How does mass repression affect the military performance of soldiers in battle? Past research has highlighted trade-offs between the loyalty and competence of military personnel in authoritarian regimes, suggesting that some autocrats can sacrifice expected military performance by purging competent, yet potentially disloyal officers. Yet officer purges and ``coup-proofing'' represent only a fraction of the state violence to which soldiers in such regimes are potentially exposed. We know very little about how mass repression in broader society affects individual behavior on the battlefield. To address this question, we employ a unique dataset containing millions of individual records on Soviet conscripts in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and millions of arrests and political killings during the Soviet Great Terror in the 1930's. We link the two data sources at the level of individual family and birth location to study how experiences of repression at the individual and community level impacted the battlefield resolve and loyalty of soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Our preliminary findings suggest that Red Army soldiers more exposed to pre-war repression were less likely to flee the battlefield, more likely to die, and less likely to receive awards for their war efforts. While repression may have helped resolve some collective action problems associated with fighting, it ultimately produced conformity and a crippling lack of initiative.
Yuri Zhukov is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. His research focuses on the causes, dynamics and outcomes of conflict, at the international and local levels.