Side By Side By Side - The Agricultural Policies of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev

by Jennifer Lau, April 2001

The economy policy regarding agriculture in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death gradually shifted away from the forced collectivization installed by Stalin in the1930s toward greater privatization, and the introduction of market socialism in the late 1980s. At the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, the economy was still centrally planned, with collective farms and an emphasis on heavy industry and defense.

Nikita Khrushchev emerged as Stalin’s successor, and placed emphasis on agriculture, aiming to stimulate agricultural growth to combat the low production levels caused by inefficiency, and high taxes on the private peasant plots. To achieve this goal, state prices for the peasant’s requisite deliveries and overquota shipments were dramatically raised, with the average price paid for all agricultural products in 1956 more than doubled that in 1952. The state assumed the transportation costs of the collective farms (kolkhoz), reduced taxes on private plots and expanded on tractor and fertilizer production. Coupled with greater incentives for the peasants, agricultural state investment rose, with a 50 percent increase in output between 1953 and 1958.

At the center of Khrushchev’s agricultural policy was the Virgin and Idle Lands Program, which began in 1954 and involved plowing up and cultivating grain on millions of unused acres of semiarid land in northern Kazakhstan and western Siberia; this policy was proposed to solve the problem of grain shortages. By the end of 1956, 88.6 million acres was placed under cultivation, with hundreds of new state farms created and 300,000 people were permanently relocated; in Kazakhstan 16 million tons of grain was produced, but not immediately. There were massive drought conditions in 1955, which resulted in poor crops; it was not until 1956 that a good harvest yielded the aforementioned bumper crop. Also the collective farms were earmarked to be responsible for cultivating the new lands, but in actuality the state farms took up this task, often under grueling, inadequate living conditions.

Another agricultural policy Khrushchev strongly advocated was the infamous corn (kukuruz) campaign beginning in1953, advocating the planting of corn on all available land, often at the expense of other crops. Khrushchev’s rationale for this policy stems from the reasoning that the corn would be used to feed livestock, which would in turn provide abundant foodstuffs for the general population. Another rationale was that Khrushchev linked the economic success and strength of the United States to its massive cultivation of corn. The fatal flaw in this rationale was the fact that the Soviet Union lacked the technical and natural resources to successfully execute this policy; also, the general topography and climate of the Soviet Union was not ideal for the cultivation of corn. The drought conditions in 1955 further hindered corn production, but nevertheless, Khrushchev continually pushed for the cultivation of corn to the point he earned the nickname kukuruzchik ("the corn enthusiast").

Still with his focus on agriculture, Khrushchev set up high for agriculture in the sixth five-year plan, with the proposed development of state farms (sovkhoz) at the expense of the collective farms by grafting the kolkhoz to larger farms. As a result, the number of collective farms declined from 125,000 in 1950 to 69,100 in 1958. Also in 1958 the Machine Tractor Stations (MTS), a state-owned and state-controlled service in renting out tractors and machines to collectives, was abolished, which left the peasants collectives forced to purchase the machines the collective farms need. Agricultural stagnation came about in the 1960s with adverse meteorological conditions and bankruptcy of smaller, poorer peasants unable to maintain and repair the farm machines; the dissolution of the MTS also ruined the agricultural equipment industry and also discredited Khrushchev’s agricultural policies. Due to the disastrous corn campaign and the adverse weather conditions, by 1963 the Soviet Union, traditionally an exporter of grain, was forced to resort to import grain.

Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev and was left to deal with declining economic growth rates and the adverse weather conditions that hindered agricultural production. Also, oversized, inefficient collective farms were a liability and resulted in poor harvests throughout the 1980s. Agricultural growth continued slowly, with a 26 percent increase during Brezhnev’s first decade in power, compared to the 41 percent increase under Khrushchev’s initial decade in power.

Brezhnev advocated extension of irrigated lands and land improvement programs in the northwest; he also advocated moving away from collective farms to state farms, with the collective farms resembling feudalistic farms, which were large, impersonal, and highly mechanized. A minimum wage for the farmers in the collective farms was established and the wages for all farmworkers. Economists at the time advocated the elimination of central planning of prices and the introduction of competition, citing the differences in efficiency between the collective farms and the private plots. The private plots producing a higher yield of crops per acres and livestock output per animal than that on collective and state farms; the reason cited for this was the presence of incentives to produce on the private plots over the collective and state farms.

The move away from collectivization continued under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, who had introduced perestroika (restructuring of the economic management), advocating a shift from state-owned and managed, centralized system to a semi-market economy with local decision-making. The main focus of reform was in agriculture, which by the late 1980s was teeming with large, state farms and collectives that were slightly smaller than the state farms, which were inefficient due to the lack of incentives. Gorbachev’s initial response at agricultural reform was the establishment of the Gosagroprom, an agricultural superagency, and the continuation of providing large state subsidies.

A more radical policy came about in the form a reversal of centralized farming -- substantial amounts of state-owned land would be leased to teams of farmers for up to 50 years. The farmers would buy all the necessary supplies, and after fulfilling the annual quotas, were able to sell off the surplus. By indirect implication, Gorbachev was stating he was against forced collectivization, and outlined that the Gosagroprom would eventually be dismantled and the notion of free markets would be gradually introduced.


  • MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third edition, Wadsworth Publishing, 1997.

  • McCauley, Martin. The Soviet Union, 1917-1991, Second edition, Longman Publishing, 1993.

  • Treadgold, Donald W. And Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia, Nineth edition, Westview Press, 2000.





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