Why did Khrushchev transfer Crimea to Ukraine?

Sergei V. Moshkin
Doctor of Political Science, Senior Researcher
Institute of Philosophy and Law, Department of Philosophy, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Ekaterinburg, Russia

Why did Khrushchev transfer Crimea to Ukraine in 1954? Historians do not have any uniform opinion about that. This fact is mostly attributed to the well-known extravagance of the First Secretary of the CC of the CPSU (Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) or to his desire to atone for his guilt towards the Ukrainians because of the mass repressions in which Khrushchev was involved in the past. Meantime, we believe that the reply is to be found elsewhere – in the history of construction of the North Crimean Canal.

The fact is that water resources in Crimea are among the poorest in Europe. According to the statistical data, in 1864, fresh water was not suitable for drinking in half the settlements of the peninsula. Naturally, crop farming would be next to impossible there without additional irrigation.

First projects to bring the water from the Dnieper River appeared as early as in the middle of the 19th century; then there were some projects at the beginning of the 20th century. None of them were supported due to lack of funds. It was after the Second World War only that the real chance to build a canal appeared. On September 21, 1951, the Council of Ministers of the USSR issued the decree ‘On construction of the Kakhovka HPP on the Dnieper River, the South Ukrainian Canal and the North Crimean Canal and on irrigation of land in the South regions of Ukraine and the North regions of the Crimea’. The State Planning Committee (Gosplan) of the USSR calculated the cost of work, and surveys began. The scope included construction of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River (and moving out of dozens of settlements), the Kakhovka HPP, dozens of pumping stations, hundreds of kilometers of power lines and highways, and excavation of millions of tons of soil. The design length of the North Crimean Canal alone was over 402 kilometers, while the total length of its water networks exceeded 5,000 kilometers. Needless to say, the construction would require thousands of workers, a great number of building and road machinery. The construction of the Kakhovka Reservoir including the HPP and the system of canals became the largest infrastructural project in the post-war USSR.

It was at that moment that the question was raised: who exactly would manage the giant construction project? The fact is that ministries in the USSR were subdivided into the Union ministries and the Republican ones. The first types were in charge of issues of the whole country, while the second – those on the level of the Republics. However, actual execution of the Union-level projects was the responsibility of ministries of those Republics, in which such projects were implemented.

As far as the Kakhovka HPP and the South Ukrainian Canal were concerned, everything was clear. They were built in the territory of Ukraine, and their construction was, accordingly, under direct control of the Council of Ministers of the UkSSR (the Ukrainian SSR). For that purpose, the Republic established a company called ‘Ukrvodostroi’; besides, there was ‘Dneprostroi’ Company, which had built the Dneproges (Dnieper Hydroelectric Station) during 1927-1932.

The construction of the North Crimean Canal was a more complicated matter. It would start in the territory of the UkSSR, from the Kakhovka Reservoir, and would end in a branched irrigation system in Crimea, in the territory of the RSFSR (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Repulic). But managing of any projects within the territory of the RSFSR by the Council of Ministers of the UkSSR (just as vice versa) had been unheard of in the Soviet history. And it would be stupid to build the canal up to the boundary of Crimea, and then hand it over to be operated by the Council of Ministers of the RSFSR.

It was clear even from plain reckoning that management of the vast construction project spread over the territory of the two Republics would be easier from a single center, and, better still – from Ukraine: it was adjacent to Crimea, and besides, majority of the work scope was carried out within its territory.

And then Khrushchev had an idea how to fix the whole package of these administrative and economic problems: Crimean Region along with the responsibility for construction of the Crimean portion of the canal should be transferred to the Republic that was closer, and that was already involved in the construction of the irrigation system, i.e., the Ukrainian SSR. The First Secretary of the CC of the CPSU thought: at the end of the day, it did not really matter who Crimea would formally belong to, because the Soviet Union was unbreakable, and would exist forever. And in order to decorate somehow the fact of the transfer, a matching date was selected – the forthcoming 300th anniversary of Pereyaslav Council (1654) as the symbol of the Russian and Ukrainian unity.

On February 19, 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued the Decree ‘On transfer of Crimean Region from the RSFSR to the UkSSR’. Note the statement of reason in this resolution: ‘Considering the common economies, the adjacent territories and the close economic and cultural links between Crimean Region and the Ukrainian SSR, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet the RSFSR hereby resolves that…’. It was the economic reasoning that prompted Khrushchev’s decision. On April 26 of the same year, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR approved the decree of its Presidium and made the respective amendments to the Constitution of the USSR. From now on, the Council of Ministers of the UkSSR was fully responsible for the construction of the North Crimean Canal named after the Komsomol of Ukraine (that was the name given to the Canal), as well as for any other improvements in Crimea including the previously unprecedented construction of the multi-kilometer mountain trolleybus line Simferopol-Alushta-Yalta. The first phase of the Canal was commissioned on October 17, 1963; the ceremony was attended by N.S.Khrushchev himself. The construction was completed after his death, in 1975.

Hence, it appears that Khrushchev’s decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine has not been dictated by the international feeling of friendship between peoples (although one cannot deny that, either), nor by his guilt complex towards the Ukrainian people, and certainly not by the romantic desire to make a luxury gift to his Ukrainian wife, as it was then rumored. The destiny of Crimea in 1954 was determined by a pragmatic and seemingly simple economic decision to build a canal between the two Union republics that were at that time friends.

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