History of the Soviet Union, 1954-1956: Crimean Transfer to the Virgin Lands Campaign

Nikita Kruschev announcing the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, January 16, 1953 / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 09.24.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

The Gift of Crimea

Ukrainian Pioneers Celebrate Union with Russia, photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1954) / From The People of Moscow, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

On February 27, 1954 Pravda published a short announcement on its front page that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR had decreed on February 19 the transfer of the Crimean oblast’ from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The decree, which ran a mere eight lines, stated that this measure was being taken because of “the economic commonalities, territorial closeness, and communication and cultural links” between Crimea and Ukraine. Page two contained a summary of the discussion in the Supreme Soviet’s Presidium and transcripts of speeches by six of its members including the chairman, Klement Voroshilov. Several of the speakers, including Voroshilov, referred to the three-hundredth anniversary of the “unification of Ukraine with Russia,” a reference to the Treaty of Pereiaslavl of 1654 concluded between Ukrainian Cossacks and representatives of the Muscovite Tsar. All characterized the transfer as symbolizing the strength of brotherly ties between the peoples of the Soviet Union.


Left: Sochi Resort Life (1956) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: The Sea, Crimea, photo by Arkhip Kuinji (1908) / Olga’s Gallery

But why was this done? Was it, as was described at the time and for decades thereafter, a “gift” to Ukraine? If so, what motivated such generosity? After all, Crimea, the rugged peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, had not become territorially contiguous with Ukraine all of a sudden. Moreover, its cultural links with Ukraine were not nearly as strong as with Russia. According to the 1959 census, there were 268,000 Ukrainians but 858,000 ethnic Russians living in Crimea. As for economic “commonalities,” the main industry of Crimea was recreation and tourism which drew its clientele from throughout the USSR.


Left: Cliffs in Gurzuff (Crimea), by Nikolai Timkov (1956) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov
Right: Crimean Landscape, by By Vladimir Chekalov (1958) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov

Before the Great Patriotic War, Crimea was home to over 300,000 Tatars, descendants of the Great Horde that moved across Anatolia and settled in the peninsula beginning in the thirteenth century. Because of the collaboration of some Crimean Tatars with Nazi occupiers during 1941-43, the entire community was deported in May 1944. The following year, the Crimean Autonomous Republic was abolished and replaced by the Crimean oblast. It was this entity that was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 and remains, at least for the time being, a part of post-Soviet Ukraine. A gift that was at the time essentially meaningless has acquired great historical importance.

Hydrogen Bomb

Official Soviet Peace Rally / Wikimedia Commons

On August 12, 1953 the Soviet Union detonated a thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb at the Semipalatinsk test site in northern Kazakhstan. Work on the super-bomb had begun in 1946, three years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. The project was organized by the First Chief Directorate under Lavrentii Beria, Minister of State Security (MGB). It was headed by Igor Kurchatov (1903-60), a physicist who had been appointed scientific director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear project in 1943. The design for the bomb was based on the “layer cake” concept developed by the physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), according to which alternate layers of thermonuclear material and uranium-238 were placed in a fission bomb.

Unlike the first Soviet atomic bomb the development of which was hastened by espionage in the United States, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was of an original design. In the spring of 1954, the United States tested its own two-stage super-bomb in the Pacific. This type of “deliverable” weapon was replicated by Soviet physicists and first tested on November 22, 1955.

A by-product of the Cold War, the Soviet nuclear arms program was given the highest priority by Stalin and was continued apace by his successors. Before Stalin’s death in March 1953, there had been three nuclear tests; between August 1953 and the end of 1955 there were sixteen including three thermonuclear explosions. In October 1953 Sakharov was elected to full membership of the Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, and he, Kurchatov, and several other physicists were made Heroes of Socialist Labor. However, there was political fallout from the hydrogen bomb. In a speech of March 1954, Georgii Malenkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, referred to the danger of “a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.” Raising this specter went beyond what Khrushchev and other party leaders were willing to acknowledge publicly, and even though he subsequently reverted to the standard line that nuclear aggression by the United States would lead to the “collapse of the capitalist social system,” Malenkov could not undo the damage to his own political career.

Prisoners Return


Left: Uranium Camps / Wikimedia Commons
Right: The Decorative Entrance (1947) / Wikimedia Commons

One of the key elements of “destalinization” was the release of prisoners from camps administered by the GULAG (Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps). The first post-Stalin action of this kind was the amnesty issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on March 27, 1953. The edict covered persons sentenced for up to five years, those convicted of economic and military crimes regardless of their terms of imprisonment, women with children under 10 years of age or who were pregnant, juveniles up to age 18, men over 55 years of age and women over 50 years of age, and convicts suffering from incurable diseases. However, this could be interpreted not so much as a departure from past practices but as conforming to older Russian and Soviet traditions whereby amnesties were granted upon the death of a tsar or after war. Over 1.5 million prisoners were released within three months of the decree.

GULAG Economics (1945) / Wikimedia Commons

The subsequent arrest and execution of Lavrentii Beria, the Minister of State Security, and the purge of the security apparatus spawned rumors of further amnesties and mass releases. Disorders or “mutinies” followed, most notably at Norilsk in 1953, Steplag (1954), and Kolyma (1955). In May 1954 the party set up a special commission to inquiry into the use of coercion to extract confessions, the result of which was that several thousand political prisoners were released. Many were not permitted to return home but rather were assigned to live in administrative exile in remote regions of the country. Only after Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 did the rehabilitation process intensify.

Building Prisons (1938) / Wikimedia Commons

Released prisoners were never fully integrated into Soviet society. Though many went on to live peaceful lives, they stood as living testament to the injustices of the state. Survivors had seen the worst that life could offer, instilling some with an unquenchable courage and need to speak forthrightly. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the most prominent, and his great non-fiction trilogy GULAG Archipelago made plain to the world the evils of the system. Yet the prison experience seeped its way into popular culture through songs and an argot called blatnoi slang, which gave rebels a language of resistance that would guide them through the coming decades.


Stillyaga on a stroll with two girls, by Vsevelod Ssorin (1951) / Photodome

Late in the 1940s on the streets of Leningrad – and soon Moscow as well – appeared strange beings clad in narrow trousers, thick-soled shoes, and jackets that hung to their knees in bizarre colors – often green. Their long hair was slicked straight back with grease Resembling the once fashionable zoot suits of America, their jackets and their rest of their costumes hailed visibly from the west; and if this did not differentiate them from their compatriots, their odd jargon did, with its references to «chuvak» and «chuvakha» (guy and girl) and other such incomprehensibles. A few night spots in the big cities catered to their musical tastes, which were oriented to the west exclusively, and featured such outcast sounds as the shrill saxophone and jazz.

Whether it was the stilyaga love of all things American (they even nicknamed Leningrad’s Nevskii Prospect “Broad,” after Broadway), or their resistance to the straight and narrow, these young people caused a good deal of anxiety. Yet their rebellion was purely stylistic, and had little explicit critique of the Stalinist order – either because of the fearsome penalties, or because intellectual horizons had become obscured. This rebellion began not among the disadvantaged (families starving in the post-war years, living in primitive housing, struggling against the oppressive arm of the state), but among the privileged youth of Moscow, the children of the Soviet elite. Vasilii Aksenov, soon to became the literary voice of this generation, fell into these circles when he arrived from the provinces to enter Moscow State University. An orphan – actually the son of an imprisoned intellectual – Aksenov was stunned and then seduced by the cynical pleasures of these youths.

Papa’s “Triumph”, by B. Prorokov (1954) / Moscow: Pravda

Stilyagi was originally an insulting nickname placed on those in the movement by those who disapproved of it. At a time of stylistic conformity, when the slightest deviation from the norm of socialist man attracted social pressure, there were many such people. The official youth newspaper Komsomol Pravda launched frequent attacks on the stilyagi, as did the satirical journal «Krokodil».With a good deal more affection and accuracy, Aksenov has called them the first dissidents; despite their lack of politics, they were role models for future émigrés, rockers and discontents. Popular reaction was sometimes hostile, sometimes bemused, sometimes admiring. When the Leningrad Carriage Works released a new streetcar in 1956 featuring comfortable seating and an attractive exterior with very bright painting, popular wags dubbed it the Stilyaga, perhaps embodying all three reactions.

Succession to Stalin

Praised by the Great Stalin!, by Iurii Kugach (1950) / From The Art Bin, by Karl-Eric Tallmo

On March 1, 1953 Iosif Stalin, the 73 year-old leader of the Soviet Union, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage from which he died four days later. His death foreshortened a bloody purge looming on the horizon, arising from the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” a purported conspiracy by Kremlin doctors, most of them with Jewish surnames, to kill the great leader. Stalin’s lying-in-state in the Kremlin was the occasion for tens of thousands of grief-stricken Soviet citizens to crowd into the center of Moscow. In the chaos, many were crushed to death. Even as Stalin lay dying, the party’s Presidium, an enlarged body that had replaced the Politbiuro at the Nineteenth Congress in October 1952, met to decide who would exercise ultimate authority. Three individuals emerged as part of what was described as a “collective leadership”: Georgii Malenkov, who had given the all-important general report to the Nineteenth Congress, was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers; Lavrentii Beria, Malenkov’s erstwhile ally, remained in charge of the secret police; and Nikita Khrushchev, secretary of the Moscow party organization, was made the top secretary of the Central Committee. Each of them had fallen into disfavor with Stalin at one time or another since the end of the Second World War. Now they were faced with the awesome task of leading the country in his absence.


Left: Politburo atop Lenin’s mausoleum during the funeral (1953) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Morning of Our Motherland, by F.S. Shurpin (1950) / Ogonek No. 46, November 1952

In the weeks that followed, Beria emerged as the one who was most anxious to depart from previous policies. He sought to scale back grandiose construction projects, advocated the release from prison and exile of all but “especially dangerous state criminals,” denounced the so-called Mingrelian Affair in Georgia over which he reasserted his control, and argued for a unified and neutral Germany. Alarmed at Beria’s growing prominence and control of the police, Khrushchev conspired with Malenkov and several other presidium members to arrange for Beria’s arrest at the hands of the military. This plot was sprung on Beria on June 26, 1953. Accused of “criminal, anti-party and anti-state activities,” Beria was secretly tried and executed on December 24, 1953.


Left: Stalin joins Lenin in the mausoleum (1953) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Crowds in line to view Stalin’s body (1953) / Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime, Malenkov had launched his “New Course” which stressed consumer goods production, a shift in policy that was considerably more radical than Khrushchev’s emphasis on the parallel development of heavy and light industries. Malenkov also pushed through an important initiative in collective farm policy which resulted in reducing tax payments by peasants of up to fifty percent. But Khrushchev also fancied himself an expert on agricultural policy, and in early 1954 got the party behind his program to develop millions of new, “virgin” lands in the Volga region, western Siberia, and northern Kazakhstan. The early success of the Virgin Lands scheme and the alliances that Khrushchev forged with key party figures such as Anastas Mikoian and Nikolai Bulganin as well as Marshal Georgii Zhukov, the new Defense Minister, strengthened his position to the point where Malenkov became isolated and was forced to resign as prime minister on February 8, 1955. In short, Khrushchev won the battle over Stalin’s succession by reviving the party apparatus and reasserting its control over the state ministries, the military, and the new Committee for State Security (KGB).

The Thaw

Feast on a Collective Farm, by Arkadii Piastov (1937) / From Soviet Art: 1920s-1930s, by Mikhail Guerman

The biggest literary event of 1954 was the publication of Il’ia Ehrenburg’s The Thaw in the spring issue of Novyi mir. The novel chronicled the working lives of three very different Soviet types. The industrial manager Ivan Vasilievich Zhuravlev is the requisite protagonist of the Soviet novel, but here he is also a philistine and despot. Vladimir Andreevich Pukhov, is the son of an honest schoolteacher and himself a cynical artist who paints large canvases (“Feast on a Collective Farm”) for the government. The one sad note in his life is his envy for his colleague Saburov, who enjoys no professional success but follows the lonely path of true art.

Cover of Ehrenburg’s Thaw (1954) / Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’

Ehrenburg had broken with several of the canons of socialist realism enforced under Stalin. In the novel, justice does not immediately triumph, although it does in the end, and Communists are not the best part of society. Loyal servants of the Soviet system are shown to be self-serving sycophants. Ehrenburg had a tangled record as a reformer and Soviet loyalist. He lived in Paris for many years before and after the October Revolution, serving as a foreign editor of Soviet newspapers, returning at intervals to the USSR. Although many of his friends disappeared in the purges, he managed to survive, returning to Moscow in 1941 and working as a war correspondent. He received the Stalin Price in 1942 and 1948, and the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952. He even served as a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet from 1950. In retrospect, THAW tends to honor the tenets of Stalinist culture more than it defies them.

Kolkholz Holiday, by Sergei Gerasimov (1937) / From Art in the Soviet Union, by Oleg Spotosinksy

The Thaw of 1954 was timid and short lived. The term is much more appropriate for the cultural shifts that took place in 1956, 1959, and 1961, as liberals and conservatives struggled over the fate of Soviet culture. Other documents of the time include Vera Panova’s Four Seasons, a novel of 1953; Leonid Zorin’s Guests, a play of 1954. Critical statements that seemed daring at the time included Olga Berggolts’ “Discussion of Lyric Poetry,” where she insisted on the emotive power of literature, noting that even a bulldozer-driver has a personal life apart from the collective; and Vladimir Pomerantsev’s “On Sincerity in Literature” in the December 1953 issue of Novyi mir, in which he argued that Soviet literature was bad because writers didn’t believe what they were saying. Such statements were daring enough to cost Aleksandr Tvardovskii, editor of the liberal journal, his job, which he soon recovered. Honor of the first crack in the ice signaling the Thaw belongs to a young film student, Olga Shmarova, who in May 1953, three months after Stalin’s death, complained about the absence of love interests in films, and noted ironically that in Soviet films, lovers talk about bulldozers and tractors.

Virgin Lands Campaign


Left: The Virgin Lands, by Fedor Maliaev (1958) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Come With Us to the New Lands!, by V.P. Seleznev (1954) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

The Virgin Lands campaign was a huge operation designed to open up a vast tract of steppe land, mainly in northern Kazakhstan and the Altai region of the RSFSR, for grain cultivation. The area initially plowed up in 1954, the first year of the campaign, was no less than 19 million hectares (47 million acres). An additional 14 million hectares were plowed in 1955. More than 300,000 people, primarily from Ukraine and the RSFSR, were recruited by the Komsomol to settle and cultivate the arid steppe. They would be joined by even larger contingents of students, soldiers, and truck and combine-drivers who were transported to the virgin lands on a seasonal basis.


Left: First Days in the Virgin Lands, by A.N. Liberov (1955) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik
Right: Nighttime grain harvest, photo by L. Dorenskii (1955) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

The campaign bore the stamp of Nikita Khrushchev and his efforts to rekindle popular identification with and participation in state economic initiatives. As such, it led to strains within the party leadership, particularly after the disappointing 1955 harvest. But the following year’s harvest, the largest in Soviet history up to that point, seemed to vindicate Khrushchev’s gamble. Over half of the 125 million tons of grain produced came from the new regions. Results thereafter never quite reached the level of 1956. By the early 1960s, reliance on single-crop cultivation had taken its toll on the fertility of the soil, and failure to adopt anti-erosion measures led to millions of tons of soil simply blowing away.


Left: Facing Production Practice, by L.V. Soifertis (1961) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Portrait of a Young Collective Farm Woman, by Lev Russov (1956) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov

The Virgin Lands campaign also had an important demographic dimension. Aside from the indigenous Kazakhs and settlers recruited from the Slavic population, the campaign relied on the labor of Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and others deported from their homelands either before or during the Great Patriotic War. The concentration of young males in an unfamiliar (to many) environment and competition over economic and cultural resources provoked ethnic and racial friction and even pogroms. Although after 1956 some of these groups were permitted to return to their native regions, authorities considered Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans too valuable to the Virgin Lands program to be released from what was for all intents and purposes internal exile.

What’s a Woman to Think?

Vacuum cleaner ad, by O. Iensen (1954) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Anyone anxious to further the cause of female emancipation once so prominent on the Soviet agenda, and relegated to secondary status by Stalin, would have been confused in 1954. The year saw many elements of the reinforcement of traditional gender roles prominent for the last twenty years. Femininity as a specific set of behaviors centered around home and family was reinforced by new opportunities in the consumer economy. Women could now pretty up their apartments or even themselves, by a visit to the department store or local hairdresser. Role models such as the housewife and school teacher served as foundations for gender differentiation.


Left: Girl in White Dress, by Lev Russov (1954) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov
Right: The Machine-Turner Andreeva, by V. Andreev (1955) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov

Yet just as there was a thaw in cultural life, so there was a timid shift in Soviet understandings of gender. The government repealed the 1936 ban on abortions. Co-education was returned to the classrooms it had disappeared from in 1943. Perhaps most remarkably, the first glimmers of the issue that would come to be called the double burden – the crushing load faced by women at work and home – appeared in the press. Conservative commentators addressed it as a form of female malaise, others were more direct.


Left: In the Toy Factory, by Nadezhda Kalugina (1960) / Moscow Museum of Russian Impressionism
Right: Woman at the Wheel, by V.I. Poliakov (1956) / Wikimedia Commons

Minor though changes seemed, within several years there was a discernable shift in the way Soviet women understood the relationship of their subjective lives and the state. The path of Frida Vigdorova (1915-1965) illustrates the ways that loyal Soviet citizens could unexpectedly find themselves outside official norms. Vigdorova had already published her hugely popular My Class (translated as Diary of a Russian Schoolteacher in the west), an idealized account of her school experience and by implication of Soviet society. Her renown opened new opportunities for her, and she switched careers to become a journalist with the large newspapers Izvestiia, Komsomol Pravda, and Literary Gazette. The idealist was also something of a crusader, and she used her new pulpit to advocate issues such as the return of co-education in the schools. This issue was well within the bounds of Soviet discourse, but soon she encountered greater conflicts with the authorities. Her rupture with Soviet existence came during the 1964 trial of the poet Joseph Brodskii, when her insistence on recording the trial in her role of journalist, though legal, made her a pariah to the Soviet system.