Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was the world’s largest-scale attempt at afforestation in an effort to reduce erosion and permanently change the climate of the Soviet Union for human benefit.

Summary of Event

In October, 1948, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, announced the first of several policies that came to be known as Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. The plan had two major elements: the transfer of water that normally flowed to the Arctic Ocean in the north to rivers in the southwestern part of the Soviet Union, and an extensive program of tree planting in the steppe, wooded steppe, and semiarid regions of the Soviet Union to protect the country’s vital grain-growing region. [kw]Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature (1948-1953)[Soviets Adopt Stalins Plan for the Transformation of Nature] [kw]Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Soviets Adopt (1948-1953)[Stalins Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Soviets Adopt] [kw]Transformation of Nature, Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the (1948-1953) [kw]Nature, Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of (1948-1953) Environmental policy;Soviet Union Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Soviet Afforestation Environmental policy;Soviet Union Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Soviet Afforestation [g]Europe;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] [g]Soviet Union;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] [c]Environmental issues;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] [c]Agriculture;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] [c]Government and politics;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] [c]Natural resources;1948-1953: Soviets Adopt Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature[02340] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;environmental policy Lysenko, Trofim D. Williams, V. R.

The first element of the program was never implemented. Plans for water transfer from the north to the arid south were vague and included proposals that dated back to the nineteenth century. Some of the proposals were given significant consideration, but high costs and difficult engineering resulted in the postponement of the major interbasin transfer schemes.

Nevertheless, the key part of the program, articulated in an October, 1948, speech by Stalin, was vigorously pursued until Stalin’s death in 1953. An extensive afforestation and shelterbelt project was developed that would take up to fifteen years to complete and cover portions of eight Soviet states in the southwestern Soviet Union. Under the plan, collective and state farms would plant shelterbelts Shelterbelts , long rows of trees up to one hundred feet wide, on approximately 15 million acres of land, protecting an additional 300 million acres of farmland. Soviet scientists and policy makers believed that the shelterbelts would shield farmland from winds that dried out the land and blew away the topsoil. There was also an underlying belief that planting a large number of trees would cause an increase in rainfall. (There is, in fact, almost no scientific evidence that shelterbelt planting significantly increases a region’s rainfall.)

Stalin and the Soviet planners attempted this costly and unpromising program to address problems inherent in the overall geography of the Soviet Union. In part, they were responding to a history of drought and other catastrophes that had long affected Soviet agricultural productivity. The enshrinement of science as an ideology with creative powers, the conviction that climate could be changed, and the committed and forceful role of Stalin were factors in the implementation of the great plan.

The Soviet Union faced major agricultural problems because of its physical geography. The bulk of the region is too northern in latitude or too continental in location to have temperatures consistent with high agricultural output. Furthermore, soils in many parts of the region are of poor quality. The exception to these rules are portions of the Russian steppe, which is located in the post-Soviet countries of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. In these areas, soils are of high fertility. Unfortunately, however, rainfall in this region frequently falls short of what is needed to obtain consistent grain yields. This situation periodically contributes to grain shortfalls Hunger;Soviet Union .

During the first half of the 1900’s, drought haunted the Soviet grain-producing regions. Particularly severe droughts devastated the steppe landscape in 1946 and 1948. Wind erosion in the steppe zone created extensive dust storms. The droughts and wind convinced Stalin that only the planting of trees could transform the region’s climate and increase agricultural yields.

Stalin and his planners blamed low agricultural yields on the country’s inhospitable environment. There were other, human-made, catastrophes that ravaged the country’s farms, however. Many of these were created by the government itself. Stalin and the government began the process of collectivizing agriculture in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rather than give up their farms, many peasants burned their fields, killed their livestock, and revolted. Millions of peasants were run off their farms, killed, or forced to work on enormous collective farms. Many researchers suggest that this, more than any other factor, impeded Soviet agriculture. World War II also destroyed much of the country’s productive capacity. In 1917, the Communists imposed a new standard on scientists that gave them creative powers. Communist officials hoped that science could be used to transform the underdeveloped, agriculturally based Russian empire into an advanced industrial-agricultural nation. A new Soviet scientific ideology was formed within the broader framework of communism. Politicians and scientists stressed the need to overcome the physical limitations of the harsh Russian environment.

Several scientists with strong political connections advocated this new ideology of transforming nature. Trofim D. Lysenko and V. R. Williams became important figures in the development of a new pseudoscientific ideology, and these two men virtually dictated the government’s official agricultural science program. Williams’s controversial theories on grassland agriculture and Lysenko’s poorly documented theories were indirectly incorporated into Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. “Lysenkoism,” as it came to be known, was not completely purged from Soviet scientific circles until the 1970’s. This investiture of science with creative powers to serve Communist needs resulted in unobjective, often dubious research that ultimately hindered the Soviet economy.

Communist scientists thus provided the research that convinced Stalin and government planners that nature could be permanently transformed. Dozens of pre-1948 research studies suggested that, at the very least, the microclimate (the climate in the area around the fields) could be altered by large-scale shelterbelt planting. Implicit in some of these reports, and in the minds of Stalin and many politicians, was the belief that shelterbelts could result in wholesale climate change in the steppe zone.

Stalin’s personality and power were significant in the implementation of the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Stalin and his cohorts provided the dogma, motivation, and assurance required for activation of the plan. Stalin’s forceful and ruthless manner was seldom questioned. Perhaps the best testament to Stalin’s importance to the plan’s adoption is that the plan was largely abandoned after his death in 1953.

The water-transfer portion of Stalin’s plan was never implemented, but the shelterbelt portion was partially completed. The afforestation part of the plan aimed to plant trees on 10.4 million acres of kolkhoz (collective farm) land, of which 9 million acres would be planted by the farmers at their own expense. The government would plant 1.4 million acres on the farms. By 1955, more than 12 million acres were to have been in shelterbelts.

At the close of 1949, trees had been planted on 1.2 million acres, considerably more than expected. It seemed that the periodic crop failures of the past would become only a dim memory. While the 1949 harvest was below average, excitement for the afforestation project intensified, and the press was forbidden to publish any critical reports on the project. In 1950 and 1951, however, the planting targets fell behind schedule. By 1951, it appeared that nearly 50 percent of all trees planted in 1949 had died. As the peasants became overworked, the rate of planting started to decline. Trees were left untended. Inadequate watering practices and inappropriate planting stock contributed to the collapse of Stalin’s plan. The semiarid climate caused the failure of many shelterbelts.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the shelterbelt program was discontinued. The state committee in charge of tree-planting was dismissed, and statistics regarding the program were unavailable after 1958. Many shelterbelts were left unattended or incomplete. It has been estimated that 10 percent of the trees planted during Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature survived.


Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature was essentially an attempt to achieve long-term sustainability in the grain-growing region of the Soviet Union. In the minds of Stalin and his cohorts, sustainability meant that the Soviet environment would be changed to meet the long-term needs of Soviet agriculture. Since Soviet science was credited with creative powers, Stalin and his associates believed that this long-term sustainability could be accomplished quickly, solving the immediate problem of low yields and the more persistent challenges of a semiarid environment. The plan was not a success; however, it did have short-term impacts and long-term implications for Soviet agricultural policy.

Some areas did receive protection from the shelterbelts. Estimates vary, but approximately 1.2 million acres of the 15 million planned acres survived. These were generally in the wooded steppe zone and in moister portions of the region, such as in Ukraine. The drier semidesert zones of the Russian steppe, such as in Kazakhstan, which could have profited most from the shelterbelts, were unable to sustain afforestation efforts. Even if the entire plan had been carried out, it is highly unlikely that the climate of the region would have been significantly altered. Large-scale water transfers from rivers flowing to the Arctic probably would have created a host of other environmental problems. This has been evidenced by intraregional water projects on the Volga and other rivers, projects that have resulted in severe and costly impacts on the rivers themselves, on the Caspian Sea, and on the Aral Sea.

In the long-term, Stalin’s plan contributed to similar types of programs aimed at altering the environment for human benefit. While the shelterbelt portion of the program officially ended with Stalin’s death, interest in shelterbelts and afforestation continued. Since the 1950’s, dozens of Soviet research reports have been published on the microclimatic impacts of shelterbelts on soil temperature and evaporation, water budgets near the trees, and wind speed. These studies seldom claim that shelterbelts and forests have large-scale regional climatic impacts, but rather that they produce a mix of beneficial and detrimental influences on nearby fields.

Later attempts at shelterbelt planting were proposed under circumstances similar to Stalin’s plan, mainly after periods of drought or low agricultural yields. During the late 1960’s, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev called for plans that included the planting of shelterbelts on 800,000 acres of gullies and sandy lands.

From its birth, the Soviet government had an affinity for ambitious projects. Stalin’s plan represented one of many. After Stalin’s death, his successor Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;environmental policy implemented the Virgin and Idle Lands Program Virgin and Idle Lands Program, Soviet , which brought more than 90 million acres of land into production between 1954 and 1960. Most of the land was in areas of marginal rainfall in the southwestern and southern Soviet Union. While the large-scale Arctic-to-south water transfers have largely failed to materialize, the Soviet government did implement dozens of other water projects in the south, especially along the Volga and the rivers feeding the Aral Sea. Detailed research continues to be performed on major interbasin water transfer schemes.

The breakup of the Soviet Union has imposed economic constraints on the pursuit of similar projects. In the long term, however, the need for increased agricultural production may foster a renewed interest in projects that promise quick solutions to enduring geographic and climatic problems. Environmental policy;Soviet Union Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, Soviet Afforestation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burke, Albert E. “Influence of Man upon Nature—The Russian View: A Case Study.” In Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Vol. 2, edited by William L. Thomas, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. Excellent article on the Russian view of the environment. Contains substantial material on the Plan for the Transformation of Nature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davitaya, F. F. “Transformation of Nature in the Steppes and Deserts.” In Soviet Geography: Accomplishments and Tasks, edited by Chauncy D. Harris. New York: American Geographical Society, 1962. Provides an overview of environmental changes in the semiarid and arid zones of the Soviet Union. Written in the typical Soviet fashion of the time: vague and noncritical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joravsky, David. The Lysenko Affair. 1970. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Traces the influence of T. D. Lysenko and others in the use of pseudoscientific ideas in agriculture. Provides a good analysis of the political factors that played a role in Soviet science. Briefly discusses the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephson, Paul R. Resources Under Regimes: Technology, Environment, and the State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. A unique environmental history that examines how both industrialized and developing nations address environmental concerns. A study in the moral and ethical valuation and devaluation of the natural world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Medvedev, Zhores A. Soviet Agriculture. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Excellent, detailed, and highly critical examination of Soviet agriculture. Some discussion of the Plan for the Transformation of Nature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rostankowski, Peter. “Transformation of Nature in the Soviet Union: Proposals, Plans, and Reality.” Soviet Geography: Review and Translation, June, 1982, 381-390. Accurately describes the Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Difficult to find but well worth the effort.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strebeigh, Fred. “Where Nature Reigns.” Sierra, March/April, 2002. Strebeigh explores the environmental movement, and environmental degradation, in Russia and the Soviet Union. Includes resources for further study. Available at
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Leslie. Russian Agriculture: A Geographic Survey. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1972. Briefly discusses the Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Focuses on geographic factors affecting Soviet agriculture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volin, Lazar. A Century of Russian Agriculture: From Alexander II to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Detailed account of Soviet agriculture up to the 1960’s. Well written and researched; draws extensively from original documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, Douglas R. “The Great Transformation of Nature.” In Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Examines Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature. The larger work is a study of nature conservation in the Soviet Union and the Soviet approach to nature in general.

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