(The title of this post is a satirical improvisation on a quote attributed to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, when expressing his views towards the westward expansion of the United States.)
Somewhere between China’s Heilongjiang Province (Manchuria) and the Russian Far East, nestled in a southern crook of Siberia’s Amur River, lies a swampy, unassuming patch of land. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Cossacks, settled there under the tsars, called it home, as did handfuls of Koreans, Kazakhs, and Tungus. Its climate is Siberian in nature, that is, hot and humid with clouds of mosquitoes in summer, cold and windy for the remaining nine months. With modest variations in elevation, its landscape is predominated by trees and grassland, but includes some low forested hills. Mining, agriculture, and light industry support the local population.
Imperial Russia made diplomatic approaches to the area in 1689 with the Treaty of Nerchinsk with China, and later secured it in 1858 with the Treaty of Aigun, also with China. Over time the region became a Russian military colony, and its potential for development was enhanced by a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Today the region, formerly known as Birobidzhan, is known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, nominally the world’s only official Jewish territory, other than Israel.
“What’s so Jewish about Siberia?” you might ask.
Jews were first exiled to Siberia in 1659, and over the centuries remained scattered throughout, even while most remained concentrated in western Russia. The Russian Revolution did little to improve their status in the eyes of Soviet leadership, who viewed their ethnic nationality as a threat to the state. By 1928 Joseph Stalin had set his sights on the lower Amur region as a homeland for Russian Jews. The plan would serve as an alternative to Zionism, i.e. the resettlement of Jews to Palestine, in a manner that was “socialist in content and national in form.”
Ideology aside, Jews were an expedient but important element in Stalin’s real plan, which involved fortifying a remote and thinly populated area on the Soviet-Chinese border, preferably under the guise of a voluntary deposit of people. And, so, in 1927 he tapped Professor Boris L’vovich Bruk, a Russian agronomist known for having advanced agriculture in central Russia and the Russian Far East, to head an expedition of the Committee for the Settlement of Toiling Jews on the Land (KOMZET) to study the possible resettlement there of Jews from Europe.
At some point, Professor Bruk drew several original maps of the region, each emphasizing a distinct feature, and all now held by the Jewish Autonomous Region Museum of Regional History and Folklife. One map endorsed the variety of its fertile soils.
A second map pointed out its agricultural potential.
The region’s economic possibilities, among which were fishing and forestry, were highlighted on a third map.
A fourth map presented its natural historical regions.
As promotional devices, these maps hardly present Birobidzhan as coveted real estate. Nevertheless, the report authored by Bruk found the lands promising, and so the region, renamed the Birobidzhan Jewish National Raion, was assigned to KOMZET in early 1928. The first group of about 650 Jews arrived in the spring of that year. Though they were beset by rains, hunger, and an outbreak of anthrax that destroyed their cattle, about half remained. The thousands following their lead established collective farms, schools, newspapers, synagogues, a theater, and small settlements promoting Yiddish culture. For a very brief period the official language was Yiddish, in effect making it the world’s only Yiddish-speaking state. In 1934 Soviet leaders, impressed by its economic development, elevated the region’s status to that of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and made the town of Birobidzhan its administrative center.
Why did Jews go to Birobidzhan in the tens of thousands?
For most, the long trip east served as the only route out of the poverty and oppression that were their lot. Denied private property by the Revolution and driven further into destitution, the former shopkeepers and peddlers probably viewed the region as one final opportunity to scratch a living out of the earth, ostensibly far away from Soviet oversight.
Propaganda certainly had a role, as posters, pamphlets, novels and other media encouraged many out of “boundless love for the sacred Soviet Motherland” or some other socialist claptrap to make the long journey east and adopt a career in large-scale agriculture, an occupation in which few had any experience. A few shtetl Jews in Belarus were even “inspired” by promotional leaflets dropped by Soviet aviators from a plane named “Birobidzhanets.”
Cinema was another mainstay of Soviet persuasion. The 1936 film, “Seekers of Happiness,” was driven by a plot that “lays out a successful solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ through two love stories and a crime.” Dramatizing the saga of a migrant Jewish family, presumably repatriated to Soviet Russia from Palestine, who seek out a new existence on a collective farm in Birobidzhan, it ends with the patriarch praising Stalin for having provided them with a home country of their own.
Compared to the Pale of Settlement, life on the frontier never looked so good.
Another reason has been set forth by Russian journalist, Masha Gesson, who, in her vital history of the region, cites the influence of international promotional literature, specifically that of emigre writer David Bergelson, whose articles for the Yiddish-language press outside of Russia enticed nearly a thousand families from the the Americas to emigrate out of hope for better lives. Many were subsidized by the Organization for Jewish Colonization in Russia and the American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidzan, two communist-backed sister organizations attempting to facilitate Jewish settlement in safer environments.
But the promise of a new Soviet Zion proved elusive; the purges of the 1930s eliminated numerous Jews, including those in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Lured to Birobidzhan by the promise of national autonomy, many were charged with the crimes of “nationalism” and speaking Yiddish. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, some Jews returned to Birobidzhan because they had no place else to go. Soviet support for a Jewish homeland evaporated, prompted by Stalin’s renewed policies of anti-Semitism in the late 1940s. The region’s Jewish population, which had peaked around 1948, began its inexorable decline just as the new state of Israel began absorbing much of the post-war diaspora. Once more Birobidzhan’s Jews were targeted, this time for “rootless cosmpolitanism” and deported to less desirable parts of Siberia in ten-year stints. The following decades witnessed Russia’s only autonomous oblast sink into irrelevance.
The region must still be important at some level, nevertheless, for, in spite of Stalin’s efforts, it occasionally riles tensions between Russia and China. As late as 1969 the Oblast was the site of one of several border clashes along the Amur and other rivers between Soviet and Chinese troops in the Far East.
Today the population of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, like that of most of Siberia, continues to decline. According to the 2010 Russian census, its population was just over 175,000 people, of whom only 1,600 (less than 1%) registered as Jews living in one of its twenty-four settlements or speaking Yiddish. The oblast leans more towards an encroaching China, both economically and culturally, than it does to Russia.
Things may not be all bad, though. Numerous monuments celebrating Yiddish culture still grace the town of Birobidzhan, including a statue of writer Sholom Aleichem, whose stories formed the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.” The local newspaper has a section in Yiddish and a focus on Jewish issues, and the local Jewish community group still holds Yiddish sing-alongs. In 2004 a new synagogue was built in part with state money. On top of that, a 2008 edition of “Chabad News” reported that the world’s largest electric menorah, at twenty-one meters tall, was erected in the central square for Hanukkah.
As aspirations for national autonomy go, this one was hard to achieve but has proved equally hard to extinguish.
For an outstanding series of images of Jewish life in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the early years of its existence, see the album of 274 photographs titled Birobidzhan v 1929 – 1931 godakh.
The Boris L. Bruk collection, also available on the Library’s website, includes photographs, documents, maps, and printed works covering his life and work. Both collections were made available through the World Digital Library in the early 2000s.