In Eastern Russia, the Idea of a Jewish Autonomy Is Being Brought Back to Life

Is the recent decision by Moscow to resettle the failed, far-flung Jewish Autonomous Region serious? Some scoff, but one government official hopes that this time the plan will work.

The wording of Russian government decision No. 1361 is brief and laconic: “We have agreed to implement a plan of voluntary resettlement in the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan. The initiative is designed to help the Russian expatriates and their families. Signed: Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.” According to the plan, approved by the government on July 31, a sum equal to $8,000 will be given to anyone willing to move to eastern Russia, to the swampland on the Chinese border, in order to halt what is termed an impending demographic disaster.

The area in question is huge, and it is rich in gold, copper and timber, but poor in terms of Russian citizens; indeed, it is gradually being populated by Chinese immigrants. The government decision includes an “absorption basket,” of sorts, which promises monetary assistance, airline tickets, coverage of moving expenses and health insurance. All in order to attract settlers and pioneers to eastern Russia.

Alexander Zhuravsky, director of the Department of Interethnic Relations of the Ministry of Regional Development, sits in an office in Moscow, a 10-hour flight and five time zones away from the so-called national-priority region. “Anyone accepted to the plan will be able to be an independent worker, a small-business owner or can even remain without any formal work. There is no limitation relating to the number of family members entitled to the grant or to the specific location where people can settle,” Thus it seems that almost anyone who is willing to wander that far east will receive assistance via an accelerated procedure.

The last prime minister who decided on “voluntary Jewish settlement” in Birobidzhan was Joseph Stalin. The original plan, approved in 1928, encouraged the migration of working Jews to this far-flung area. There they would establish cooperative farms, raise pigs on kolkhozes and become experts in agriculture. At the same time a dual problem of identity would be solved: Judaism would no longer constitute a nuisance for Soviet atheism, and Zionism would not interfere with communism.

Stalin’s propaganda machine turned this fantasy into reality. Airplanes scattered information leaflets above Jewish towns in Ukraine, and a propaganda film in Yiddish called “Searching for Happiness” was produced. It depicted American Jews moving to Birobidzhan. According to this scenario, instead of searching for gold in the United States, which was then in the midst of the Great Depression, they would find treasure in the Soviet Union, and the daughter of the family would marry a Russian boy from a good atheist home.

Tens of thousands of Jews, several hundred of them from Palestine, answered the call. A street in the district capital was named after writer Sholem Aleichem. Yiddish became the official language. After World War II, Stalin intensified his campaign of ethnic cleansing, the persecution of the Jews, and the forced migration of ethnic minorities. But 99 percent of the Jewish community abandoned Birobidzhan, which was bitterly cold in the winter and flooded in the summer.

The area in question, which is almost twice the size of Israel, is still called the Jewish Autonomous Region. The locals don’t want to change the name, even though, aside from its meaninglessness, all that’s left of the fantasy is a single sign in Yiddish at the local train station, a few hundred formerly idealistic Jews, and some bitter jokes. Sergey Parhomenko, a popular Jewish commentator and journalist from the Echo of Moscow radio station, who reacted on Facebook to the new plan to resettle the district, cited one of the latter: “A Jew from eastern Russia invites a friend from Moscow, saying: ‘Come to us for a vacation!’ The friend from the capital replies: ‘Thank you very much, but actually everyone would be better off if you came to us.”

Like most Russians, Parhomenko still identifies regions like Siberia and eastern Russia with the gulags, the detention camps where Stalin imprisoned and murdered millions of his citizens. He wrote in reply to a question about the ambitious new scheme: “Of course it’s an amusing practical joke. I assume that some clowning blogger managed to forge a [governmental] document that would look official.”

After I informed Parhomenko that the program is indeed for real, and told him that I had even interviewed a senior government official about it, he answered: “Amazing! Are you sure that it’s not the creation of hackers who seized control of a government website? In any case, don’t treat it too seriously.”

‘Wild West’

Yair Kedar, a filmmaker and former editor of the Israeli travel magazine Masa Aher, visited Birobidzhan a few years ago. “The Jews there are a combination of typical Jewish community wheeler-dealers, a few dreamers who are almost 90 years old and are the last ones remaining in the agricultural settlements, and businessmen whose families are in Israel. Birobidzhan,” he continues, “is like a Jewish ghost town, and it reminded me of abandoned Ukrainian shtetls. But here it’s not a matter of generations of Jewish history in the Pale of Settlement, but a modern, daring and somewhat strange social experiment. Now it remains a Yiddish-speaking white elephant. Compared to Stalin’s other dreams, this fantasy caused little damage.”

Kedar sounds skeptical about the chances that there can be development in the region: “It reminded me of an Eastern European version of the Wild West. Like a huge nature preserve, full of mosquitoes, dotted with small communities, lacking in infrastructure and inhabitants.” Asked whether it could be an attraction for young people, he replies: “For adventurers, it is recommended.”

For his part, Zhuravsky, of the Ministry of Regional Development, explains that the government estimates that 2,220 heads of households will move to the region in the next four years.

“We have no illusions or fantasies about the region’s ability to absorb settlers,” he says. “The objective is to improve the situation and to repair historical injustices toward people who were expelled from czarist or Soviet Russia.

“There have been plans to resettle in the past, but this time we hope to be more successful,” he adds hopefully. “That’s why the wording of the law is flexible in its definition of eligibility. It includes not only Russian citizens but also people of ethnic Russian extraction − descendants of those who left the country many years ago ‏(including during the period of the Soviet Union‏), and even foreign citizens who have a profound personal or cultural connection to the country.”

But the situation on the ground seems to contradict any high expectations. Indeed, Zhuravsky confirms that a total of six people moved to the remote region this year: “Actually 11, if you include family members.” It transpires that there are still a few people in Israel who prefer the Soviet alternative to the national home, he says: “In the previous program, which had more rigid criteria for migration, we had Israelis turning to us.” How many, I ask. “Four,” Zhuravsky replies with a smile.

And how many people have actually moved from Israel to Birobidzhan ?

“One.”

Do you know where he is today?

“No. We don’t follow up on everyone who chooses to immigrate. Our job is only to help them until they find a place to live. From the moment a person moves he’s under the jurisdiction of the local authority.”

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