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Jewish Autonomous Oblast


The Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Евре́йская автоно́мная о́бласть - Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast; formerly Jewish Autonomous Republic) is situated in the Far Eastern federal district of Russia, bordering China. It has an area of 36,000 km&sup2 and a population of approximately 212,000 (1995), of which only about 2% is Jewish: the remainder is Russian (approximately 85%), Ukrainian, and Korean. The administrative center is Birobidzhan. The economy is based on mining (gold, tin, iron, and graphite), lumber, limited agriculture, and light manufacturing (mainly textiles and food processing). Climate in the territory is monsoonal/anti-cyclonic, with warm, wet, humid summers due to the influence of the East Asian monsoon; and very cold, dry, windy conditions prevailing in the winter months courtesy of the vast Siberian high-pressure system.

The Jewish Autonomous Republic was founded in 1928 as the Jewish National District . It was the result of Vladimir Lenin's nationality policy, by which each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework. In that sense, it was also a response to two supposed threats to the Soviet state: Judaism, which ran counter to official state atheism; and Zionism, which countered Soviet views of nationalism. The idea was to create a new Soviet Zion, where a proletarian Jewish culture could be developed. Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, would be the national language, and a new socialist literature and arts would replace religion as the primary expression of culture.

Stalin's theory on the National Question held that a group could only be a nation if they had a territory, and since there was no Jewish territory, per se, the Jews were not a nation and did not have national rights. Jewish Communists argued that the way to solve this ideological dilemma was by creating a Jewish territory, hence the ideological motivation for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Politically, it was also considered desirable to create a Soviet Jewish homeland as an ideological alternative to Zionism and the theory put forward by Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov that the Jewish Question could be resolved by creating a Jewish territory in Palestine. Thus Birobidzhan was important for propaganda purposes as an argument against Zionism which was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews. The propaganda impact was so effective that several thousand Jews immigrated to Birobidzhan from outside of the Soviet Union, including several hundred from Palestine who had become disillusioned with the Zionist experience.

With hindsight, it can be said that the experiment was doomed from the start. Another important goal of the Birobidzhan project was to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. In 1928, there was virtually no settlement in the area, while Jews had deep roots in the western half of the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia proper. In fact, there had initially been proposals to create a Jewish Soviet Republic in the Crimea or in part of Ukraine but these were rejected because of fears of antagonising non-Jews in those regions.

The geography and climate of Birobidzhan were harsh, and any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch. Some have even claimed that Stalin was also motivated by anti-Semitism in selecting Birobidzhan: he wanted to keep the Jews as far away from the centers of power as possible. To his credit, however, it must be said that the Ukrainians and Crimeans were reluctant to have a Jewish national home carved out of their territory, even though most Soviet Jews lived there, and there were very few alternative territories without rival national claims to them.

Despite the hardships, a trickle of Jewish settlers arrived. By the 1930s the Jewish National District was promoted to the status of an Autonomous Region and a massive propaganda campaign was underway to induce more Jewish settlers to move there. Some of these incorporated the standard Soviet propaganda tools of the era, and included posters and Yiddish-language novels describing a socialist utopia there. Other methods bordered on the bizarre. In one instance, leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belorussia. In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness told the story of a Jewish family that fled the Depression in the United States to make a new life for itself in Birobidzhan.

As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. A Yiddish newspaper, Der Birobidzhaner Shtern (Биробиджанер Штерн, "Star of Birobidzhan"), was established; a theater troupe was created; and streets in the new city being built were named after prominent Yiddish authors, such as Sholom Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz . At the same time, some efforts were also made to Russify Yiddish culture: the most notable of these was an attempt to replace the Hebrew alphabet used for writing Yiddish with the Cyrillic one.

The Birobidzhan experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges. Jewish leaders were arrested and executed, and Yiddish schools were shut down. Shortly after this, World War II brought concerted efforts to bring Jews east to an abrupt end. There was a slight revival in the Birobidzhan idea after the war as a potential home for Jewish refugees. During that time, the Jewish population of the region peaked at almost one-third of the total. Efforts in this direction ended, however, with the Doctors' plot, the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, and Stalin's second wave of purges shortly before his death. Once again, the Jewish leadership was arrested and efforts were made to stamp out Yiddish culture—even the Judaica collection in the local library was burned. In the ensuing years the idea of an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union was all but forgotten.

Some scholars such as Louis Rapoport, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov assert that Stalin had devised a plan to deport all of the Jews of the Soviet Union to Birobidzhan much as he had internally deported other national minorities such as the Crimean Tartars and Volga Germans, forcing them to move thousands of miles from their homes. The Doctors' Plot may have been the first element of this plan. If so the plan was aborted by Stalin's death on March 5, 1953.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and new liberal emigration policies, most of the remaining Jewish population left for Germany and Israel. In 1991, the Jewish Autonomous Region was elevated to the status of an Autonomous Republic, but by that time most of the Jews had gone and the remaining Jews now constituted less than two percent of the local population. Nevertheless, Yiddish is once again taught in the schools, the Birobidzhaner Shtern publishes a Yiddish edition, and a Yiddish radio station still operates. Some political observers - particularly those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in the Middle East - have proposed resurrecting the Jewish Autonomous Republic as both an alternative to Israel as the Jewish national homeland and as a permanent solution to the ongoing Arab-Jewish difficulties. The idea has yet to demonstrate that it has garnered any significant support from the world community at large.

L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!, a documentary on Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region and its settlement by a few Jews was released in 2003. In addition to being a history of the creation of the proposed Jewish homeland, the film features scenes of contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.

Administrative Division


Jewish Autonomous Oblast consists of the following districts (Russian: районов):

  • Birobidzhansky (Биробиджанский)
  • Leninsky (Ленинский)
  • Obluchensky (Облученский)
  • Oktyabrsky (Октябрьский)
  • Smidovichsky (Смидовичский)

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45