Zion on Ice: What is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast?

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons via Haaretz)
(Ha’aretz via Wikipedia Commons)

If asked to name the languages of northeast Asia, Yiddish probably wouldn’t be the first to come to mind. Yet in the Russian Far East, much closer to Beijing or Pyongyang than Moscow or Jerusalem, the miniscule Yiddish community of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast ekes out a meager existence, publishing its own newspaper and teaching Yiddish language classes at the local college. In the capital Birobidzhan, downtown streets are named after Yiddish authors and a fountain shaped like a menorah adorns the main square.[1] Nestled north of Manchuria and about a day’s drive from Vladivostok, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is perhaps the most inventive solution to what various Russian and Soviet leaders have called “the Jewish Question.” Purportedly created to be the homeland of “Soviet Jewry,” and founded with the lofty goal of nourishing Jewish culture within a socialist framework,the region has never quite lived up to its promise of being the “Zion of the Far East.”[2] Borrowing from Voltaire’s famous explication of the Holy Roman Empire, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast has never been fully Jewish or autonomous. What it is however is a fascinating example of the idiosyncrasies that are ever-present in geopolitics and a clear manifestation of the delicate relationship between Soviet ideology and Russian Jews.

Before and after the Russian Civil War, Jews in Russia occupied a precarious position. The policies of various Tsars alternated between explicit persecution and various attempts to “assimilate” Jewish populations. One of these policies was the establishment of the Pale of Settlement, which limited Jewish populations to designated regions of the Empire, the majority of which already had large Jewish populations.[3] This idea of forced settlement would reach its logical extreme with the Jewish Autonomous Region (the JAO’s original name under the Soviets). When Stalin came to power, he continued Lenin’s policies of limited self-determination for minorities within the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, these policies cemented the idea that every national or ethnic minority in the Soviet Union was free to pursue their own culture within their designated national homeland. The absence of a clear geographic homeland for Russian Jews presented a problem. The creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region was not just a solution to the question of Jewish nationalism in the Soviet Union. Stalin also hoped it would act as a countercurrent to Judaism, which he believed threatened Soviet state-atheism, and Zionism, which competed with socialism for intellectual allegiance amongst left-leaning Jewish intellectuals. By attaching such symbolic significance to a sparsely populated region in the Far East, Stalin also ensured that Soviet control near the border with China was safely entrenched.

Prior to the establishment of the autonomous region in 1938, an ambitious propaganda program to entice Jewish settlers began. A recurring theme, encouraged by the Soviet leadership, but also an idea shared by some Jewish thinkers, was the transformation of the Jewish people into a nation of farmers.[4] The prevailing idea was that this agricultural shift would help the Jewish people gain greater acceptance within the Soviet population in general and amongst the peasantry in particular. This ambition, which echoed early attempts by the Tsars to assimilate the Jewish population, seems to be out of sync with the large-scale ghettoization that the creation of the J.A.R. sought to achieve. Although never as successful as Zionism, the Jewish Autonomous Region did attract a large number of settlers in the early years before and after its creation. In 1948, a quarter of the population was Jewish and Yiddish culture seemed to be thriving. For a while, it seemed that an autonomous Jewish region in the Far East could rival Palestine.  This optimism was dramatically reversed as a result of Stalin’s purges. The Jewish political leadership was imprisoned or executed and Yiddish cultural institutions were closed down. In the following years Jews emigrated from the J.A.R. en masse for Israel or to their former homes elsewhere in the Soviet Union, ending most hope for the experiment.

Today, the Jewish population in the region has almost vanished, with a 2010 census numbering it at around 1.5%. Despite this, the ethnic Russian majority of the region are surrounded by constant signs of the region’s history. In Birbobidzhan, the menorah fountain still stands in the town square, across from buildings with rusting signs in the Hebrew alphabet and schools still teach Yiddish traditions to students who are more likely to be Ukrainian Christians than Jews. Recently, renewed efforts from some Yiddish scholars have attempted to preserve or even reinvigorate Jewish life in the region. Birbobidzhan’s confident chief rabbi even claims that the oblast is undergoing a cultural revival. Politically, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast’s future is uncertain; there has been talk of integrating it with its neighboring department. The Russian government may still have an incentive that was shared by Stalin to invest in the region: the threat of maintaining sovereignty over under-populated Siberian outposts in the face of a growing China next-door.

At first glance, the idea of an East Asian Zion is as far-fetched as the scenario in Michael Chabon’s alternate history novel, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, with a Jewish refuge founded in Alaska during the height of World War 2. The exciting thing about the social sciences is that the world has to be taken as it is, with all its stubborn defiance of convention and arguably logic. Theoretical models and conventional knowledge work well to parsimoniously explain and describe phenomena, but they can never fully account for the human factor. Counter-intuitive islands, like a Jewish autonomous region in the same neighbourhood as China, the Koreas, and Japan, remind us that human beings have a great tendency to do unexpected things and to find unique “solutions” to unexpected geopolitical problems.

[1]           Robert Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 75.

[2]           Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion, 15-16.

[3]           Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion, 17.

[4]           Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion, 18-19.