Virgin Lands

[Maggie Burke]

Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Program was prompted by the severe grain shortage of the early 1950s. This was in part due to decades of misreported agricultural yields from across the Soviet Union (Dronin, 172) and in part because the area, which had been occupied and destroyed by the Germans during WWII, had provided “between a third and a half of Soviet pre-war grain production” (Durgin, 256). It soon became clear that the Soviet Union could do no more than subsist on current levels of grain production, a problem for a nation which desperately needed not only to feed its people but also the income from grain exports (Ploss, 70). In the late 1940s, Russian grain production was less than one-third of the global norm per acre (Laird, 330).

A solution was required and the necessity was increased after Malenkov, then the Second Secretary of the Communist Party, made a speech promising dramatic increases in agricultural output over the next few years (Durgin, 256). Khrushchev determined that increased production drives in “the traditional grain areas of Russia” (Ukraine, the upper Volga, and the black soil areas) would not be sufficient to reach the level of grain production necessary to satisfy the physical and economic need of the country (Dronin, 172). What he deemed necessary were large areas of land which were currently idle and sparsely populated, but which would be able to produce a dependably large harvest with new fertilization technology. To this end, he began an investigation into the arid and fallow areas of “Siberia, the Urals, the Far East, the lower Volga, and Kazakhstan” (McCauley, 80). The search for suitable areas began in early 1953 and several “major conferences on agriculture” met in Moscow in January and February of 1954 (Mills, 63). These meetings were held in conjunction with Kazakh representatives, since Kazakhstan (the KSSR) was the only Soviet Socialist Republic outside of The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic whose lands were to be designated for the Virgin Lands Program (Durgin, 256).

In its initial stages, the plans for the Virgin Lands Program were kept fairly covert. Even though the plan began to take shape in early 1953, and plowing and infrastructure construction had even started as early as the end of that same year, nothing more than a few vague newspaper articles referencing unused lands that could possibly be cultivated emerged until January 1954. At that time, the newspaper Komsomol’skaia pravda printed a dispatch from the Kazakh Minister of State Farms indicating 2.5 million hectares that were to be plowed in preparation for wheat cultivation (Mills, 61). Kazakhstan was chosen for its low level of settled populations (many Kazakhs at this point were still nomadic) and its vast stretches of arid land which modern fertilization would, in theory, render cultivatable. The northern regions of Kazakhstan, with their higher rainfall and better soil than the southern deserts, comprised the majority of the Virgin Lands in that republic (Laird, 329). In the first year of plowing the Kazakh areas of the Virgin Lands made up 6.3 million of the 13 million hectares of fallow land to be farmed (Durgin, 257). The total area of lands newly plowed in 1954 was almost equal to the whole land mass of England (Durgin, 258).

The idea for the Virgin lands Program was met with some reservations by the Party leaders of the time, especially Malenkov, who felt that planting grain in a notoriously arid area was unwise. Additional reservations came from the fact that almost the entire workforce and all of the machinery necessary for the farms would have to be shipped in from other areas of the country. In total almost 2 million workers would have to be brought in to fulfill even the initial stages of the plan (Durgin, 258). Although Khrushchev’s estimates for the productivity of these lands seems to have been a great exaggeration over all reasonable figures (he suggested upwards of 120% productivity compared to the most productive farming areas of the Soviet Union), he consistently argued that any more grain than what was already being produced would be beneficial and, after the initial development period production in these areas would be extremely cheap (Durgin, 259).

It was not, in fact, the first time Soviets had tried to plow fallow areas and increase grain production, but the Virgin lands Project was by far the most successful (Durgin, 255). In 1954, the first year of the Program, the grain output in newly plowed areas, especially in Siberia, was so high that tons of wheat had to be left in the fields to rot because there had not yet been enough time to build storage facilities for that level of production. However, there was only a 6% increase in national grain production for that year because of a massive drought which hit the Western Borderlands, knocking out almost all of the crops in that area. The following year, 1955, production in the Virgin Lands dropped 20% in Russia and 35% in Kazakhstan but production in the Western Borderlands was extremely high, resulting in a total national production of 30% higher than the pre-Virgin Lands average. Although production levels in the Virgin lands continued to fluctuate over the next decade, no matter the level of production the national average was always higher than it had been before the program’s establishment. In 1958 the Soviet Union took in the best harvest in its history at a 75% increase from pre-Virgin lands averages (Durgin, 259-262). Despite the overall benefit of having the Virgin Lands as a counterbalance to potential crop failure in the Western Borderlands, each time production fell below the level of the previous year opposition would be renewed (Durgin, 260). This was perhaps partially a result of Khrushchev’s tendency to give speeches each year predicting yet another record breaking harvest whether that claim was agriculturally sound or not (Durgin, 263).

Over this same period there was continual expansion of the Program, and new Virgin Lands were plowed every couple of years in an effort to keep setting new production records. By 1960, up to 42 million hectares had been plowed, 25 million of those in Kazakhstan. At this point, since the Virgin Lands grew only wheat and cereals, other farming areas of the Soviet Union were able to diversify their crops. Corn production and general agricultural output began to increase after the first few years of Virgin Lands production (Durgin, 266).

The Virgin Lands Program was not without problems. In its initial stages, the state found it necessary to send militia as a supplement to the local police forces to ease the transition and clear the area of any native nomads for the resettlement of Russian farmers and peasant families (Laird, 334). Those Russians who did move to the Virgin Lands were often met with “disillusionment and despair” (Laird, 333), as they found extremely substandard living conditions (even for the mid- 50s Soviet Union), hard labor, and an area which was not prepared for the massive population explosion which it experienced (Durgin, 274). Despite recruitment drives, high pay, bonuses, and housing loans it was difficult after the first wave of relocations to convince people to move into the area and most recruits ended up being young Komsomol members “without experience” (Durgin, 277). Additionally, following the precedent set by the first harvest, storage facilities were never built at quite the right pace to keep up with new lands being plowed and it was very common for tons of grain to have to be left out in the fields to rot (Durgin, 273).

Production in the Virgin Lands continued to decline slowly as Khrushchev’s influence declined. After he was ousted in 1964, Brezhnev, who had been in charge of the Virgin Lands Program in its early stages (Medvedev, 168), decided to keep the program going and convert the Virgin Lands into a “permanent grain-growing area” (McCauley, 210). Although the 1965 harvest was the “worst ever,” Brezhnev’s Five Year Plan for 1966-70 still set out a fairly optimistic track for the former Virgin Lands, again relying on new fertilizer technology (McCauley, 211).

Although the Virgin Lands were much more of a success than a failure, Martha Brill Olcott observes in her book The Kazakhs that, although Khrushchev and Brezhnev could establish new farming areas and supplement their productivity with fertilizer, their long-term viability was limited because “when efficiency became critical to sustaining economic growth, as with an expanding herd, the increase disappeared. The regime was not able to motivate the peasantry to perform satisfactorily”.


Works Cited

  • Nikolai M. Dronin, Edward G. Bellinger, Climate Dependence and Food Problems in Russia, 1900-1990: The Interaction of Climate and Agricultural Policy and Their Effect on Food Problems (Herndon: Central European University Press, 2005).
  • Frank A. Durgin, Jr., “The Virgin Lands Programme 1954-1960,” Soviet Studies 13, no. 3 (1962): 255-280.
  • Sidney I. Ploss, Conflict and Decision Making in Soviet Russia: A Case Study of Agricultural Policy 1953-1963 (Princeton University Press, 1965).
  • Roy D. Laird and John E. Chappell, “Kazakhstan: Russia’s Agricultural Crutch,” Russian Review 20, no. 4 (1961): 326-343.
  • Martin McCauley, Khrushchev and the Development of Soviet Agriculture: The Virgin Land Programme 1953-1964 (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1976).
  • Richard M. Mills, “The Formation of the Virgin Lands Policy,” Slavic Review 29, no. 1 (1970): 58-69.
  • Zhores A. Medvedev, Soviet Agriculture (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).
  • Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs. (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1987).