As far as dictators go, Nikita Khrushchev was definitely far less brutal than many of the men in our book. It helps that he took the reins of power in the Soviet Union right after Stalin died in 1953—definitely anyone would look less brutal after him, right?

Khrushchev was also far more diplomatic than his Soviet predecessor. He visited the United States in 1959 on a goodwill tour and, after the tense Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, agreed to install the “red phone” in the Kremlin to avoid any possible nuclear misfires.

He also presented himself quite differently to the world. Unlike his predecessor, Khrushchev usually wore Western-style suits instead of military uniforms or worker’s outfits and he wasn’t afraid to show emotion.

Khrushchev also closed down many of the Stalin era gulags and reversed many of Stalin’s repressive policies.

With all of that said, Khrushchev was still a dictator and a dictator who made some truly crazy decisions.

Perhaps the best-known crazy Khrushchev decision was to place Soviet missile bases in Cuba in 1962, which of course is what lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thankfully for the world, that decision didn’t end up going sideways, but an even crazier decision he made in 1954 did have long-lasting negative consequences for the USSR and Khrushchev.

The USSR was a big country, but the problem was that much of that land was too cold, the soil was poor, or it was too wooded to be good for farming. As a result, the Soviets were usually forced to import grain and other crops. Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR, but it still wasn’t enough to feed the entire country.

So Khrushchev looked to the steppe of southeastern European Russia, north Kazakhstan, and west Siberia as a new location of cropland.

Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would employ a combination of state-of-the-art farming technology and thousands of volunteers to turn the steppe into farmland. He dubbed the program the “Virgin Lands” project and at first, it seemed to work. But after a while, logistical problems, poor soil, and uncooperative weather combined to doom the Virgin Lands to obscurity, making it the craziest and worst decision Khrushchev made as dictator of the Soviet Union.

When all was said and done, the USSR was left importing even more grain than they did before and Khrushchev was driven from office in 1964.

Little Nikita

At only 5’3, Nikita Khrushchev was never the type of imposing figure who could take over a room with his physical presence. Khrushchev was, though, a politically cunning and truly “Machiavellian” individual.

Born and raised in Ukraine, Khrushchev joined the Bolsheviks and became a political commissar during the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. After the communists claimed victory in 1922, Khrushchev had secured himself a nice spot in the Communist Party.

After Stalin came to power, Khrushchev became one of his willing henchmen. Khrushchev helped organize the purges that sent millions to the gulags and he even played a major role in the Holodomor, which of course left millions of Ukrainians dead.

For his service to the Motherland, Stalin rewarded Khrushchev by making him the head of the Communist Party in Ukraine. It was definitely a major promotion that put him on track to possibly succeed Stalin, but it was also a position that came with a lot of responsibility. And a lot of death.

The only thing that stopped Stalin’s show trials, purges, and executions was World War II, which actually helped to elevate Little Nikita even more politically.

By the time the Soviets had driven the Axis forces out of the Soviet Union, the country was a mess, so Khrushchev was tasked with rebuilding Ukraine’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure. After succeeding in the task, Khrushchev moved about as high as he could go within the government.

But then Stalin died in 1953.

Khrushchev knew that he had to act fast if he wanted not only to land the top spot in the Soviet government but also to survive. He worked quickly, having his top rival, Lavrentiy Beria, arrested and executed. It was a situation where the first one to blink died, and Beria blinked.

With Beria out of the way, Khrushchev was able to take over rule of the USSR and initiate his vision for the country, no matter how crazy it may have been.

The Virgin Lands Campaign

Once the Virgin Lands Campaign was fully outlined in 1954, Khrushchev sent thousands of tractors and combine harvesters and tens of thousands of young communist volunteers from Moscow and other parts of European Russia to the steppe.

Despite the sandy soil of the steppe, the first year saw excellent harvests and, by 1956, it looked as though Khrushchev’s utopian vision would become a reality. Grain output and the cultivatable land increased more than 50% higher than the Soviet average before the program. The amount of money invested in the program returned a profit and it looked as though the USSR would become self-sufficient in terms of food.

But then crop failures hit in 1957 and it was all downhill after that until the program was canceled in 1963.

The Virgin Lands Campaign may have been a visionary idea, but it suffered from myopia, poor planning, and the failure to consider history and geography.

Although the program was hailed as a revolutionary method of doing agriculture, the planners failed to consider the most basic of farming methods. Fertilizers were rarely used to replace the nutrients in the soil, crop rotation and irrigation weren’t implemented, and the machinery used was often inadequate or even obsolete.

The “farmers” who were sent to work the fields were unfamiliar with the machinery, often didn’t have farming backgrounds, and were undersupplied by the government.

But what made the Virgin Lands Campaign the craziest decision of Khrushchev’s tenure was that he totally disregarded the history and geography of the region.

The climate of the steppe is generally dry, which became apparent during droughts in 1955, 1957, and 1958. On the other hand, when storms do hit the steppe, they can be quite severe, sending the topsoil into the air and creating a “dust bowl” effect, which is what happened in 1960.

Above all, Khrushchev should have been able to take a quick glance at history to see that the steppe rarely produced farmers. The people of the steppe were historically nomads and pastoral people, moving with their herds from place to place.

If the Virgin Lands Campaign had have succeeded, there is little doubt Khrushchev would have kept the top post in the Soviet Union until his death, but it was an economic and political failure, and was one of the reasons the Communist Party removed him from office on October 14, 1964.

Khrushchev was allowed to live out his retirement peacefully until he died in 1971 at the age of 77, but he was said to be a shell of a man.

It all came about because Khrushchev tried to grow crops in sand!

Did You Know?

  • Although Khrushchev was raised in Ukraine and spent most of his life there, he was an ethnic Russian.
  • Khrushchev had a tenuous relationship with Stalin. Although he was one of Stalin’s favorites, he was still subject to humiliation by the dictator: Khrushchev claimed that Stalin once made him do a traditional Ukrainian dance.
  • Khrushchev married three times: his first wife died after only a few years of marriage, he divorced his second wife, and he remained married to his third wife, Nina Kukharchuk, until his death.
  • Another major logistical/planning problem of the Virgin Lands Campaign was the lack of granaries and other storage facilities. Not enough granaries were built in the region of the Virgin Lands and since they were relatively isolated, transporting large harvests quickly to the more populated areas in Europe became difficult, leaving many harvests to rot in the fields.
  • The young people who volunteered to work in the Virgin Lands Campaign were members of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, more commonly known as the Komsomol.