famine of 1932-33 (known as the Holodomor in Ukraine) in which at least five million died.

Increasingly paranoid, Stalin unleashed his “Great Terror” in the 1930s. 750,000 members of the military or the Communist Party who he thought might oppose him were executed. Three million were exiled – imprisoned in gulags where they became slave labour.

And, in the Second World War, millions of civilians (both Soviet and German) were killed during the brutal conflict on the Eastern Front.

Estimates of how many people Stalin killed

Dictators are, as you might imagine, not keen to record how many people they are killing.So it is tricky to establish exactly how many people died as a result of Stalin’s policies.

Estimates of the death toll vary widely, from 3.5-8 million (G Ponton) at the low end to 60 million (A Solzhenitsyn).

Today, most historians seem to have settled on a total of about 20 million.

According to John Heidenrich, in his book “How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakers, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen” the death toll can be divided into three broad groups:

John Heidenrich Estimate
Kulaks / Forced Collectivisation 7 million
Gulags 12 million
Purges 1.2 million

Robert Conquest, in his book The Great Terror: A Reassessment, divides the figure another way – this time by date, rather than by category:

Robert Conquest Estimate
1930-36 7 million
1937-38 3 million
1939-53 10 million

The number of deaths in the Soviet Union that were explicitly ordered by someone – in other words, the number of executions – is actually relatively low at around 1.5 million.

The majority of the deaths were caused by neglect or repressive policies – for example, those who died in the Soviet gulags, those who died while being deported, and the German civilians and Prisoners of War are believed to have perished while under Soviet guard.

Some historians argue that victims of famines should be counted as victims of Stalin. However because they were, if not the direct result of Stalin’s policies, at the very least exacerbated by Stalin’s policies, there is a very strong counter-argument to say that they should be included. Most historians do include the victims of famine in any counts.

Which 20th century dictator killed the most people?

Despite the horrific death toll listed above, Stalin doesn’t hold the distinction of being the most genocidal leader of the 20th century.

Most murderous dictators
Mao (China) 40 million
Stalin (Soviet Union) 20 million
Hitler (Nazi Germany) 12 million
Leopold II (Belgium) 10 million
Tojo (Japan) 5 million

In absolute terms, Mao Zedong of China is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 40-75 million Chinese (admittedly from a much larger initial population base). Again, most of these deaths are attributable to famine, and political decisions such as the Great Leap Forward which, alone, is estimated to have a death toll of 18-45 million.

Based on the estimates above of 20 million deaths, Stalin would come second in the list of dictators who killed the most people.

Adolf Hitler, of Germany, is probably responsible for 10-20 million deaths. Timothy Snyder settles on a total of 12 million including the deliberate murder of 5.4 million Jews. (This of course, doesn’t count the 40 million civilians and soldiers who died in the Second World War itself)If you add in the casualties from the Second World War, though, which was caused by Hitler, this rises by 42 million to 50-60 million, which would the number of deaths caused by Hitler comparable in scale to those caused by Mao.

Fourth on the list of the twentieth century’s mass murderers is a surprising entry – King Leopold II. The ‘Butcher of Belgium’ oversaw a vicious colonial regime in Congo which killed an estimated 10 million people.

Rounding out the top five is Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan during the second world war. An estimated 5 million civilians were killed throughout China and the Asia Pacific during his rule.

Recommended Reading

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