The Steppe Winds and the "Virgin Lands Project"
In 1953 after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, (see Figure 1) became aware of the serious issues in the country's agricultural sector. Because of the prolonged heavy investments in the industrial and military growth, coupled with a devastating war, the production of wheat, meat and dairy products in the Soviet Union had plummeted to historically low levels. Russia, a traditional exporter of grain was forced to buy it abroad.
Figure 1: Nikita Khrushchev
Khrushchev, always an energetic and vigorous party leader, came up with what appeared to be a very creative solution to the grain shortage problem. He proposed to open up millions of acres of "virgin" land in the steppes of Kazakhstan north and east of the Aral Sea.
The overall aim of the "Virgin Lands Project" was to produce 20 million tons of grain by 1956. The project began with an army of 300,000 volunteers travelling by special trains to Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Siberia and erecting hundreds of tent cities. Another group of several hundred thousand students, soldiers and agricultural professionals joined them on a temporary basis until the first year's harvest. In addition, 50,000 tractors and more than 6,000 trucks were moved to the area to assist the "project team" in preparing and ploughing the vast land areas. As a result of these preparations, 190,000 kmē were ploughed in the first year of the program and in 1955, a further 140,000 kmē were ploughed.
1956 was a year of great success for the "Virgin Lands" project. The original target of 20 million tons of wheat was more than tripled. Mr. Khrushchev and the rest of the country rejoiced. The creative idea of investing billions of roubles into the steppes of Kazakhstan looked like a stroke of genius. Thick books were written and large canvases were painted describing the heroic efforts of the people. So far, the project was a great success.
Unfortunately, around the end of 1956 major problems started to emerge amid all of the celebrations and festivities. First, it was discovered that the government was not prepared for a harvest of such proportions. The lack of storage barns and harvesting equipment lead to immense losses. In addition, the Transportation Ministry had not reserved enough freight trains to move all of the grain to major cities. As a result of this waste the Soviet Union was forced to buy 20 million tons of grain from Canada to meet its needs and avoid famine. This was a humbling and humiliating experience for a country whose leadership was boasting that they could soon outpace US agricultural production.
The state also discovered that the cost of Kazakh wheat was three times that of the grain grown in Ukraine. This was due to all the additional investments, increased demand for fertilizers and the need to support several hundred thousand workers in the middle of nowhere. Another reason was that there was a 40% chance of favorable weather conditions in Kazakhstan in any given year. This fact was well known to meteorologists and Khrushchev's economic advisers, but they conveniently chose to ignore it.
And finally, the really horrendous effect of this endeavour was that in 1954 the pioneers made the mistake of digging into the saline layer while ploughing the thin fertile surface of the steppes. As a result, without any measures to prevent erosion, much of that soil was simply blown away by the 95-mile-an-hour winds. Within several years it covered many nearby towns with dirt and dust to a depth of up to six feet.