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Agriculture Policy - Khrushchev

Throughout his years of leadership, Khrushchev attempted to carry out reform in a range of fields. The problems of Soviet agriculture, a major concern of Khrushchev's, had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on the collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture.

Khrushchev had a problem: how to help the Soviet Union feed itself. He concluded that his country needed a corn belt. Khrushchev managed a number of experimental agricultural campaigns, such as the Virgin Lands Project, which attempted to cultivate lands in the harsher climate regions like Kazakhstan and Siberia. Khrushchev ordered the widespread planting of maize, and became known as kukuruznik – “the maize enthusiast”, derived from the Russian word for maize – kukuruza.

Soviet agricultural policy was a disaster from 1920 on. It was always driven by politics, not productivity. Collectivization was not designed to make more efficient farms, it was designed to remove the political independence that farmers had, and the leverage they had on the regime. If they didn't deliver their crops, the country went hungry. So they had to somehow get away from that, and they did it by collectivizing. They broke the farmers. Everything they did in the agriculture area was designed to increase productivity, but politics always came first.

During Stalin's lifetime, Khrushchev appeared in only two reported postwar policy questions, both in agriculture. In both cases, he was found on the side of change relying on forms of organization and bigness of operation to ensure progress in agriculture. This concern with form and size was echoed in the virgin lands program of 1954 which not only had the advantage ofthedramatic gesture with a possible fast payoff but also increased the proportion of state as opposed to collective farms in the economy. There were also signs of these themes in his theses on the economic reork ganization in the USSR, in a tendency to substitute party for ministerial channels and ingrandioseness of concept.

The theme of impatience, acceptance of a gamble and belief in "bigness" in agriculture was clearer still in the agrogorod [farm-cities] campaign of 1950-1951. In its full bloom the plan, clearly sparked by Khrushchev, involved the merging of smaller adjoining collective farms and the resettlement of the farm workers in farm-cities, with apartments, shops and all the amenities of town life, but cutting their ties with the land. The scheme involved both enormous expense and major disruption of traditionally conservative peasants, with the risk of production losses. In the spring of 1951 it was attacked by Arutinov, a Beria proteg6, as doctrinaire and premature, and by Bagirov, also a Beria protege, as hindering the private-plot farming of the peasants. It was again criticized as premature during the 19th party congress in October 1952 by Malenkov and Arutinov.

There were two possible approaches to the agricultural problem which the Soviet leadership faced in 1953 -- either intensified cultivation of the traditional farming areas involving long-term investment and producing a gradual but sure rise in production, or the expansion of agriculture into areas regarded as marginal land, also expensive in its investment demands, a gamble on the uncontrollable factor of weather, but promising a big increase in production quickly if the scheme were successful. The latter program in the virgin lands was clearly Khrushchev's own creation. There is some evidence that he was supported by Mikoyan and possibly Kaganovich, and opposed by Malenkov and Molotov.

In Khrushchev's "Virgin Lands" program, large expanses of unplowed land within the Soviet Union were used for massive seeding to produce wheat. For Khrushchev the Virgin Lands was a new campaign. It was a way to be a popular leader. He wanted desperately to be genuinely popular, and he was switching from rule by terror, to what he thought was going to be rule by popular acclaim. He was dead serious about it, he failed, but it wasn't for lack of trying. In his efforts to do this, he opened up the Soviet Union quite a bit to western influence.

The Virgin Lands campaign was a huge operation designed to open up a vast tract of steppe land, mainly in northern Kazakhstan and the Altai region of the RSFSR, for grain cultivation. The area initially plowed up in 1954, the first year of the campaign, was no less than 19 million hectares (47 million acres). An additional 14 million hectares were plowed in 1955. More than 300,000 people, primarily from Ukraine and the RSFSR, were recruited by the Komsomol to settle and cultivate the arid steppe. They would be joined by even larger contingents of students, soldiers, and truck and combine-drivers who were transported to the virgin lands on a seasonal basis.

The campaign bore the stamp of Nikita Khrushchev and his efforts to rekindle popular identification with and participation in state economic initiatives. As such, it led to strains within the party leadership, particularly after the disappointing 1955 harvest. But the following year's harvest, the largest in Soviet history up to that point, seemed to vindicate Khrushchev's gamble. Over half of the 125 million tons of grain produced came from the new regions. Results thereafter never quite reached the level of 1956. By the early 1960s, reliance on single-crop cultivation had taken its toll on the fertility of the soil, and failure to adopt anti-erosion measures led to millions of tons of soil simply blowing away.

The Virgin Lands campaign also had an important demographic dimension. Aside from the indigenous Kazakhs and settlers recruited from the Slavic population, the campaign relied on the labor of Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and others deported from their homelands either before or during the Great Patriotic War. The concentration of young males in an unfamiliar (to many) environment and competition over economic and cultural resources provoked ethnic and racial friction and even pogroms. Although after 1956 some of these groups were permitted to return to their native regions, authorities considered Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans too valuable to the Virgin Lands program to be released from what was for all intents and purposes internal exile.

When in 1955 Khrushchev reduced the number of personnel in the armed forces and sent their equivalent to the Virgin Lands, he achieved a gain in output very much larger than the reduction in defense cost. That opportunity was, however, unique. Other allocations of the resources released would have come out differing from the Virgin Lands result and differing from each other.

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Page last modified: 09-01-2016 20:03:45 ZULU