Moscow (Jul. 10)
(By Our Moscow Correspondent)
From Moscow the distance to Bira-Bidzhan is as great as from New York to Moscow. The one way trip alone takes twelve days and nights. Meanwhile not everybody is willing to rely upon the organized optimism of the Jewish Communist press. Even in Moscow people want to know the real truth about the possibilities in Bira-Bidzhan. Even those wish to know the truth who blindly trust the Bira-Bidzhan plan and are doing good work for it.
This much-wanted truth was told this week by A. Merezhin, a member of the government commission, Comzet, who has just returned from Bira-Bidzhan after a two months’ stay.
At a session of the Central Council of the Ozet, Merezhin, solemn and straightforward, cast an altogether different light upon, the possibilities of Bira-Bidzhan from the impression produced by the first report of Prof. Bruck. Merezhin reported many facts that Bruck did not mention. As a sober statesman he brought to light all the faults of the Bira-Bidzhan region. There are grave, serious shortcomings; faults about which no one previously knew and which Prof. Bruck did not evaluate correctly, or entirely overlooked.
Those present at the session went away late at night not in a very cheerful mood. The summary of Merezhin’s report gave Bragin an opportunity to declare publicly at the session “I told you so,” and the representatives of the Agro-Joint present at the meeting, Dr. Joseph Rosen and Ezekiel Grower, were given the opportunity to impress upon the meeting that they had been right in saying that the Bira-Bidzhan region ought to be investigated more thoroughly, before attempting to colonize it upon a large scale.
The central theme of the Merezhin’s report was the discovery that there is almost no good dry land suitable for agriculture available in Bira-Bidzhan. There is only enough good soil for 25,000 families and the trouble is that a goodly portion of this land has already been occupied by Russians.
In his official report Prof. Bruck did not tell about the large stretch of land that is in a swampy condition and which must first be dried out before human beings can settle on it to carry on agriculture. Merezhin, however, did report about this. Prof. Bruck did not tell in his report that the region is full of mountains which interfere with normal agriculture and with the building of roads. Merezhin did report about these mountains. The swampy regions and the mountains cast an entirely different light upon the entire Bira-Bidzhan project. If people cannot be settled there so soon before drying out the swamps, it means that immigration on a large scale will not be practicable for the time being.
The entire financial system of the immigration movement must now be altered due to the swampy regions and mountains found by Merezhin. It costs a goodly sum to dry out the swamps. Building roads around the mountains, instead of in straight line also costs a great deal. Such great expenses were not foreseen in the original plan and now they will have to be undertaken. This will be felt by the entire Bira-Bidzhan budget and will lead to the result that for the time being not more than 10,000 families will be settled there.
The process of transporting colonists to Bira-Bidzhan will now have to be slower than originally planned. The Comzet has for the time being only 1,00,000 roubles at its disposal, while the preparatory work alone will cost more than this sum. This sum must be invested in Bira-Bidzhan this year. The work of draining the swampy regions must be begun at once if it is desired to settle some Jews on the land next year. The colonists who will come to Bira-Bidzhan next year will not receive dry land alone. They will have to be given a portion of dry land and a portion of drained land. Otherwise it will be difficult to carry out the plan of colonizing 10,000 families for agricultural purposes in the proposed period of five years.
The housing problem is one of the difficulties. It is evident that in Bira-Bidzhan it will not be possible to build houses slowly over a period of four years as these houses are being built in the Crimea or the Ukraine for Jewish immigrants. Here the houses must be constructed immediately upon the arrival of the immigrants, or perhaps prepared before their arrival. The local conditions in Bira-Bidzhan demand this. Flies in summer and the severe cold in winter make it impossible to live in barracks. Good houses must be built there. This involves the Comzet in new expenditures upon which it had not counted originally. This is also one of the reasons why the speed of mimigration will have to be much slower than originally expected. The building of a house and the settling of a family in Bira-Bidzhan should, according to estimates of Agro-Joint experts, amount to about 4.000 roubles. Three hundred families would swallow up the first million roubles that the Comzet has obtained for Bira-Bidzhan and, while its easy to obtain from the Soviet government free land for Jewish colonization, it is not so easy to obtain millions in cash.
There is still another difficulty which has appeared in the course of the work in Bira-Bidzhan. That is the great cost of plowing the soil.
Forty roubles per acre is the price paid for plowing the dry soil in Bira-Bidzhan, according to Merezhin. If this soil should be plowed with tractors, this must also cost $35 per acre, and this is a very large sum which also burdens the immigration budget.
The Comzet will therefore now be forced to make a thorough change in its budgetary plans concerning Bira-Bidzhan. It will not be able to obtain frequent millions from government funds for Bira-Bidzhan. It will become necessary then to cut down the plans which had been worked out upon so large a scale.
Merezhin expressed the belief that the rice plantations can be a success only if they will be worked according to most modern American methods. Until now the rice plantations have been deserted. The Jews will not be able to accomplish anything upon them with primitive methods. With American machinery, Merezhin believes, it will be possible to accomplish a great deal.
Dr. Rosen who was present at the meeting at which Merezhin presented his report, declared that he did not think Jews would be able to work the rice plantations even with American methods. He pointed out that even in America the workers on rice plantations are negroes and Indians, but not whites. But Merezhin does believe in the future of the rice plantations if they should be cultivated with American methods and machinery.
He also expressed the hope that if the rice plantations turn out to be a success, it will be possible to secure a loan with the rice harvest as security, and with these sums to further develop the work in Bira-Bidzhan.
“American technical methods–upon their use depends the success of the Bira-Bidzhan project”–this thought was emphasized by Merezhin, and also by Prof. Bruck who spoke at the same session as Merezhin. Not only the rice plantations, but also the general work in Bira Bidzhan depends upon the extent to which it will be possible to install American methods of technical cultivation. “Only with newest American technical means will we be able to obtain in Bira-Bidzhan the desired results.” Prof. Bruck reported at the meeting, and Merezhin absolutely agreed with him this time.
Does this mean that prospects in Bira-Bidzhan are altogether unpromising, as Dr. Rosen publicly declared at the meeting after listening to Merezhin’s report?
It is difficult to say “Yes” or “No.” Merezhin brought out in his report that although agriculture will be rather difficult in Bira-Bidzhan, it will be very easy for Jews to become established as artisans. The region has great need of tailors, shoe-makers, and handworkers in general. Among the 10.000 families which the Comzet intends to settle in Bira-Bidzhan, during the next five years, there will be 2.000 families of artisans. They will be able to settle in small towns of the Amur region among the local population which travels after small hand manufactured products. This has already been done by those Bira-Bidzhan immigrants who have a trade in hands. Such is the situation of handworkers and of those Jews who want to work at lumbering in the neighboring forests. A Jew who has a horse and wagon can earn in Bira-Bidzhan guaranteed five roubles per diem during the winter months from November to March if he wants to work in the forest. This shows good prospects for immigrants during the winter months when there is no agricultural work. Five roubles is a large sum for a peasant and he can even save some of it for the summer.
It is self-evident that the Bira-Bidzhan plan was not originally based upon handwork industry or lumbering work. The important aim was to colonize Jews as agricultural workers. When twenty per cent of the immigrants will have to be dependent upon handwork and will settle in small towns around Tichonkoye, as Merezhin supposes, the entire Bira-Bidzhan idea assumes an altogether different character. The same is also true if the Jewish immigrants should be dependent upon the lumbering work. One must keep in view, however, the fact that the Bira-Bidzhan settlement opens up a possibility for Jewish artisans in the Ukraine and White Russia to come to the Amur region and to occupy themselves with familiar work to which they are accustomed from childhood. In the colonies of the Ukraine and the Crimea there is no such possibility.
Due to the changes which the Comzet will now be forced to make in its financial plans, there will probably be a limitation of the credits which the Comzet has until now been giving to the Jewish colonization work in the Crimea, White Russia and the Ukraine.
This naturally is a very unfortunate occurrence, but it looks as if the Comzet will have no other expedient. The Bira-Bidzhan project must be carried out now; it requires much more money than was originally planned, and it is now an established fact that the Agro-Joint will not participate in it. It remains then for the Comzet and Ozet to carry on alone the work of Bira-Bidzhan with the small assistance that the Icor will be able to secure for them in America.
The Ozet will probably have to renounce all its other work and concentrate its finances exclusively upon Bira-Bidzhan. It will probably hand over its colonies in the Evpatoria district to the Agro-Joint if the Agro-Joint will want to take them over. It will also have to cut down on its work among the Caucasian mountain Jews; in short, it will have to mobilize all its finances solely for Bira-Bidzhan.