Entrance to the city of Birobidzhan. Source: Alexey, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/City_sign_birobijan_russia.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
When one thinks of the phrase ‘Jewish homeland’, Israel obviously comes to mind first. Perhaps a few think back to pre-war World War II central and eastern Europe and the millions of Jews who lived there. I imagine very few think of a region bordering China on the frigid margins of the Russian Far East.
As the insurgent Soviet Union entered the 1920s, it was eager to avoid the mistake of the czarist Russian Empire. The massive country was home to countless numbers of ethnic groups that would have to be placated if they were to be fully absorbed into the framework of collective socialism. At first under Lenin, and then Stalin, the solution (korenizatsiya, or indigenisation) was to create autonomous republics, oblasts and okrugs that would be (nominally) set aside for the various ethnic groups of the Union, thus avoiding the nationalistic fervour that had swept World War I-era Europe while engaging the various nationalities of the country rather than alienating them (a policy that certainly didn’t last; one just needs to look at the massive population transfers that occurred under Stalin to see the ultimate reality of the situation). If people could not be united by nationality, they could be united by class; a large collection of nationalities working side-by-side for the common cause of socialism. If a group could preserve their national identity without falling into the vices of the ‘opiate’ of religion, they stayed in the good graces of the regime and were held up as examples of the Soviet ideal.
Stalin’s interpretation of korenizatsiya was simple: a group could only be regarded as a nation if it had a culture, a language, and a territory. That was easy enough if you were Kazakh or Chukchi or Bashkir, but for the millions of Jews in the Soviet Union, this posed an issue. While always classified separately in censes, Jews were united by religion, not necessarily ethnicity. The only homeland that was recognised, if any, was thousands of kilometres away from the Soviet Union in Palestine. Stalin looked upon Jews in the Soviet Union as a diluted people, separated by geography and language, and having little in common other than religion. While Stalin’s original goal was simply assimilation of the Jewish population into their host nations, the supposed growing threats to the Soviet state of Judaism and Zionism prompted the Politburo in 1924 to formulate a plan for a Jewish homeland within the confines of the Union. This idea was intended to placate Jewish nationalists by giving them a dedicated homeland while ensuring it would occur under a framework where socialism, not Judaism, would unite of the people: a Soviet version of Zion.
Seemingly logical choices like Ukraine and the Crimea were too crowded, so the regime looked east. The land chosen was situated on the north bank of the Amur River in far eastern Russia. The Soviets were eager to move settlers into the relatively unpopulated land to in order to consolidate their presence in their frontier regions of the country (and to conveniently isolate a ‘problematic’ group far away from the centres of power in the west of the country). Setting aside 4.5 million hectares of land for settlement, the process of attracting Jewish settlers in advance of the creation of the oblast began in 1928. The oblast would serve as important propaganda for the government in its promotion of an ideological alternative to Zionism.
Source: Marmelad, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Russia_-_Jewish_Autonomous_Oblast_(2008-03).svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
Settlers who came to the region found plenty of forest, swampland and insects; hardly the optimum conditions for starting an agrarian society from scratch in the new lands, especially for those who were not previously employed in agriculture. Nevertheless, 22 300 people came to the area between 1928 and 1933 (though only a few thousand of them remained permanently), and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO) was officially created in 1934. Jewish communist organisations such as OZET, AMBIJAN and IKOR played an important role in recruiting these initial settlers not just from within the Soviet Union but from around the world, aided by the Soviet propaganda machine which produced leaflets and films touting the new Jewish utopia, and partially bankrolled by Western communist benefactors. One of the keys to the plan would be that Yiddish, not Hebrew, would be used as the national language; Hebrew was considered to be a religious language. Again, this was a way to divorce the new region from the Zionist movement while still maintaining a Jewish framework. It was Yiddish culture specifically rather than general Jewish culture that took hold as a result. Yiddish newspapers and theatre took root in the new cities and villages, and streets in the new capital of Birobidzhan. To further drive home that this was to be a state of secular Judaism, not religious Judaism, the Soviet authorities took particular pride in the establishment of a pig farm. Of course, the harsh landscape and climate, isolation, lack of infrastructure and farming equipment, and lack of agricultural experience of most of the idealistic city folk that constituted the bulk of migrants led to much hardship; most settlers didn’t stick around long. By 1939, 109 000 people lived in the JAO, only 18 000 of which were Jews of the 35 000 who had tried life in the oblast. Palestine was a far more attractive option, especially for those who had no loyalty to socialism, and its success was embarrassing to the Soviets.
In the middle-to-late 1930s, the Stalinist regime abruptly turned away from korenizatsiya and began purging within non-Russian ethnic groups across the Union. For the JAO, this meant the abrupt closure of synagogues and Yiddish schools, the disbanding of Jewish benevolent societies that had lured new residents to the region, and the imprisonment and execution of top Jewish leaders. Beyond that, the younger population was rapidly assimilating into Soviet society and abandoning notions of a Jewish identity. While another 10 000 Jews would relocate from the western Soviet republics to the JAO in the immediate postwar era, bringing about a short Yiddish renaissance, there would be no Soviet Zion. In 1948, Stalin began another brutal wave of purges against Jews in the Soviet Union, accompanied by a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the country. Even many of the Jewish communists so eager to remove their people from the binds of religion were purged. The JAO was not spared, not even the library in Birobidzhan, which had all of its Judaic literature burned. The idea of a Soviet homeland for Jews was abandoned; Jewish/Yiddish culture faded into the deep background of the oblast which became Russian literally all but in name. Between 1948 and 1959, 16 000 Jews left the JAO. What Yiddish/Jewish culture remained was pushed underground.
Despite the relative lack of Jews in the JAO (even today, there are officially just over 2 300), the oblast has never been disbanded. With Gorbachev and perestroika came a slow but steady rejuvenation of Jewish culture. Yiddish has returned to the social landscape, with one school teaching in Yiddish for the past 19 years, and Yiddish has been part of the public school curriculum since the mid-1980s. All official government signs are in Both Russian and Yiddish.Even Hebrew is entering the region legally for the first time. A new synagogue was built in Birobidzhan in 2004, and the world’s largest menorah was erected in the town square during Chanukah of 2007. Even if the re-embracement of Jewish heritage in the JAO and Birobidzhan is superficial for many people, it is certainly visible.
Main square, Birobidzhan. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Birobidjan_mainsquare.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
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