History of the Soviet Union

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1953 Sep 1

Virgin Lands campaign


In September 1953 a Central Committee group – composed of Khrushchev, two aides, two Pravda editors, and one agricultural specialist – met to determine the severity of the agricultural crisis in the Soviet Union. Earlier in 1953, Georgy Malenkov had received credit for introducing reforms to solve the agricultural problem in the country, including increasing the procurement prices the state paid for collective-farm deliveries, reducing taxes, and encouraging individual peasant plots. Khrushchev, irritated that Malenkov had received credit for agricultural reform, introduced his own agricultural plan. Khrushchev's plan both expanded the reforms that Malenkov had begun and proposed the plowing and cultivation of 13 million hectares (130,000 km2) of previously uncultivated land by 1956. Targeted lands included areas on the right bank of the Volga, in the northern Caucasus, in Western Siberia, and in Northern Kazakhstan. The First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party at the time of Khrushchev's announcement, Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, played down the potential yields of the virgin lands in Kazakhstan: he did not want Kazakh land under Russian control. Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich and other leading CPSU members expressed opposition to the Virgin Lands campaign. Many saw the plan as not economically or logistically feasible. Malenkov preferred initiatives to make the land already under cultivation more productive, but Khrushchev insisted on bringing huge amounts of new land under cultivation as the only way to get a major increase in crop yields in a short amount of time.

Instead of offering incentives to peasants already working in collective farms, Khrushchev planned to recruit workers for the new virgin lands by advertising the opportunity as a socialist adventure for Soviet youth. During the summer of 1954, 300,000 Komsomol volunteers traveled to the Virgin Lands. Following the rapid Virgin-Land cultivation and excellent harvest of 1954, Khrushchev raised the original goal of 13 million new hectares of land under cultivation by 1956 to between 28–30 million hectares (280,000–300,000 km2). Between the years 1954 and 1958 the Soviet Union spent 30.7 million Rbls on the Virgin Lands campaign and during the same time the state procured 48.8 billion Rbls worth of grain. From 1954 to 1960, the total sown area of land in the USSR increased by 46 million hectares, with 90% of the increase due to the Virgin Lands campaign.

Overall, the Virgin Lands campaign succeeded in increasing production of grain and in alleviating food shortages in the short term. The enormous scale and initial success of the campaign were quite a historical feat. However, the wide fluctuations in grain output year to year, the failure of the Virgin Lands to surpass the record output of 1956, and the gradual decline in yields following 1959 mark the Virgin Lands campaign as a failure and surely fell short of Khrushchev's ambition to surpass American grain output by 1960. In historical perspective, however, the campaign marked a permanent shift in the North-Kazakhstani economy. Even at the 1998 nadir, wheat was sown on almost twice as many hectares as in 1953, and Kazakhstan is currently one of the world's largest producers of wheat.