Birobidjan: The Story of the First Jewish State
The world's largest menorah is not in Jerusalem, Lakewood or even in Crown Heights; it can be found in the town square of Birobidjan, the capital city of the eponymous Jewish Autonomous Oblast of the Soviet Union. The menorah is 21 meters high, uses nine 500 W lamps and is visible from a great distance away from the town. (Chabad) The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is a far Eastern, landlocked Russian province on the border with China. It is approximately the shape and about half the size of West Virginia (Some time after 1951, Birobidjan's northern finger was ceded to other provinces so the resemblance to West Virginia is less apparent1) and in 2002 held approximately 191 thousand residents, of which 2.3 thousand were Jews. The economy is based on mining, logging and the manufacture of furniture, clothing and machinery. (J.A.R)
Russia has many desolate backwater oblasts, but the unique significance of this small, backwater Soviet oblast is that, for better or for worse, it is the first modern Jewish state. Though its founders' ideology and its eventual outcome were inferior to that of the Jewish state of Israel, Birobidjan will forever have the distinction of being the first.
Birobidjan is bound on three sides by the mighty Amur River and her tributaries, which are navigatable from the Pacific Ocean to fairly deep into the continent. This feature was very important to the Russian Empire as it allowed the transport of goods fairly far into Siberia, which would facilitate settlement to the region which, while remote and rugged, contained a vast mineral wealth. Most importantly, it gave Russia access to an additional port. Russia, though possessing a vast coastline, had very few ports that were not frozen for most of the year. The near utter lack of non-frozen ports was of cardinal importance to the Russians and was one of the primary reasons for the Crimean War. There are three main port areas: The Black Sea, from where all ships must pass through the Ottoman controlled Bosporus Strait, Baltic Sea, for which Russia fought a 21 year war with Sweden, and the Pacific Ocean which at the time was thousands of miles away from significant Russian population centers and industry.
Czar Nicholas I wanted to develop and consolidate this third coast and appointed soldier and diplomat Nikolai Nikolaevich Muravyev governor of Eastern Siberia. Muravyev was personally instructed by the Czar to exploit the chaos in China brought about by the Opium Wars for as much Russian benefit in the region as possible.
Muravyev was an anachronistically socially progressive man; one of his first acts as governor was to stamp out the normative rampant corruption and embezzlement in the mostly unsupervised Siberia and in an earlier gubernatorial position, Muravyev was the first to petition the Czar to abolish serfdom. In an effort to better control the population of Siberia, he built churches but also supported the native shamanists and Buddhists. (Brockhaus) Muravyev saw the importance of regaining2 access to warm waters in the Pacific Ocean and establish a string of settlements, outposts and stations along the Amur River on territory that was only weakly held by China. (Kerner)
Thanks to the bases Muravyev established there, Russia was able to slowly annex the Amur River;annexation was consolidated in a section of the Treaty of Peking in 1860. Because of his near single-handed acquisition of “Outer Manchuria”, Muravyev was made a count and the appellation “Amursky”, of Amur, was appended to his name. (Kerner) A statue of him was erected on the bank of the Amur and its image appears on the back of the 5000 rouble note.
Now a semi-important trade route, settlements sprang up along the Amur River and, though most of the development did not stray far Westward from the mouth, a few cities were founded on Birobidjan's Southern border. The two tributaries of the Amur River, rivers Biro and Bidjan gave the oblast its name, which, as a result, is sometimes written with a hyphen. (Time) In 1916, Russia completed a section of the Trans-Siberian railroad across the Northern side of Birobidjan and several towns grew out of the regularly spaced train stations along the route. (Britanica) The region did not see great natural growth as the Amur turned out to be less useful than was supposed. (McCannon)
The period around the first world war was known for nationalistic feelings. Eastern Europe was full of many small nations: Albanians, Moldovans, Croats, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Azerbis, Letts, Lapps, Georgians, Armenians et cetera. All of these peoples were clamoring for political freedom from the single-nation ruled Russian, Austrian or Ottoman empires. It was a Serb's nationalistic clamoring that single-handedly toppled the Austro-Hungarian empire.
After the revolution, The Soviet Union found herself with a large assortment of clamoring nations and was not about to make the same mistake as the Czars. The Czar, the chief Russian, ruled over many non-Russians and expected them to respect him based on his greatness as a Russian. A Yupic, a Siberian Eskimo, living in his qasgiq, eating salmon while discussing throat singing with the shaman would have little in common with the Czar in the Kremlin, admiring his Faberge eggs and sipping Vodka while he reads War and Peace and other Russian classics to the bejeweled Czarina.
The problem of basing the government around a single nationality is that it is unrealistic to expect subjects to idealize the rulers' way of life when there there are very few commonalities between the ways of life of the subjects and ruler. The Soviets used a different synergistic approach. Instead of uniting people through a non-common nationality, they united everyone through a common class. Not everyone is a Russian or a Yupic, but everyone has to work. The poster ideal of the Soviet Union was a vast spectrum of nations side by side at work in a manner not dissimilar to the “It's A Small World” ride at Disneyland. Showcasing3, rather than oppressing minorities has a mollifying effect on revolutionary nationalistic tendencies Being showcased was a precarious situation; as long as the nation complied with the Soviet ideals, no harm would come to them, but several nations, most prominently the Jews could not fully comply: many were not willing to suddenly give up their religious practices in favor of Soviet atheism. The tenants of Zionism- the need to establish a society on the grounds of a non-universal trait- were a threat to the Soviet synergistic approach. These Jewish traits remind the Jew that he is not like the other Soviet workers and will regard the Soviet ways as the Yupic regards the Russian ways: alien. Appealing to workers only influences those who see themselves as workers. If the Jews do not see themselves as workers, the worker propaganda will not have the impact it should.
The early years of the Soviet Union were characterized by a spectacular celebration of ethnic diversity. One of the ways in which diversity was celebrated was by giving all the nations some level of autonomy. (Slezkine) Although a de facto dictatorship, the USSR was a union, rather than a singularity, of Soviet socialist republics. The term USSR applied to the Soviet Union as a whole, which was made up of many Soviet Socialist Republics. Only one of them was RSSR, Russian SSR4. Other SSR's included Estonian , Moldovan and Uzbek; all are nominally independent republics given to individual nations.
Within RSSR there were smaller nations for whom it would not be practical to establish an independent republic so ASSR's, Autonomous SSR's were created. Smaller divisions, okrugs and oblasts exist outside of the “republic” level of administrative division and are granted varying levels of autonomy. Many of these divisions are designated for the individual nation native to that region.
A good number of these Autonomous regions were located on the borders of the USSR and contemporary observers thought that the a practical benefit of having buffer regions named after indigenous peoples is that any invader will be tainted with the bad public relations situation of having to fight through them. A 1936 account of a fund raising dinner for the settlement of Birobidjan records the notion that settlement there was to protect the Trans-Siberian Railroad from possible Japanese invasion from Manchuria. (Time) The 1928 five year plan called for a development of Siberia in general.
In his 1913 book, Marxism and the National Question, Stalin discusses, among other things, the criterion for nationhood. He writes “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture …. It is only when all these characteristics are present together that we have a nation”. Stalin regarded the Jews as a former nation that had become diluted in their host nations and unworthy of autonomous status. The only acceptable fate for this non-nation was complete assimilation into their host nations. Disqualification notwithstanding, the creation of a Soviet Jewish state would allow Stalin to take the wind from the two main Jewish activist groups: Jewish Communists and Zionists. The Jewish communists were entirely secular, but still took pride in their national identity. By accomplishing their stated goal (national recognition), albeit in Siberia, Stalin was effectively able to isolate them and preclude their potential agitation. If the Jewish Communists were to grumble at the inferiority of Stalin's gift, they would publicly single themselves out as ingrates and thus potential targets. Indeed, during the Great Purges of the 1930's, many Jewish Communist groups were suppressed and their members executed or rehabilitated because of grumbling. The Zionists did want a Jewish homeland, but did not want it to be a department of the U.S.S.R. or any other country. The Birobidjan plan removed support from those who would have otherwise joined the Zionist movement. In any case, political agitators who were not executed were often sent to Siberia anyway; at least in Birobidjan, they do not need to be guarded. A caveat of the plan was that if Birobidjan were to fail, it would serve as proof that the Jews are not even capable of running an oblast, much less a proper country. (Lustiger 60)
In 1924 the Politburo decided to create a region in Russia for Jews. An initial plan, which had gained considerable support both in Russia and the West was to establish this region in Crimea, but the settlement was switched to Birobidjan because Crimea was already well populated. Boris Bruk, an agricultural scientist led an expedition to Birobidjan to find appropriate locations for establishing Jewish settlements. (J.A.R.) The government set aside 4.5 million hectares of land for them to build on. In April 1928, the first Jewish immigrants arrived under the auspices of KOMZET-Committee for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land and established the first settlement- Waldheim . By 1930 there were three Jewish schools in 9 mainly Jewish settlements. By 1932 it had developed to the extent that the State Planning Committee ratified the first estimated figures of the economic plan of the Birobidjan region as a separate economic unit. (J.A.R.) and in 1934 Birobidjan was separated from Khabarovsk province and was granted fully autonomous status; (Clarkson 644) and the Crimean project lost its funding and its cause was discouraged.
Birobidjan had Jewish schools and Jewish newspapers and Jewish theatre and the official language was Yiddish. The main street In the city of Birobidjan is named after famous Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem. The oblast's emblem is an Ussuri tiger on a shield of aquamarine with two turquoise stripes. The stripes represent the two rivers and the tiger is looking at the viewer of the emblem to signify the ”unusual history and original way of the region’s development”. (J.A.R.)
Despite this rosy picture of progress paraphrased mainly from the Jewish Autonomous Oblast's website5, Birobidjan was a pitiful mediocrity, an insincere facsimile of the Jewish settlement in British Palestine. Though Birobidjan had a distinctly Jewish theme, it was all a facade. The Judaism of the oblast was entirely secular: the Soviet authorities took pride in the establishing of a pig farm in the Jewish state; they may have been a mention of it in the Birobidjan Star, which was a Yiddish translation of Pravda. (Lustiger 62) The words “Jewish Autonomous Region” on the official website are written in an ironic Jewish-style font, which serve as a good example as to the extent and form of Birobidjan's Jewishness.
A better way to describe the phenomenon is if one were to take external things associated with Judaism: bagels, Jackie Mason, mothers-in laws, schlepping etc. and building a society around those things. Birobidjan was Yiddish without being Jewish.
Even before its inception, Birobidjan was predicted to fail. The land was plagued with frost, swamps, insects, disease and sub-zero winters. It is 300 miles from the sea and 3000 miles from Western Russia. The growing season is short, there was virtually no existing infrastructure and since until recently Jews had been largely forbidden from owning or renting land in Europe, the territory was to be populated by city folk with little to no experience in agriculture, even in a propitious environment. To exacerbate their native callowness, the settlers were not provided with suitable equipment to properly achieve their goals. Victor Fink, an American visitor to Birobidjan in 1929 noted that “The colonization of Birobidzhan was begun and executed without preparation, planning and study." (Weinberg)
As far as attracting Jews was concerned, Birobidjan had the additional handicap of competition with not only Palestine, but also with secular Jewish collectives, mainly in the Ukraine6. At the time of autonomization of the oblast, the Jewish population was about 3000, just under 15 percent of the total population of the oblast. Mikhail Kalinin, President of the Soviet Union explained the motivation for immigration to Birobidjan. JAO was essentially a Jewish Indian reservation; Jews who did not want to assimilate to the Soviet culture could have an outlet in Birobidjan. Judaism was not welcome elsewhere. (Lustiger 66)
Nonetheless, the Jewish Autonomous region had a good publicity agent. There were several groups and publications (significantly strong even in Western countries) promoting the settlement in Birobidjan. A group of aviators with a plane dubbed “Birobidjanets” were sponsored by one such group to fly around Belorussia and the Ukraine, appearing at public events and distributing pamphlets and other propaganda materials. (Weinberg) These groups raised money and sponsored Jewish families' immigration to Birobidjan. Many of these Jews were disenfranchised in their home countries and were taken in by the romantic ideal of tilling the soil and building a homeland. This was the same pitch that would inspire a person to move to Palestine, and many more moved to Palestine than moved to Birobidjan, but a significant amount of Jews did move to Birobidjan (even some from Palestine) (JewishEnc).
In the 1914 there were approximately 7 million Jews in the Russian Empire, mostly in a region annexed from Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th Century known as the Pale of Settlement. (Wischnitzer) Though they were normally prohibited from leaving the Pale, the disorganization caused by the German invasion in WWI allowed them to flee it, Westward, into the rest of Russia.
In the beginning, Lenin was initially sympathetic towards Jewish persecution; he saw their victimization as a diversion to prevent the workers from focusing on the universal source of oppression- the Czarist regime- and gave addresses to that effect. (Lustiger 47) The new Soviet government even launched an extensive campaign against anti-Semitism in the early part of the regime. (Lustiger 55)
The victimization of which Lenin spoke was the attack of Jews because they are members of the Jewish nation. Persecution of Jews was still acceptable, however, when it was due to their Jewish ideas and thoughts that prevented them from fully immersing in the Soviet way of life. Nonetheless, Lenin largely ignored the first form of persecution so as not to alienate the persecutors. Only a very few czarist style pogroms were perpetrated, mainly during the initial chaos of the revolution and mainly by frustrated fragments of other armies that had become absorbed into the Red Army; those responsible were usually punished severely. (Wischnitzer)
In a continuation of the theme of persecuting harmful Jewish ideas, Jewish schools, publishers and theatres were closed down. By 1927 23% of USSR synagogues had been shut down and by 1939, there were very few synagogues left. (Lustiger 51)
This anti-religious movement was spearheaded by Jewish Communists who took upon themselves the task of freeing the Jews from the shtetles, tearing off their medieval trappings and building them up as a modern Soviet people. The divestment from religion was directed as religion in general and not solely at the Jews. It coincided with the Great Purge, which lasted from 1936 until 1939 in which Stalin ordered mass arrests and executions of party leaders, intellectuals, wealthy people, dissidents. Ironically, many of the Jewish Communists who bravely liberated the Jews were themselves incarcerated, shot or sent to gulags. Most of Birobidjan's local leadership was executed. (Lustiger 67)
Stalin shut down the Jewish and Yiddish institutions in Birobidjan, as well as outlawed the “fan clubs” such as KOMZET and OZET. According to Weinberg, the reason Stalin did this is that the Yiddish culture was no longer appealing to the young assimilated Jews and its presence might have a hindering effect on subsequent assimilation. This move effectively killed the precarious Birobidjan project. Stalin was left with a the task of recruiting Jews, who no longer saw themselves as Jews, to move to a desolate, backwater region of Siberia on the basis that they are Jews and the region was their cherished homeland for which they had no strong feelings or loyalty to whatsoever. It was if Stalin had a butterfly and he tried to protect it from wind by crushing it between two pieces of glass. Birobidjan did not see positive immigration until after the second world war, when for a short time the fragments of the Jewish community drifted in in search of a place of identity and solace. The region reached its population peak in 1948 (JewishEnc.) and suffered a rapid exodus when those fragments saw Birobidjan for what it was and left for the more promising state of Israel.
It was the practice for all citizens to have their nationality listed on their identification papers. Though the Jews were not recognized as a distinct nationality within the U.S.S.R., “Jewish” was used as a nationality for this purpose. Except within the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the expression of Jewishness was outlawed. The successful establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine was a public humiliation for the planners of Birobidjan; their Soviet-approved version of the Jewish homeland could not compete with the genuine success of Israel and a resurgence of Zionism resulted from the obvious disparity. The Soviet government lashed out at such expression and restricted the freedom of Jews even more, in particular applying their previous round of tactics in Birobidjan with the goal of complete assimilation. Citizens were generally limited in their freedom to emigrate and Jews, especially after 1948, were exceptionally limited.
During the second world war, the Red Army utilized the practice of “scorched earth” that is upon retreating, utterly destroy anything of value to reduce the value of victory for the enemy. The Germans followed a policy of demoralizing and deculturalizing the Russian people and destroyed schools, libraries and places of socialization. They also destroyed valuable things that the Russians missed. As a result, the territory captured by the Germans was concurrently subject to the policies of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army and was utterly ruined. The effects would cripple the industry and agriculture for years.(Service 298) The Soviet government's lumbering command economy7 hindered recovery efforts and ordinary citizens became disillusioned with their leaders. At the end of the war, many returning soldiers with experience with their democratic allies came back with a stark contrast of the two regimes and ways of life in their mind. One prominent example that would be easily communicated between soldiers (as opposed to bilingual discussions of economic theory and Thomas Paine) is that British and American officers would not shoot their own troops for adopting defensive positions or retreating, but the general message absorbed was that the Soviet Union was too repressive for their tastes. The Soviet government became more paranoid and repressive during this period. The rise in dissidence was countered with an increase in repression.
Between the founding of the state of Israel and 1959 nearly 16,000 Jews left Birobidjan (JewishEnc.) and the already paranoid and xenophobic dictator Joseph Stalin became concerned with the possibility of crossed allegiances amongst the Jewish population and issued a polemic was issued against “rootless cosmopolitans”, a word which was in reference to non-assimilated Jewry. Jewish contributions to the movement, even pertaining to Karl Marx's background were suppressed. Public or literary figures who were, or recorded to be, in favor of anything Jewish were suppressed. Jewish nationalism on the part of scientists was the stated cause of backwardness and Jewish nepotism was retarding the Russian economy. After this trend begun, Jews were purged from military, government and every other genre of prestigious position. As the development of nuclear capability was of paramount importance, Jews working on atomic bomb projects were spared. Even the Jewish Communist party was shut down. The entry on Jews in The Soviet Encyclopaedia was all but scrapped. (Lustiger 200). One of the few references that were allowed to stay was the fact that the Mensheviks, who opposed the Bolsheviks after the revolution were the chosen party of the Jewish Communists and that Leon Trotsky, Stalin's nemesis, was also a Jew. The Birobidjan library was purged of its Judaica section; over 30,000 books were burned. (Weinberger)
In the final years of Stalin's life, he became convinced that his physicians were trying to kill him- a very believable scenario. Stalin was the exceedingly unpopular ruler of an exceedingly unpopular country with enemies both inside and outside its borders. Even fellow communists did not like him. Tensions were brewing with Albania, Hungary and China and Stalin was in a feud with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, having sent several assassin to kill him; the Yugoslavian secret service intercepted them all and Tito warned Stalin to stop or he would send one to Moscow and would not need to send another. (N.W.E.)
Stalin believed that the Jews were somehow involved in the doctors' plot and planned to have all of Soviet Jewry deported to Birobidjan. (Britanica) In 1952 as a response to the alleged plot, Stalin issued yet another purgatory edict and had doctors and government officials executed. Stalin died early in 1953 and it was rumored to have been artificially induced. Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Malenkov, Stalin's short-termed successor, as the premier8 of the Soviet Union and declared the Jewish state of Birobidjan a failure; he blamed the Jews for their aversion to collective work and discipline. In 1958- when he said this- there were only about 14,000 Jews in Birobidjan out of a total population of just shy of 326,000: 4% of the population. (Demoscope) The figure has since continued to decline to 2,300 Jews out of a total population of 191,000- just over 1%. (J.A.R.)
Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Communist Party from 1985 headed a movement called perestroika – reconstruction. Perestroika was a buzz word that implied a diverse but amorphous category of ideas, but the main effect was a general democratization of the Soviet Union- at least in peripheral affairs. The oppression of religion was a moot endeavor in relation to the more pressing problems of the economy and under Perestroika, the Jewish national culture was less suppressed and in fact encouraged in Birobidjan. Jewish Sunday schools were opened and Jewish holidays were publicly observed. Nonetheless, seventy years of suppression and assimilation have lead to a pervasive ignorance of Judaism and Jewish culture there.
Today’s fragile Jewish community of the J.A.O, mainly contained within the capital is championed by the Chabad-Lubavitch missionary efforts. The oblast has their own chief rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner; he and the Chabad missionaries have set up many Jewish, that is Jewish religious, cultural and nationalistic, structures. The Rabbi is recorded as commenting "Today one can enjoy the benefits of the Yiddish culture and not be afraid to return to their Jewish traditions. It’s safe without any Anti-Semitism and we plan to open the first Jewish day school here". The centerpiece of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Birobidjan was the unveiling of a monument to the famous Yiddish Author, Shalom Aleichem. It appears that the region is attempting to transform into the idyllic homeland that it was originally envisioned to be, but no serious political commentator accepts it as such. (F.J.C.)
Barnes, K. “Eastern Migration Within the Soviet Union”. Pacific Affairs, V. 7 No. 4 (Dec. 1934). pp 395-405
"Trans-Siberian Railroad." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 28 Jan. 2010 .
"Doctor's Plot." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Feb. 2010. .
“Nikolai Muraviev Amursky.” Brokhaus & Ephron Encyclopedic Dictionary, St. Petersburg. 1907.
A Far East Chanukah, Chabad.org News, Dec 9, 2007. Web. Jan 28, 2010.
Clarkson, J., A History of Russia. New York: Random House, 1961.
Far East Community Prepares for 70th Anniversary of Jewish Autonomy, FJC News, August 30, 2004. Web. Feb 4, 2010.
Jewish Autonomous Region, "JAR- The Government Official Website". Jewish Autonomous Region. 28 Jan. 2010 .
Time Magazine.“Russia:Biro-Bidjan.”Time Magazine 23 March 1936.
“Birobidzhan.” Jewish Encyclopedia pp 1044-1050. 1971.
Kerner, Robert. "The Russian Eastward Movement: Some Observations on Its Historical Significance." The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2. (May, 1948), pp. 135-148.
Lustiger, A., Stalin and the Jews. New York: Enigma Books, 2003.
McCannon, J., untitled. The Geographical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp 646-648.
“Tito, Joseph Broz.” New World Encyclopedia 2010. New World Encyclopedia Online. 4 Feb 2010.
Stalin, J.V., “Marxism and the National Question”. J.V. Stalin-Works, Volume 2. Moscow, RSFSR: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954. pp 300-381
Wischnitzer, M., “The History of the Jews in Russia in Recent Publications.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol 35, No. 4 (April, 1945), pp 393-413.
Official 1959 Soviet Census figures for Jewish Autonomous Oblast, “РГАЭ РФ (быв. ЦГАНХ СССР), фонд 1562, опись 336, ед.хр. 1566а -1566д (Таблица 3,4 Распределение населения по национальности и родному языку )” Retrieved from Feb 3, 2010. This source is brought to find the total population of JAO. The Jewish population figure listed here is the same as the figure listed in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
NM 53-7, AMS Series N504. American Army Map Service- Army Corps of Engineers, Washington D.C. 1951 as seen on http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/ams/eastern_siberia/txu-oclc-6572926-nm53-7.jpg, Accessed Jan. 30, 2010.
A photograph of a 1930's era map found on:
Palomino, M. “Jewish Story about Birobidzhan (Birobidjan) 1928-1970 Geschichte In Chronologie. 2007. Michael Palomino, 31 Jan 2010. .
Online museum exhibit published by Swarthmore University based upon the book:
Weinberg, R., Stalin's Forgotten Zion. Los Angeles: University of California Press , 1998. Viewable on
1. This statement is based on extrapolation from modern maps and two antique maps. See references.