3. The “Virgin Lands Campaign” in Kazakhstan, 1953–1970

No other political decision apart from collectivization in the 1930s had greater implications on the lives of Kazakhs than the 1953 decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to turn supposedly unused land in southern Siberia and in Kazakhstan into wheat-growing areas. What Moscow considered “virgin” land had been used by generations of Kazakhs as pasture. During the so-called Virgin Lands Campaign (1953-1964, followed by the intensification of agriculture) the Soviets established large state farms on which immigrants from more than one hundred ethnic groups from all over the USSR produced wheat. The indigenous population was “resettled” into new state farms, which replaced the traditional expertise in breeding cattle with new, “scientific” agricultural methods. The campaign radically changed Kazakh agriculture and had dramatic effects on the lives of Kazakhs and new settlers, the ethnic set-up of the population, administrative and political structures, and on the environment.

Little research has been done so far on the Virgin Lands Campaign. Some books study its importance with regard to irrigation, soil quality, and the sedimentation of Lake Aral in Central Asia (Lewis 1962; Micklin 2007). Recently new, detailed studies on the history of infrastructure and cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been completed (Edgar 2004; Obertreis 2007, 2011; Teichmann 2007). These studies are important for this project since they emphasize the role of state-driven agriculture in large geographic regions and the primacy of state planning with little regard to local needs and ecological concerns. However, the Virgin Lands Campaign is not included in these studies. In contemporary discussions, two trends can be observed: Whereas Soviet observers credited the campaign with being economically successful (Breschnew 1978), Western commentators emphasized the campaign’s authoritarian implementation and the economic gap between expectations and results (Durgin 1962; Laird/Chappell 1961). In the 1970s McCauley and Mills published a profound economic history of the campaign (McCauley 1976, Mills 1965, 1970).

More recently, Zelenin has studied Moscow’s governmentalist and administrative interests tied to the Virgin Lands Campaign (Zelenin 2012). Based on declassified documents from Moscow archives, he describes the controversies between center (Moscow) and periphery (the Communist Party of Kazakhstan), with the latter being skeptical of or opposed to the campaign for economic reasons. The social and ethnic dimension of the campaign has not been studied in depth so far. The same is true of the developmental agenda it represented. Michaela Pohl’s work offers first steps into this direction. She focuses on Moscow’s propagandistic efforts in the 1950s to attract hundreds of thousands to become settlers on the “virgin land”. While her study provides a lively picture of settler biographies, the interaction of old and new populations is touched upon only in passing (Pohle 2007).

Against this background it seems promising to study the campaign through the lens of the project’s analytical three categories (governance; transfer of knowledge; production, labor, and social effects). The case study’s task is to analyze the primary and secondary developmental goals the Virgin Lands Campaign was supposed to achieve in the context of local experiences. Notably, the study will allow us to trace the transfer of knowledge in the context of the Cold War. Seeing that the Soviet Union became very active in international development aid in the second half of the 1950s, one could assume that some of the experiences made in settings like Kazakhstan were exported to other parts of the world in later years.

Obviously this project differs from the case studies dealing with the World Bank, the private companies, and the Office du Niger. What links it to the project at large is its interest in secondary goals (nation building, for example), and its emphasis on the role of planning in the development sector. This presents ample opportunity for comparisons with the other projects.