Birobidzhan: Frustrated Dreams of a Jewish Homeland

Oct 9, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012]


An interesting anomaly on the map of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation (see the map on the left) is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East, the only member of its category. Numerous Russian autonomous oblasts marked the map of the early Soviet Union. As recently as June 1991, five remained: Adyghe, Gorno-Altai, Karachay–Cherkess, Khakas, and the Jewish autonomous oblast. Over the years, all but one have been elevated to the position of a republic. The Jewish autonomous oblast alone retains the status, generating much controversy. Why was the Jewish Autonomous Oblast created, what was its history, and why has it not been converted to a republic?




The Jewish autonomous oblast was created  to solve the dilemma that Soviet Jews posed for Marxist-Leninist ideology. Theoretically, nationalism was considered to be a product of a prior stage of history, to be superseded by the rise of the proletariat and the move to socialism. But Lenin and other early Bolsheviks realized that people remained attached to their nationalist feelings and that simply abolishing ethnic divisions would perpetuate a new form of “Great Russian chauvinism”. The Bolsheviks also rejected the “extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy” approach, championed by Austrian Marxists like Otto Bauer, and insisted that a nationality had to be associated with a distinct territory. As a result, Lenin and his successors sought to provide a degree of territorially based autonomy to the country’s various ethno-national groups, assuming that the entire system would eventually wither away as a new pan-Soviet society emerged.

In order to implement this ideal, the Soviets devised a strategy of “ethno-territorial proliferation” in which the system of national units was extended downward into smaller and smaller territories, the smallest of which could be single villages. For example, in Ukraine there were thirteen Czech village “soviets” (councils), three Albanian, and one Swedish; in the mid-1980s I visited a Gagauz kolkhoz (collective farm) in Moldova. While most nationalities or ethnic groups were distributed in a relatively compact fashion, Jews presented a bigger problem. During the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries, Jews were largely limited to towns and villages within the Pale of Settlement in the western reaches of the Russian Empire (see map). Subsequently, many Jews moved into cities, first within the Pale itself – Kiev, Nikolayev, Sevastopol – and then in other parts of the country. The Soviets proposed to resolve what they saw as the problem of Jewish dispersion by resettling all Jews in some designated territory where they would be able to pursue a lifestyle “socialist in content and national in form” (the official slogan of the Birobidzhan project). The location initially chosen in the early 1920s was the Crimean Peninsula, which already had a sizeable Jewish population. Although a few Jewish kolkhozes were created in Crimea in the early 1920s, the bigger plan was never implemented, though it was revived during and shortly after World War II by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. This was partly due to fears of potential tensions arising between resettled Jews and other local groups, such as the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, but largely because an alternative scheme, perceived as more advantageous, was put into practice.


Instead of Crimea, the Soviet government set its eyes on a small territory – with an area less than that of Switzerland – in the Russian Far East. Bordering China’s Heilongjiang province, the area around the city of Birobidzhan has a monsoonal climate, with warm, humid summers and cold, dry, windy winters. Bug-infested swamplands covered most of the landscape, where any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch.

The first Russian settlers in Birobidzhan area had been the Amur Cossacks, authorized by the Tsarist government to protect Russia’s border with China as well as communications lines along the Amur and Ussuri rivers. During the second half of the nineteenth century, some sixty settlements were founded by these Cossacks. Scientific expeditions to the area by geographers, ethnographers, and naturalists promoted the development of the new territories. Another wave of settlers came in 1898 when construction began on the leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Chita and Vladivostok. But despite the railway, the area remained largely agricultural prior to 1917, its industrial enterprises limited to small railway workshops serving the Trans-Siberian railway, the Tungussky timber mill, and the gold mines on the Sutara River.


On March 28, 1928, the Soviet government decreed “the attaching to KomZET of the free territory near the Amur River in the Far East for settlement of the working Jews”. and in 1934 the Jewish autonomous oblast came into being.  The first Jewish settlers arrived as early as May 1928, and within a few year a small stream was flowing into the region from various locales in Ukraine, Belarus, and central European Russia. To induce Jewish migration, a massive propaganda campaign was put into motion, incorporating the standard early Soviet propaganda tools such as posters (see image on the left) and novels describing a socialist utopia. Leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were even dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belarus. And of course, the cinema – “the most important of all art forms”, for Lenin – pushed the party line insistently. A government-produced film called Seekers of Happiness (aka A Greater Promise) told the story of a Jewish family fleeing the Great Depression in the United States to make a new life for itself in Birobidzhan. In this romantic melodrama, the pioneers arrived in an untamed but idyllic paradise where streams are filled with fish, forests with game, and the air with song; the weather is never too cold and Socialist dreams do come true. Ironically, by the time this film was released in 1936, Jews already started leaving the region.

For a while the propaganda machine worked, and Jews from European Russia, as well as some 1,400 immigrants from the United States, South America, Europe, and British-mandated Palestine came to Birobidzhan. Among them was the family of George Koval, a future Soviet spy within the Manhattan Project, which arrived in 1932. But more important than the actual immigrants was the financial help provided by Western organizations such as the Organization for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union, a Jewish Communist organization in North America. Such organizations raised money, sent in agricultural scientists, and donated technical equipment, seeds, building materials, and medicines. It also helped that KomZET had the right to negotiate for trade with foreign companies, which otherwise was the strict prerogative of the Soviet State.

The Soviet government chose the unlikely region of Birodidzhan for a Jewish homeland for geostrategic reasons. It had always been a challenge to project Russian power to the far eastern border with China, and the challenge was intensified by the post-Revolutionary flight of the Far East’s wealthier residents, technical personnel, and members of the intelligentsia to Harbin and Shanghai in the early 1920s. By turning to Jews to settle the region, the Soviets figured on obtaining funds from Western organizations, Jewish and others, ostensible for improving the lot of Soviet Jews. The Soviet government continued to press Western organizations for financial aid until mid century, helped by establishment of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee (JAC) in 1942. In the next year, the chairman of JAC, noted actor and director Solomon Mikhoels and several other Committee members were allowed to embark on a seven-month tour to the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Britain, where they were welcomed by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and such celebrities as Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, Charlie Chaplin, Marc Chagall, Paul Robeson, and Lion Feuchtwanger. During this trip, Mikhoels and his colleagues raise over thirty two million dollars for the Soviet war effort, as well as gaining contributions in kind: machinery, medical equipment, medicine, ambulances, clothes.

Another goal of the Birobidzhan project was countering the perceived Zionist threat.  Especially worrisome were the views of such Socialist Zionists as Ber Borochov, who believed that the Jewish Question could be resolved only by creating a Jewish territory in Palestine. In order to combat this rival ideology, popular in left-wing Jewish intellectual circles, the Soviets envisaged the Jewish autonomous oblast as the alternative to Zionism. In this new “Soviet Zion”, proletarian Jewish culture would supposedly develop. The opposition of the Birobidzhan project and Zionism is seen in an adage of those days, popular among Soviet Jews: “It’s better to have a far relative in the Near East than a near relative in the Far East”.


The contrast between the Birobidzhan project and Zionism was also reflected in their language policies. The Soviets selected Yiddish rather than Hebrew as the national languages of the Jews. Hebrew, with its strong connections to religious Judaism as and the Land of Israel, where it was then being “revived”, was considered a “reactionary” language. Soviet authorities banned the teaching of Hebrew in primary and secondary schools as 1919. Hebrew books and periodicals ceased to be published and were seized from the libraries. Teachers and students who attempted to study the Hebrew language were denounced or even sentenced for “counter revolutionary” or “anti-Soviet” activities. As late as 1989, when I studied Hebrew in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), the sessions were officially billed as “machine sewing classes”. Yiddish, on the other hand, was promoted in 1920s and 1930s: Yiddish schools, newspapers, theaters, and other cultural institutions received state support. The Moscow State Jewish Theater – performing in Yiddish – ran for nearly 30 years after its establishment in 1919. In the Jewish autonomous oblast, Yiddish was used in schools, and  the media, and even appeared on street signs and a postal stamp In 1934 a Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern (“Star of Birobidzhan”) and a Yiddish theater troupe were established. Streets were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem.

The situation of the Jews and of the Jewish autonomous oblast changed dramatically in the late 1930s with the Great Purges, and even more so in 1948. Assimilation became the new name of the game. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels – too well-known in the West to be arrested and sent to the Gulag – was murdered by the Secret Police, his death staged to look like a car accident. Mikhoels’ cameo performance in the finale of the 1936 film Circus, where he sang a lullaby in Yiddish alongside other actors representing “the tight-knit family of peoples” of the Soviet Union, was cut off from the film on personal order of Stalin. Shortly thereafter, the Moscow State Jewish Theater was shut down, and the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested. At least thirteen prominent Soviet Yiddish writers were executed in August 1952 in the event known as “The Night of the Murdered Poets”, among them Itzik Feffer, who had traveled with Solomon Mikhoels on his fundraising mission. The winter of 1952/53 saw the unfolding of the so-called Doctors’ plot, in which a group of prominent Moscow physicians, most of them Jews, were arrested and tried on fabricated charges of conspiring to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders. A campaign of vitriolic anti-Semitic propaganda referring to these Jewish doctors as “doctors-saboteurs”, “doctors-killers”, or “assassins in white coats” was conducted in the state-run mass media. As a result, scores of Soviet Jews were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, sent to the Gulag, or even executed. Luckily for many, Stalin died on March 5, 1953, before the next wave of persecution could be launched. A number of historians claim that the Doctors’ plot was intended as the opening of a campaign of mass deportation of Soviet Jews. Just days after Stalin’s death the Soviet government admitted that the plot was a hoax.

The Doctors’ plot put a definitive end to the efforts to relocate Jews to the Jewish autonomous oblast. According to the 1939 census, fewer than 18,000 Jews lived in the region, where they constituted 16% of the total population. The peak of the Jewish population in Birodidzhan, 30,000, came in 1947. Since then, the proportion of Jews has been decreasing steadily: the census of 1959 revealed that the Jewish population had declined by nearly 4,000. Massive emigration to Israel from the 1970s through the1990s made the Jews a tiny minority in their titular autonomy. According to the 2010 census, Jews now constitute only 1% of the population in the Jewish autonomous oblast, while ethnic Russians make up 93% of the population. Over 15,000 former residents of the oblast and their descendants now live in Israel, about a third of them in the town of Maalot, Birobidzhan’s sister city.

cossack_revolt_mapThough few Jews remain in the Jewish autonomous oblast today, their interest in their Jewish roots is growing. Members of the Jewish community hold Kabalat Shabbat ceremonies, sing songs in Yiddish, and gather to learn about Jewish history, cuisine, and folk dancing. The Jewish school and the Birobidzhan Jewish National University provide educational programs for children and adults. But russification of the region continues. As has been recently reported in my earlier post, Birobidzhan will soon host a Russian cultural festival “Many-Sided Russia”, timed to coincide with the Day of Slavic Writing and Culture. This festival centers around Russian folk music and crafts, as well as Cossack history and traditions. This is particularly ironic as the Cossacks are remembered by Jews for the pogroms under Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-49, accompanying the Cossack revolt (see map). According to Jewish records, the death toll of the massacres in Pereyaslav, Nemirov, and elsewhere reached approximately 100,000, and nearly 300 Jewish communities were destroyed. These events are often referred to as the “Third Destruction”, after the first and second destructions of the Temple (Barnes & Bacon, The Historical Atlas of Judaism, p. 230). Thus, conducting Cossack shooting contests in the Jewish autonomous oblast is highly insensitive, to say the least.

Unsurprisingly, proposals have been made recently to abolish the Jewish autonomous oblast. Some call for joining the oblast with neighboring administrative units, either Khabarovsk Krai or Amur Oblast. Constitutional jurists argue whether such proposals are compatible with the Russian Constitution, or whether a nationwide referendum would need to be conducted, a Constitutional Convention called, and the Constitution revised. Jewish organizations in the oblast protest against such proposals on the grounds that they would eliminate Jewish national autonomy in an area that still has the largest proportion of Jews of any Russian federal subjects. It thus seems that the anomalous Jewish autonomous oblast is here to stay.



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