Thursday, May 19, 2011

Propaganda for Birobidzhan: Stalin's Yiddish-Socialist Paradise in Siberia

A propaganda poster telling Jews about the paradise of Birobidzhan, the new Soviet-Jewish homeland.

Stalin pushed for a Yiddish-based Soviet-Jewish homeland, wanting Jews to become farmers and thus "productive" members of the Soviet economy and culture.  In fact, Stalin's pet project became the first official Jewish state since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., a few decades before the rebirth of Israel in 1948.

Train station in Birobidzhan where Jewish settlers arrived from the western Soviet Union.
"A nation," according to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, was "a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture."

Soviet Jews did not fit Stalin's definition. Jewish poverty, unemployment, and overpopulation, as well as wide-spread anti-Semitism and pogroms after 1917, caused concern within the Kremlin. Many Jews lived in small towns and cities where they earned a living from petty commerce, retail sales, small-scale handicraft production, and unskilled labor.
A lottery ticket from 1929.  Revenues raised through lotteries helped cover costs of construction projects in the J.A.R.
In the 1920s, after it was determined that Jewish economic life was "ideologically suspect," the Communist party decided to transform Jews into farmers. This "normalization" would, in theory, weaken mass anti-Semitism and encourage Jews to become productive members of the economy and culture of the Soviet Union.
Propaganda poster from the one and only campaign to combat anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union (late 1920s).

Stalin pushes idea of Soviet-Jewish homeland

The Jewish homeland was to be located about 5,000 miles east of Moscow in the Soviet Far East. The plans to relocate Jews there, spearheaded by Stalin himself, began in 1924. Soviet policy in the 1920s focused upon the creation of national territories for minorities in order to normalize their status, and during the entire time of the Soviet Union being Jewish was considered an ethnicity or nationality.  The land became known as Birodbidzhan, and its official name was (and still is) the 'Jewish Autonomous Region' (JAR).

Here is a map of Russia today with Birobidzhan (Jewish Autonomous Region) in red.
Jewish settlement began in 1928, and the JAR was given its official status in 1934. The region -- about the size of Belgium -- was rich in natural resources in the north and had mountains and thick forests; there were large tracts of swampland and marshes. The pre-existing non-Jewish population (about 27,000) consisted of nomadic Siberian peoples, as well as Russians, Cossacks, Koreans and Ukrainians who mainly arrived around the turn of the century.

Concert version of song "We Came Here to Be Peasants" from musical called Soviet Zion which is about Jews settling in Birobidzhan in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here are some interesting links to information on Birobidzhan for students and non-students alike:

1) Here's a link to a virtual exhibition on Birobidzhan from Swathmore College.
2) Here's Wikipedia's post on Birobidzhan.  The sources at the bottom of the document are more important for students writing reports.
3) Here's an article about a Jewish revival in Birobidzhan from 2008.
4) Here's a link to my article about Birobidzhan published at called, "Birobidzhan: Stalin's Soviet-Jewish Homeland and its Revival"

This poster applauds the decision of the Central Executive Committee to establish by late 1933 a Jewish Autonomous Region with the borders of Birobidzhan.

A Soviet-style Palestine

The JAR was an experiment in creating a Jewish homeland with a secular Yiddish culture that was firmly rooted in socialist principles. The impoverished shtetl Jew would now become a productive comrade working the land while forging a Jewish homeland and new cultural identity. There were many comparisons with Jewish Palestine. One rice plantation migrant wrote in 1928, shortly after his arrival, "I thank you comrades. Here I am, getting settled, and will stop living like a 'Jew,' that is, as a luftmensch (an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income). "

Propaganda poster promoting Jewish settlement in the Jewish Autonomous Region (Birobidzhan).

Jews poorly prepared for Birobidzhan

The "physical rebirth and renewal" of the Jews was not going to be an easy task. Many of the 40,000 to 50,000 Jews who were sent there from 1928 to 1938 did not remain. They either returned home or settled in larger eastern cities like Vladivostok. By 1939, Jews numbered about 18,000 of the 109,000 residents of the JAR. Only 25% of those 18,000 lived in the countryside, and not all of them worked in agricultural pursuits.

Shot from Soviet propaganda film, Seekers of Happiness (1936), which is about a Jewish family that settles in Birobidzhan.
Little was done to prepare the settlers -- many of whom had never worked the land in their lives -- for the hardships in an unknown and untamed area. The government failed to provide decent housing, food, medical care, and working conditions. Severe floods ravaged the region and some collective farms had to be started anew. Anti-Semitism was also an issue. Of the original Jewish settlers, few had any experience starting a farm from scratch.
Here's a brief video called Arrival in Birobidzhan (1936).

This is a 3-minute video on Birobidzhan.

The reliance upon Yiddish as the basis of culture was also limiting. Since the JAR was part of an anti-religious state, Judaism played an insignificant role in Birobidzhan. The purge trials of 1936-1938 robbed the region of its inspired leaders, who, in their trials, were charged with promoting Jewish culture in the JAR(!). Young Jews in Stalin's Soviet Union had opportunities to get ahead by moving to the cities of Belarus, the Ukraine and western Russia and learning Russian -- not the Yiddish of Birobidzhan.

This is the main street of Birobidzhan in the 1930s.

Please click here to read, "Birobidzhan: Stalin's Soviet-Jewish Homeland and its Revival" by Eric Brothers at Suite 101

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers 2011.  All Rights Reserved.

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