From 1941 to 1944, tens of thousands of Jews were killed in the parts of southern and western Russia under Nazi occupation.
While the human cost will never be adequately counted, a new study suggests that the killing of the Jews has led to lower economic growth and more reactionary politics today in the 11 regions where the Holocaust was carried out most intensely.
“Cities that experienced the Holocaust most intensely have grown less, and [regions] where the Holocaust had the largest impact have lower GDP per capita and lower average wages today,” according to the study by three U.S. economists. “In addition, these same cities and oblasts exhibit a higher vote share for Communist candidates since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
As units of the German army quickly penetrated deep into Soviet territory in the summer of 1941, they were followed by Einsatzgruppen, SS paramilitary death squads tasked with ensuring control over the conquered territories. By August 1941, they were engaged in the wholesale eradication of many of the Jewish populations.
The specific number of slain Jews is contested: Some estimates put the number of Jews killed throughout the Soviet Union at about 800,000. The absolute minimum number of Jews killed on Russian territory over the period was 135,000 — the number the Einsatzgruppen reported in dispatches to Berlin.
Whatever the number, comparing population data from Soviet censuses in 1939 and 1959 shows that the Jewish population in the 11 regions diminished by more than 39 percent on average, according to the new study conducted by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tarek Hassan of the University of Chicago and James Robinson of Harvard University.
The study finds that the regions had lower levels of gross domestic product per capita and lower average wages in 2002. On average, regions under Nazi occupation had an average 2002 GDP per capita of $4,554.80, compared with the average throughout the country of $5,854.67.
Also correlated with the Nazi occupation were the region’s political views: Those that suffered most under Nazi occupation tended to vote more for Communist candidates in the 1990s and demonstrated higher levels of support for preserving the Soviet Union.
Data from State Duma election suggest that for every percentage point increase in prewar Jewish population in the regions, the share of the Communists’ vote in the 1999 and 2002 elections increased 11 percent.
The 11 regions that suffered for at least six months under Nazi occupation are Belgorod, Bryansk, Karelia, Kursk, Leningrad, Novgorod, Oryol, Pskov, Rostov, Smolensk and Voronezh.
The study’s authors conjecture that the killing of the Jews, who made up a disproportionate share of the white-collar occupations in those regions, negatively affected the social structure in the regions, ridding them of their most productive members.
Before World War II, more than 67 percent of Russian Jews held jobs that could be considered white-collar, while only about 15 percent of non-Jews had such occupations.
“Bryansk laid just near the line of the Pale of Settlement, so it always had a large Jewish population,” said Bella Vishnevskaya, who co-authored a book on how the Holocaust affected the Bryansk and Oryol regions, which were both part of a larger Oryol region during the war. The Pale of Settlement was a region of tsarist Russia where Jews were allowed permanent residency.
“Although some Jews were workers, most were doctors, engineers, midlevel supervisors, and even district party officials,” Vishnevskaya said.
The study said the Jewish population comprised up to 9 percent of the white-collar occupations in the Bryansk region.
Vishnevskaya, who was not involved in the study, said she found it interesting because Oryol, her home region, remains very economically depressed to this day. “I work as a teacher, and our minimum wage is 3,000 rubles this year, while it’s 4,300 in the rest of the country,” she said.
While the correlation between economic growth and the change in the Jewish population is robust, the study’s authors caution that the relationship may be influenced by some unknown factor.
“We may have not been able to account for everything,” Robinson told The Moscow Times on Tuesday. “But you have to start somewhere, and this is the first attempt to raise this question, and hopefully it will encourage other people to look at it with more detail.”
The study limits the effect of other influencing factors on the correlation by filtering out factors such as the prewar economic characteristics of the regions and other destructive effects of the Nazi occupation.
“We are interested in long-run economic development, and looking at how large historical events have impacted long-run processes of development,” Robinson said. “We realized that nobody really studied this question properly, and Russia had data necessary to examine this question properly.”