Virgin Lands Campaign

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

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.

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