Searching for Jewish history on the other side of Siberia


Masha Gessen writes in Slate about her trip to Birobidzhan, the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region:

The original planners of the Jewish Autonomous Region hoped to attract hundreds of thousands of Jews to Birobidzhan; to build a modern, Bauhaus-style city (for if ever there was an idea Jews the world over agreed on, it is exposed concrete and low ceilings); and surround it with rolling fields of wheat cultivated by Yiddish-speaking collective farmers.

Cold, rain, and disease killed most of the crops year after year. The Bauhaus plans were scrapped, and the city grew haphazardly, with settlers living in identical two-story wooden barracks, one room per family, one outhouse per building. Settlers trickled in — never more than 10,000 per year — and many turned back within months of arriving. Two waves of purges — in 1937 and again in 1949 — decimated the Jewish population. The party elite was targeted the first time around, and the cultural elite was rounded up in the second sweep. …

This part of Russia is hazy territory, geographically speaking. Have you ever considered where Siberia ends? Any Russian schoolchild knows that it begins at the Ural Mountains, but few have ever considered the other side of Siberia. But that is precisely where I am: on the other side of Siberia, in the Russian Far East, where the Jewish Autonomous Region was declared to exist in 1934.

I am here to write the history of the worst good idea ever. Autonomism was once the rational alternative to Zionism. Whoever came up with the idea of moving Jews to the Middle East, to live on arid land surrounded by hostile Arabs? Jews should live where they are, speak the language they speak, and enjoy the protection of an established military. … That’s right. The rational Soviet alternative to the crazy concept of settling the Jews in a Middle Eastern desert surrounded by Arabs was to settle the Jews in Far Eastern swampland surrounded by Cossacks. "The locals can barely imagine life in a densely populated country," the prospectors warned, "and view the planned land settlement as a looming catastrophe."

That it was.

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