Jewish Autonomous Oblast

Oblast

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is a federal subject of Russia (an autonomous oblast) situated in the Russian Far East, bordering China. Its administrative center is the town of Birobidzhan. Soviet authorities established the autonomous oblast in 1934. It was the result of Joseph Stalin’s nationality policy, which provided the Jewish population of the Soviet Union with a large territory in which to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage.

According to the 1939 population census, 17,695 Jews lived in the region (16% of the total population). The Jewish population peaked in 1948 at around 30,000, about one-quarter of the region’s population. The census of 1959, taken six years after Stalin’s death, revealed that the Jewish population of the JAO declined to 14,269 persons. As of 2002, 2,327 Jews were living in the JAO (1.2% of the total population), while ethnic Russians made up 90% of the population.

In 1928, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee of the USSR passed the decree ‘On the attaching for Komzet of free territory near the Amur River in the Far East for settlement of the working Jews.’ The decree meant ‘a possibility of establishment of a Jewish administrative territorial unit on the territory of the called region.’ In 1930, the General Executive Committee of RSFSR accepted the decree ‘On formation of the Birobidzhan national region in the structure of the Far Eastern Territory.’ The State Planning Committee considered the Birobidzhan national region as a separate economic unit. In 1932 the first scheduled figures of the region development were considered and authorized. The Organization for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union, a Jewish Communist organization in North America, successfully encouraged the immigration of some US residents, such as the family of George Koval, which arrived in 1932.

According to Joseph Stalin’s national policy, 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 also responded to two supposed threats to the Soviet state: Judaism, which ran counter to official state policy of atheism; and Zionism — the advocacy of a Jewish national state in Palestine — which countered Soviet views of nationalism. The Soviets envisaged setting up 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 regarded a group as a nation only if it 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. Another important goal of the Birobidzhan project involved increasing 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, Belarus 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 antagonizing non-Jews in those regions.

By the 1930s, a massive propaganda campaign developed to induce more Jewish settlers to move there. The campaign partly 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 Belarus. In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called ‘Seekers of Happiness’ told the story of a Jewish family that fled the Great 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. Settlers established a Yiddish newspaper and streets being built in the new city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz. The Yiddish language was deliberately bolstered as a basis for efforts to secularize the Jewish population.

The Birobidzhan experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin’s first campaign of purges. Soviet authorities arrested and executed Jewish leaders, and Yiddish schools were shut down. Shortly after this, World War II brought an abrupt end to concerted efforts to bring Jews east. After the war ended in 1945 the idea of Birobidzhan as a potential home for Jewish refugees revived slightly. According to Nikolay Polyakov, Stalin purportedly created a special ‘Deportation Commission’ to plan the deportation of Jews. ‘Pure blooded’ Jews were to be deported first, followed by ‘half breeds’ (polukrovki). Before his death in 1953, Stalin allegedly had planned the execution of the people responsible for the plan, and then he would cast himself as the savior of Soviet Jews by sending them to camps away from the purportedly enraged Russian populace. Stalin likely intended to use the resulting trial to launch a massive party purge.  Regardless, efforts to relocate Jewish refugees to Birobidzhan ended with 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.

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