San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Virgin Lands Program in the
Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita S. Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev came from a farm family in the Ukraine. His father left the farming area to work in a mine and Nikita joined the mining workforce as a metal fitter. He married early but his wife perished of starvation in the terrible famine of 1921. This must have left a lifelong concern for food and agriculture in Khrushchev's mind in his later career as a Communist Party politician. He probably was never aware that the source of the famine was the Bolshevik program of confiscation of grain from the farmers.

Khrushchev rose to the leadership of the Communist Party in part because of his advocacy of a program to increase food production. Superficially considered the solution to increased food production seemed to be to increase the amount of land farmed. The Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a decree in March of 1954 that grain production was to be increased by sowing grain on idle and virgin land, land that had never been farmed before. The Party decree stated that about 33 million acres of new land was to be sown in the following crop year of 1954-55. This decree stated that the new land would produce 18 to 20 million metric tons of grain, 13 to 15 million tons of which would be marketed.

By August of 1954 33.5 million acres had been plowed and there were great expectations that the plan for increased grain production would be fulfilled. The targets for increased future production were correspondingly increased. However there is a distinct tendency in socialist decison-making to confuse inputs with outputs. It is important not to presume one statistic necessarily is equivalent to another statistics. For example, in Kazakhstan where most of the virgin lands were located there were millions of acres which were plowed but not sown in seed. Later, also in Kazakhstan, there were millions of acres on which grain was produced but not harvested. At other times there was large amounts of grain that was cut but not thrashed because it had gotten wet and could not be stored. And of course there was some grain that was stored wet and became unusable due to mildew and fungus. For some of the fiascos of mismanagement and misallocation of resources in the virgin lands program see Virgin Lands Operations.

In socialist decision-making seldom were trade-offs considered. While the output of grain might be increased by bringing previously uncultivated under cultivation the question is whether the enormous funds devoted to the virgin lands could have brought greater increases in the production from already cultivated land through increased fertilizer inputs.

The official record of areas sown and grain production in the areas where there was virgin and idle land brought under cultivation is shown below. The figures for 1953 indicate how much of the land in those areas was already under cultivation. The nature of idle land is crucial. Idle land is land previously cultivated but not currently under cultivation. If the land is merely neglected or not cultivated for lack of adequate resources then bringing it into cultivation would be beneficial. However if land which is being kept fallow to let it recover its fertility then bringing it into cultivation too early could hurt future yields.

millions acres
Grain Production
millions of
metric tons

It is often more useful to view such statistical information in the form of graphs and charts. Here is the graph of the above data.

(To be continued.)

Wind and Water Erosion in the Virgin Lands Area

Wind erosion was a serious problem for the virgin lands program. In years in which there was a drought the wind picked up unprotected soil in the virgin lands area. That dust would be deposited on areas with vegetation destroying the crop. The wind storms were particularly bad in 1960 and 1962 and the general public became aware of the problem. Khrushchev gave little attention to the problem. Joseph Stalin had ordered in 1948 the planting of trees for windbreaks in agricultural areas. Some of the trees died but the plan had merit. It however was neglected after Stalin's death in 1953.

There were recommendations that the virgin land should be plowed without the moldboards that turned over the soil in a furrow and exposed it to the wind. This recommendation would require the manufacture of special plows and therefore it was largely ignored.

Water erosion was just as big of a problem. Authorities estimated that the Soviet Union was losing 500 million tons of top soil annually and that the lost top soil contained more nitrogen that was being put on the soil as fertilizer. Khrushchev's drive for production increases at any cost ultimately sabotaged itself by neglecting erosion.

(To be continued.)

The Costs of the Virgin Lands Program

Although the matter of costs was crucial there is only limited amounts of information available for the costs of the virgin lands program. What is different for the program is that the costs of the housing, roads and other infrastructure needs to be counted as part of the cost of the program because otherwise those facilities would not have been built.

(To be continued.)


In December of 1963 Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in which he acknowledged that the solution to the objective of increasing grain production was not to be found in bringing new land under cultivation. The new lands required excessive capital investment in clearing the land, draining it and otherwise preparing it for cultivation. He said that the funds invested in virgin lands cultivation would have been better spent in producing more mineral fertilizer to use on the already cultivated land to increase the crop yield.

Martin McCauley, Khrushchev and the Development of Soviet Agriculture: The Virgin Lands Program 1953-1964 Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., New York, 1976.

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