The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

Victims By The Numbers

Victims By The Numbers

How many victims has communism claimed? The answer depends on how you define victim. In one sense, every man or woman living under a communist regime is a victim, since this tyrannical ideology restricts their rights and denies their human dignity. Under this definition, in China alone there are almost 1.4 billion current victims of communism, not to mention the approximately 130 million victims in Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, and Laos. This amounts to one in five people alive today. Add in the several generations that suffered under Soviet tyranny and top it up with the other countries of the communist bloc and the number of victims runs into the billions.

A narrower definition of victim would be limited to those people whose lives were suddenly extinguished or dramatically foreshortened by the acts and policies of communist states. Historiographical debates regarding intentionality aside, it is reasonable to go beyond direct executions and include here state policies whose implementation could reasonably have been expected to result in the deaths of innocents. Stalin’s policies of forcible food requisitions in Ukraine, for example, led to famine; and mass deportations to Siberia without adequate cold weather provisions resulted in the deaths of millions. The examples go on.

Understandably, the numbers involved in this tally are subject to disagreement. Some interpretation of the historical and political record is required, and differences may arise based on definition, methodology, or bias. There are scholars who seek to minimize the numbers of the dead, and others who seek to maximize it. Given that many of communism’s victims died anonymously without record, there will never be a comprehensive list of names of the victims of communism, so we will always have to rely upon estimates.

Without seeking to establish the relative scholarly value of any particular estimate, it is a valuable exercise simply to observe how widely they range, as even the lowest estimates represent a profound moral indictment of the communist political system.

Perhaps the most widely known estimates are those provided in The Black Book of Communism (1997), which are as follows:

China: 65,000,000

USSR: 20,000,000

Cambodia: 2,000,000

North Korea: 2,000,000

Africa: 1,700,000

Afghanistan: 1,500,000

Eastern Europe: 1,000,000

Vietnam: 1,000,000

Latin America: 150,000

International Movements not in power: 10,000


When the book was published, the estimated total number of deaths was 94,360,000. Over the last 19 years, many scholars have re-examined the history of communist states and sought to establish revised and more precise estimates of communism’s human toll. For instance, in Mao’s Great Famine (2010), Frank Dikötter estimates that 45,000,000 Chinese perished—rather than the 30,000,000 commonly estimated—as a result of the famine that lasted from 1958 to 1962 and was directly attributable to the decisions of Chinese Communist leaders. The earliest years of the People’s Republic, from 1949 to 1953, are also being reassessed after long being considered a revolutionary golden age.

A brief survey returns the following high and low estimates for the number of people who died at the hand of communist regimes:

China: 29,000,000 (Brzezinski) to 78,860,000 (Li)

USSR: 7,000,000 (Tolz) to 69,500,000 (Panin)

North Korea: 1,600,000 (Rummel, Lethal Politics; figure for killings) to 3,500,000 (Hwang Jang-Yop, cited in AFP; figure for famine)

Cambodia: 740,000 (Vickery) to 3,300,000 (Math Ly, cited in AP)

Africa: 1,700,000 (Black Book) to 2,000,000 (Fitzgerald; Ethiopia only)

Afghanistan: 670,000 (Zucchino) to 2,000,000 (Katz)

Eastern Europe: 1,000,000

Vietnam: 1,000,000 (Black Book) to 1,670,000 (Rummel, Death by Government)

Latin America: 150,000

International Movements not in power: 10,000


The combined range based on the estimates considered, which derive from scholarly works, works of journalism, memoirs, and government-provided figures, spans from 42,870,000 to 161,990,000. While reasonable people will disagree in good faith on where the true number happens to lie, any number within this range ought to provoke horror and condemnation. And as previously mentioned, these figures estimate only the number of people who perished, not those who were merely tortured, maimed, imprisoned, relocated, expropriated, impoverished, or bereaved. These many millions are victims of communism too. The commonly cited figure of the deaths caused by communist regimes, 100 million, falls midway through this range of estimates. As scholars continue to research the history of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and other communist regimes, and as they gain access to previously inaccessible records, the scale of communist crimes will gradually come into even sharper focus.



Works Consulted

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Marolin. The Black Book of Communism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

“Cambodians Recall Massacres.” AP, May 22, 1987.

Fitzgerald, Mary Anne. “Tyrant for the taking.” The Times (London), April 20, 1991.

Katz, Lee Michael. “Afghanistan’s President is Ousted.” USA Today, April 17, 1992.

Li, Cheng-Chung. The Question of Human Rights on China Mainland. Republic of China: World Anti-Communist League, 1979.

Panin, Dimitri. Translated by John Moore. The Notebooks of Sologdin. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Rummel, R. J. Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990.

Tolz, Vera. “Ministry of Security Official Gives New Figures for Stalin’s Victims.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report. May 1, 1992. (The figure of seven million direct executions under Stalin, given by a member of the security services heading a commission for rehabilitation, may be taken as an absolute baseline figure to which should be added the many deaths suffered by labor camp inmates and the deaths preceding and following the Stalin period.)

“Top defector says famine has killed over three million Koreans.” Agence France Presse, March 13, 1999.

Vickery, Michael. Cambodia 1975 – 1982. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Zucchino, David. “’The Americans … They Just Drop Their Bombs and Leave.’” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2002.

Matthew White’s website Necrometrics provides a useful compilation of scholarly estimates of the death toll of major historical events.