Nikita Khrushchev. Photo from:

Nikita Khrushchev. Photo from:

The Thaw:

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union. Formerly he was a close Stalin’s associate, admirer, and pet. As the head of the Ukraine Communist Party, Khrushchev boasted of purging it spotless. He wept at Stalin’s funeral and chaired the funeral committee.

In 1956 he denounced the horrors of the Stalin era and the cult of personality and exonerated Stalin’s victims. To a country bred on deification of Stalin, these earthshattering disclosures tasted as ultimate freedom or, to some, as ultimate sacrilege.

The term The Thaw coined by the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg for the title of one of his novels became the metaphorical definition of the period between 1950s to early 1960s.

During that period Khrushchev relaxed the political and cultural climate in the country. He encouraged publications that exposed Stalin’s excesses of power. For example, he personally authorized the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich set in Gulag. In an unintended consequence, this policy triggered the dissident movement.

Urban housing:

In the mid-1950s, Khrushchev addressed the pitiful condition of urban housing by initiating, for the first time after the Bolshevik Revolution, massive construction of buildings with single-family apartments.


Five-story walkups were erected rapidly and sloppily on the outskirts of cities that lacked infrastructure.

The resolution “About elimination of extravagances in design and construction” adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the government of the USSR in 1955 justified the box-like and faceless appearance of the new construction. It labeled “architectural extravagances” of the Tsarist time alien to the builders of communism. This expression was, and still is, used sarcastically which was typical for the Khrushchev-introduced slogans.

The miniature low-ceilinged units became known as khrushchevky, a pun on the Russian word for slums, trushchoby. Families of up to three were assigned a studio apartment, families of four to two rooms, families of five or more to three rooms.

The freed-up rooms in the communal apartments were assigned to qualifying neighbors; some rooms remained vacant because they were unlivable or because improving conditions would disqualify the family from ever receiving a private apartment. Within a few years, nine-story buildings with elevators became the norm.

Pension reform:

In 1917, the Bolsheviks abolished pensions that had existed in the Tsarist Russia. Only disabled Red Army veterans, members of the Communist Party since before the revolution (Old Bolshevik) and workers of the mining and textile industries were eligible for an age-based pension.

The eligibility was expanded to cover all city workers in 1937. Men became eligible at sixty after twenty-five years of service, women at fifty-five after twenty years of service. The meager amounts made it impossible to survive without the support of the family (the top limit was about one-third of the average salary that, in itself, was low.)  

In 1956, Khrushchev increased the pensions to a maximum of about two-thirds of the average salary which approximated the wages of a university graduate. That allowed retirees to help their adult children monetarily. Khrushchev also introduced a negligible age-based pension for kolkhoz workers.

Threesome to get a bottle of vodka:

In an attempt to reduce alcoholism, Khrushchev, in 1958, forbade the sale of vodka by glass. People used to purchasing a shot of vodka on the way home from work were now forced to consider a three-ruble half-liter bottle. Therefore, a bottle was shared by three, usually chance buddies, outside the store, in a nearby park, or under the stairs of a lobby.

To attract attention, one raised a ruble bill at the entrance to the store or at the liquor counter. Each of the threesome pitched in a ruble. It covered the cost of the bottle (two rubles and seventy-two kopecks) and a triangle of soft processed cheese as an appetizer. This custom was referred to as “to share a threesome.”

Agricultural reforms:

In 1953, the agricultural output in the Soviet Union was the same as in the 1920s before the collectivization began.

After coming to power in 1955, Khrushchev focused on agriculture to prove the advantage of socialism by “catching up and surpassing America in per capita production of meat, milk and butter.” He declared, “This will be our great achievement. Currently, the USA influences the mentality of people in the West with their huge production volume.” He promoted two major campaigns: corn growing and Virgin Lands.

The objective of the corn program was to use corn as feed, which would lead to increased production of meat and milk. Smitten by the corn harvest at an Iowa farm he visited, Khrushchev decided that corn would solve the problem of meat and milk shortages.

Nikina Khrushchev and Corn. Photo from:

Nikina Khrushchev and Corn. Photo from:

The Soviet Union bought seeds and machinery in the United States. Corn required a long and warm growing season and more moisture than other grains. Many farm areas of the Soviet Union did not meet these requirements but Khrushchev demanded to plant corn everywhere, even in Siberia.

Local officials, eager to please him and afraid to contradict, acquiesced. Most of the newly-planted crops failed to reach maturity, so it was either utilized as forage or left to rot in the field. This policy had a long-lasting detrimental effect on the land. The program was eventually abandoned.

As the wheat-growing area was used for corn, the Virgin Lands program was to bring under cultivation areas of Khazakhstan and Siberia to grow wheat. The output from these lands was supposed to alleviate food shortages and meet Khrushchev’s goal of surpassing American grain output.

To recruit workers, the opportunity to develop new lands was billed as a socialist adventure for Soviet youth. Khrushchev chose this strategy over the one of motivating kolkhoz workers with higher compensation.

Over 300,000 of Komsomol volunteers traveled to the Virgin Lands in 1954. The rural settlements of the Virgin Lands were overwhelmed by the increase in population. Forty percent of the arrivals returned home within months because of housing and food shortages and lack of infrastructure.

For workers who did stay, mainly young men from poor villages, orphanages, and prisons, these conditions were an improvement. But they lacked technical and farming skills. There were also shortages of farming equipment and inadequate grain storage facilities. Up to half of the crop was lost due to spoilage.

The campaign also faced irrigation and environmental problems. For example, the Aral Sea in central Asia disappeared because of the diversion of rivers flowing into it to irrigate the new crops. This was not the image that the proud slogan “We are not going to wait for favors from nature, our goal is to extract them from it” was meant to invoke.

Khrushchev bangs his shoe during his speech at the U.N. Photo from:,28804,1843506_1843505_1843496,00.html

Khrushchev bangs his shoe during his speech at the U.N. Photo from:,28804,1843506_1843505_1843496,00.html

When Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, he was charged with the failure of both of his agricultural programs. He is remembered most for banging the shoe at the United Station.

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