Territory in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union, designated in 1928 as the Jewish homeland and as a Yidishe Avtonomne Gegnt (Jewish autonomous region) in 1934. Yiddish was the territory’s official language.
From the first days after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Soviet leaders invested significant resources toward the cultural and national development of the Soviet Union’s many ethnic minorities, including Jews. Soviet policies defined nationality primarily on the basis of language and territory, an understanding with which many East European Jewish intellectuals agreed. Most Jews in Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, so the Jewish people had a “native” language, but they did not have a territory, a problem that socialist Jewish activists and the Soviet state worked to rectify. The solution to the problem of landlessness was to create a Jewish territory within the Soviet Union and encourage Soviet Jews to move there.
Location of Birobidzhan.
The idea of Birobidzhan was also the product of the Soviet Jewish agricultural colonization movement. Socioeconomically, most Jews did not mesh well into the workers’ and peasants’ state. Jews who had worked primarily as traders and small-scale craftspeople needed to be “liberated” from their socioeconomic position by moving to “productive” labor, such as agriculture, even though many East European Jews had been settling on the land since the early nineteenth century. In the wake of physical and economic devastation during the Civil War, Soviet Jews established agricultural colonies throughout the former Pale of Settlement. By 1922, there were 79 such colonies on Soviet territory. The most important of these was in Crimea, but opposition to the Crimean agricultural settlement plan became so great that in November 1926 the government decided to find a different region for Jewish settlement.
Women surveying land for a new Jewish settlement, Birobidzhan, ca. 1935. From an album produced by Ambijan, an American organization formed in the 1930s to promote and raise funds for Birobidzhan. (YIVO)
In March 1928 the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union officially designated Birobidzhan, a piece of land along the politically sensitive Manchurian border, to be the largest (but not the only) Jewish agricultural colony, in the hope that it would become an official Soviet Jewish region. Populating the area with Jewish farmers made political sense, both because there would be little uproar from local Korean rice farmers and Cossacks, and because an established and more densely populated province could be used as a buffer against Japanese imperial expansion in the region.
Birobidzhan’s status as the Soviet Jewish homeland reached its peak in the mid-1930s when rather than the goal of agricultural resettlement, the ideas of homeland, cultural center, and national stability came to the fore. In 1934, the Central Executive Committee officially upgraded Birobidzhan’s status to that of Jewish Autonomous Region, hence making a symbolic and political statement about the role the territory would play in future Soviet Jewish politics. In 1934, on paper, Jews became a “normal” Soviet nationality even though the majority of Jews did not live in “their” territory. Around the world, socialist Jews began raising funds for Birobidzhan, writing editorials in support of the project. Some 1,500 even moved to the Soviet Far East to participate in this experiment in socialist Jewish nation-building.
Jews at a colony in the Amurzet region on a tea break from work, Birobidzhan, ca. 1929. Identified in the photograph are (first from left) Shvartsman; (fourth from left) Rashkes; and (standing in back), Ezerski, an agronomist. (YIVO)
Although schools and other institutions of Jewish cultural development were set up with the first migrants in the late 1920s, by the mid-1930s Birobidzhan had become a center of Soviet Jewish culture. Among its establishments were the Sholem Aleichem Theater, Yiddish schools, and a local newspaper, the Birobidzhaner shtern (Star). Yiddish writers wrote about Birobidzhan, and scholars studied the region’s culture.
But Birobidzhan failed to become the center of Soviet Jewish life. Most suggest two reasons for the disappointment. First, life was hard, and Birobidzhan was too far away from the cities and areas where most Jews lived. Second, the Soviet Union did not invest seriously in Birobidzhan as a Jewish national project. The Great Purges of 1936–1939, which destroyed the leadership of Birobidzhan and many of its cultural institutions, marked the Soviet state’s dramatic turn against the project. After World War II, Birobidzhan experienced a brief demographic and cultural revival, but antisemitic and anticosmopolitan campaigns between 1948 and 1952 destroyed all remnants of the Soviet Jewish national project.
Perhaps even more critical than the attitude of the Soviet establishment was the Jews’ unwillingness to move to the Soviet Far East. As was the case with Palestine, it was physically and symbolically distant from Europe, the land was harsh, and living conditions were unbearable. While a large part of the Zionist idea was about Jews taking on the challenge of overcoming these severe conditions and returning to their land, migrants to Birobidzhan did not view agricultural work through the lens of romantic modernization; they were not looking to overturn the old order by reclaiming their Jewish roots. Most Soviet Jews were more interested in moving to Moscow and Leningrad than to an outpost near Manchuria. In its peak years after it was officially named the national home of Soviet Jewry (1934–1936), Birobidzhan did in fact attract more Jews. But the numbers were still not high. In 1928 about 525 Jews migrated to Birobidzhan, and in 1934, the best year for Jewish migration, the number rose to 5,250. However, about 60 percent of those migrants left that same year, leaving only 2,000 settlers, some of whom left in subsequent years.
Houses under construction and other scenes in the new Jewish settlement of Waldheim, Birobidzhan, 1929. (Film made by members of an expedition from Brigham Young University.) (YIVO)
After World War II there was a short renaissance in migration to Birobidzhan, but the Jewish population of the region dwindled from the 1950s to the 1980s, and many Jews emigrated in 1989–1991. In the post-Soviet era, some locals, Jews and non-Jews, in Birobidzhan have tried to revive Jewish culture in Birobidzhan in libraries, cultural programs, and schools. Despite the constant presence of Jews, Birobidzhan never served as the Jews’ homeland in the Soviet Union.
In contrast to Birobidzhan, Zion was not just an “empty land.” The Land of Israel had a symbolic and mythic history connected to Hebrew and Jewish culture. Birobidzhan lacked such moving symbolism. In general, Soviet Jews did not want to participate in the secular Jewish nation that Soviet Jewish activists and the Soviet state offered them. The majority of Soviet Jews were more interested in becoming modern, upwardly mobile Soviet Jewish citizens than they were in the cultural and territorial experiment to create a Yiddish-language socialist nation, a Soviet Zion.
“Birobidzhan,” in Jews in Eastern Europe (special ed., Jerusalem, 2002); Allan Kagedan, Soviet Zion: The Quest for a Russian Jewish Homeland (New York, 1994); Antje Kuchenbecker, Zionismus ohne Zion: Birobidzhan: Idee und Geschichte eines jüdischen Staates in Sowjet-Fernost (Berlin, 2000); Ya‘akov Levavi, Ha-Hityashvut ha-yehudit be-Birobig´an (Jerusalem, 1965); Robert Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: An Illustrated History, 1928–1996 (Berkeley, 1998).
RG 105, Films, Collection, 1930s-1950s; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 231, Morris Stern, Papers, 1910-1949; RG 30, Russia and the Soviet Union (Vilna Archives), Collection, 1845-1930s; RG 347.7.1, American Jewish Committee. Foreign Countries (FAD-1), Records, 1930-1973; RG 734, Abraham Jenofsky, Papers, 1931-1976.