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The Virgin Lands Campaign

In a speech in early 1954 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched into an attack on the state of Soviet agriculture. He identified a major shortage of grain which, he argued, could not be addressed simply by more intensive cultivation in the traditional grain-producing areas in Russia. Rather, the production of grain in new lands would be required. A plan was drawn up to plough 40 million hectares of virgin steppe in Kazakhstan and western Siberia, and put this to grain production.

The inauguration of the Virgin Lands Campaign in 1954 was marked with great zeal. Hundreds of thousands of people were brought into the Virgin Lands from across the Soviet Union. The first train into Akmola bringing volunteers for the new scheme arrived from Almaty on 2 March 1954; the first train from Moscow arrived three days later. While many of the students and soldiers enlisted to help with the campaign stayed only temporarily, the Virgin Lands Campaign had an important effect on the demographic composition of northern Kazakhstan, greatly boosting the numbers of Slavonic peoples, especially Russians and Ukrainians. The area of land ploughed in 1954 was 19 million hectares, well above the target of 13 million. An additional 14 million hectares was ploughed in the following year. The total crop area in Kazakhstan increased more than three-fold. The harvest of 1956 appeared to vindicate the success of the programme, with more than half of the 125 million tonnes of grain produced in the USSR coming from the new lands. Grain production in Kazakhstan rose from an average of less than four million tonnes a year to more than 14 million.

But the long-term legacy of the Virgin Lands Campaign was not as positive. The low rainfall of the steppe areas and short growing season made these lands far from ideal for the growing of wheat. Deep ploughing, and the year-on-year planting of grain, in combination with the ferocious steppe winds, resulted in major soil erosion problems. Harvest volumes were highly erratic. Some lessons were learnt: in the 1960s techniques of shallow planting were brought in, and perennial grasses were planted in a bid to retain the soil. Kazakhstan today remains a major centre of grain production and indeed export, though some of the more marginal lands, particularly along the southern belt of the area put to grain, have been abandoned since independence. On the drive from Astana to Korgalzhyn, for example, you will pass many former fields reverting to a wild state, punctuated with rusting pieces of abandoned agricultural equipment. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Virgin Lands Campaign should rightly be placed on that depressingly long list of Soviet initiatives undertaken in Kazakhstan with little regard for the environmental consequences.