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Go East, Young Jew, Go East

This map of Birobidzhan accompanied Professor Boris L. Bruk's 1929 report titled Birobidzhan s geograficheskoi kartoi raiona i 7 fotografiiami, and is the earliest printed map of the region.

This map of Birobidzhan accompanied Professor Boris L. Bruk’s 1929 report titled Birobidzhan s geograficheskoi kartoi raiona i 7 fotografiiami, and is among the earliest known printed maps of the region.

(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.

A ca. 1910 map of Amur Oblast indicates the area as being settled entirely by Cossacks, scattered about twenty-two settlements along the Amur. Geography and Map Division. G7323.A5G4 191- .Z4 MLC

A ca. 1910 map of Amur Oblast shows the area as being inhabited by Cossacks and peasants, scattered about twenty-two settlements along the Amur.  Geography and Map Division. G7323.A5G4 191- .Z4 MLC

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.”

This images captures Boris L. Bruk as head of the survey in 1927.

This images captures Boris L. Bruk as head of the survey in 1927.

This is the cover of Bruk's copy of the 1930 KOMZET report. World Digital Library.

This is the cover of Bruk’s copy of the 1930 KOMZET report. World Digital Library.

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.

Schematic soil map of Birobidzhan. World Digital Library.

Schematic soil map of Birobidzhan. World Digital Library.

A second map pointed out its agricultural potential.

Map of Birobidzhan's agricultural areas. World Digital Library.

Map of Birobidzhan’s agricultural areas. World Digital Library.

The region’s economic possibilities, among which were fishing and forestry, were highlighted on a third map.

Economic map Birobidzhan. World Digital Library.

Economic map of Birobidzhan. World Digital Library.

A fourth map presented its natural historical regions.

Map of natural historical regions. World Digital Library.

Map of natural historical regions. World Digital Library.

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.

This map from the Great Soviet Atlas of the World depicts the oblast as a modest center of activity. Geography and Map Division. (vol. II, 1939)

This map from the Great Soviet Atlas of the World depicts the oblast as a modest center of activity. Geography and Map Division. (vol. II, 1939)

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.

Group of workers on the Stalinfeldsky grain collective on the Amur. Birobidzhan v 1929 - 1931 godakh. World Digital Library.

Group of workers on the Stalinfeldsky grain collective on the Amur. Birobidzhan v 1929 – 1931 godakh. World Digital Library.

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.

Birobidzhan's equivalent of going to the cinema, September 1932. Birobidzhan v 1929 - 1931 godakh. World Digital Library.

Watching the pot boil, or Birobidzhan’s equivalent of going to the cinema, September 1932. Birobidzhan v 1929 – 1931 godakh. World Digital Library.

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.

Lunchtime on the collective.  Birobidzhan v 1929 - 1931 godakh.   World Digital Library.

“Rootless cosmopolitans” at lunch on the collective.  Birobidzhan v 1929 – 1931 godakh.   World Digital Library.

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.

The border dispute was not resolved entirely until 2008.   China-U.S.S.R. border, eastern sector.

The border dispute was not resolved entirely until 2008.   China-U.S.S.R. border, eastern sector.  Geography and Map Division

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.

This map is from an album of photographs of Birobidzhan's early years.

This map is from an album of photographs of Birobidzhan’s early years.

As aspirations for national autonomy go, this one was hard to achieve but has proved equally hard to extinguish.

Learn more:

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.

4 Comments

  1. Eva Seal
    September 23, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    Very interesting article, but the map in Yiddish is upside down.

  2. Caroline Collins
    September 27, 2020 at 9:50 pm

    Recently, an American species of snapping turtle was found in a Siberian waterway. I read the story and took notice of one witness’s final remark. It was along the lines of “how unusual to find such a turtle in the Jewish district of Siberia.” My dear Anastasia, I think it is more apt to proclaim how odd it is to find a Jewish district in Siberia, with or without American snapping turtles plying its freshwater resources.

    A few typed characters and a few clicks later I was reading about the now-Oblast in wikipedia. Some subsequent scrolling through my initial search results brought me to the present article on loc.gov (I note some rather uncoincidental-seeming similarities between the first text I read and this one. Perhaps both authors referred to the same original sources.)

    Does the Russian federation invite worldwide Jewry to stake a claim and take up life in this region as was the policy of the Soviet Union?

    Also, can someone please clarify whether all residents or just Jews were denied the right to own land after the Russian revolution? I think it was everyone. This article very nearly implies that it was just Jews.

    I love coincidences like this one. I wish the triggering story did not concern the circumstances of a lonely ex-patriate snapping turtle, though. While they are said to be solitary, they do engage in a fairly romantic-seeming mating routine annually, which involves a generous amount of snapping at one another’s necks and would probably amount to murder if attempted with a typical soft-skinned aquatic conordinal. I suppose he or she can swim across the Amur to China in search of company, though it’s bound to end badly for one or both parties if any new companions are fond of soup. This animal was no lamb in his first publicized encounter with our species.

    • Mike Klein
      October 5, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Good morning, Caroline, and thank you for the story on the snapping turtles. Being from southern Louisiana I used to encounter them in local canals. Once, while harassing nutria on the 17th Street Canal, I saw an alligator turtle make quick work of a small nutria. My most enduring experience with a snapper occurred during my first year of college, when I returned to the dorm room one afternoon and saw that my roommate has placed a large one in the sink. He claimed he caught it that morning near the Tangipahoa River and said he intended to keep it. I insisted it be moved to the rec room.
      To your questions: Initially, I do not know what the position of the current Russian Federation is toward the emigration of Jews to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The official website indicates that is has a legitimate government with a governor and legislative assembly, active foreign relations, and a population engaged in light manufacturing and industry, trade, and farming. Nothing suggests that Jews are unwelcome in the JAO, although they are still a minority group. The current governor is Rostislav Gol’steyn, an indicator that Jews hold prominent posts.
      Secondly, the Bolshevik policy of War Communism, 1918-21, nationalized heavy industry, eliminated private trade, and confiscated all private lands. Few Jews, being confined to the former Pale of Settlement, possessed little private land, but owned light industry and trade goods, all of which disappeared in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. Some relaxations were admitted under the New Economic Policy, which restored private enterprise in small industry and permitted peasants to sell small amounts of untaxed grain. I could have reworded the sentence differently, but presumed, mistakenly, that everyone knew that all Soviet citizens were denied private property, including Jews. Hopefully I will learn from my mistakes . . .

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