HIS 242
Thaw at Home
Remarks by Professor Evans



Of all things, a nice, peaceful political parade on a sunny day in Kyiv in 1958! See if you can find the photo of Khrushchev.

Photo by Thomas T. Hammond

Khrushchev Parade; photo by Thomas Hammond
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The parade is a pretty good indicator of just how far the Soviet Union had moved politically in the five years since the death of Stalin. (And actually, when Khrushchev was removed from office in October 1964, the fact that he was peaceably pensioned off instead of being executed was a proud moment for him as he realized how much he had affected the course of Russian history.)

When he was removed from office in the "Little October Revolution," as some historians are fond of calling it, Pravda originally did not say much. The headline on 16 October 1964 read: "News Flash, Report from the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU. On the 14th of October a plenum of the Central Committee took place. The Plenum--the Soviets tended to be a little repetitive--has granted the request of Khrushchev N. S. to be freed from the obligations of First Secretary of the CPSU, member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU and Chairman of the Council of Ministers because of his advanced age and declining health. The Plenum of the Central Committee CPSU elected as First Secretary Comrade Brezhnev L. I." Three short official, "technical" announcements from these party and government bodies followed. Khrushchev then basically dropped out of any further mention in the Soviet press from that point onward, becoming, in essence, a non-person--The key was that he remained alive.

A few days later, an editorial in Pravda, 17 October 1964, "The Unshakable General Line of the CPSU," characterized Khrushchev's leadership in the following terms--buried deep in the editorial--as "hair-brained schemes, hasty conclusions and hurried, divorced-from-reality decisions, bragging and idle talk, an attraction to rule by fiat, unwillingness to take into account what science and practical experience have already discovered. The building of communism is a living, creative affair; it does not suffer clerical methods, individual decisions, or ignoring the practical experiences of the masses" (Pravda, 17 October 1964).

Look, agriculture had long been a problem for the Soviet leaders; after all communism was designed as a workers' ideology, and the Bolsheviks had represented the workers (although speaking in the name of the peasants and soldiers) in carrying out the revolution. Here are some figures to consider:

Some comparable figures on agricultural production in the US and USSR

US Population
Russian Population
Russian Wheat Production (million metric tons)
US Wheat Production
Russian Corn Production
US Corn Production

125 million

1950 151 million


208 million

1960 180 million


41 31

74 35

Sources: www.fao.org/es/ess/historical/Default.aspx and B. R. Mitchell, European Historical Statistics, 1750-1975, 2nd rev. ed., (1980)


In the late 1940s, someone in the Soviet leadership had the crazy idea to make farmers into workers. Let them live in small cities (agrogorods) and go out to work in the fields, just as if they were punching in at the local factory. The new "farmer-workers" were to have at their disposal mechanized fleets of tractors, and then return home at night to enjoy the benefits of city life--Not to mention, it was going to be easier for the communist party to keep tabs on the farmers if they were living in these little agrogorods. Khrushchev was put in charge of carrying this out. Hundreds of small kolkhozes (collective farms) were merged into larger enterprises. Guess what? It just did not work.


Khrushchev rightly perceived that one of the major problems for the Soviet Union was the lack of corn production. Corn, which in addition to being a very versatile human food, is absolutely crucial for livestock production--if you want your citizens to eat meat, then you need corn. You can look at the statistics above which reveal that the USSR produced a minimal amount of corn. Khrushchev said, "Let's produce more. How hard can it be?" (Well, I'm paraphrasing a bit.) The idea of growing corn partly accounted for Khrushchev's fascination with the Iowan farmer Garst. (See Comrade Khrushchev and Farmer Garst: East-West Encounters Foster Agricultural Exchange by Stephen J. Frese) The problem was in the technical details, determining exactly which variety of corn fit Russia's climatic conditions and figuring out what special machinery would be needed. Despite all the execution problems and the complaints that Khrushchev had "corn on the brain," corn production did increase under Khrushchev.

Virgin lands

Finally, the Virgin Lands campaign was a huge undertaking championed by Khrushchev in 1954 as a way of quickly raising agricultural production in Russia. The theory was that there were vast tracts of steppe land available to be plowed up in Central Asia, mainly Kazakhstan. Hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were induced to resettle to Central Asia and take up farming there. This was a mass mobilization by the party and Komsomol, trying to rekindle popular enthusiasm. Between 1954 and 1955 something like between 70 and 80 million acres were plowed under. The 1955 Russian harvest was rather disappointing, and it did not look like all that effort had achieved anything, but then 1956 brought a spectacular harvest with almost half of production coming from the new areas, BUT, and this was a big "but," as with many Soviet undertakings, the campaign had not been well thought out. There was no crop rotation done, no scientific work on how best to cultivate the land, no measures taken to reduce soil erosion (an awful lot of soil just blew away). The result was that by the early 1960s production had dropped off in the Virgin Lands. (By the way, the Virgin Lands campaign is why there is still such a large Russian population in Kazakhstan today.).

So, these three examples were some of the "hair-brained schemes" of which Khrushchev stood accused. As you can see, all were interesting ideas; all probably doable, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Spring Thaw; www.grahamowen.com/Palm-Springs-Tramway.html

Spring thaw; Photo courtesy Graham Owen.

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