Skip to main content
Select Source:

Birobidzhan

BIROBIDZHAN

Beginning in 1928 the Soviet Union set aside a territory the size of Belgium for Jewish settlement, located some five thousand miles east of Moscow along the Soviet-Chinese border near Khabarovsk. Believing that Soviet Jewry, like other national minorities, deserved a territorial homeland, the regime decided to create a Jewish enclave that would become the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934 and is popularly known as Birobidzhan, the region's capital city. The Soviet leadership hoped that Birobidzhan would serve as an alternative to Palestine by fostering the development of a secular, Jewish culture rooted in socialist principles. Yiddish, and not Hebrew, was intended to serve as the bedrock of a proletarian Soviet Jewish culture and community. Birobidzhan would promote the national-cultural consolidation of Soviet Jewry. The establishment of Birobidzhan was the first instance of an officially acknowledged Jewish national territory since ancient times.

During Birobidzhan's first decade of existence, the study of Yiddish was obligatory in all schools; along with Russian, Yiddish had been made an official language of the region. Consequently, all government and party documents appeared in both Russian and Yiddish. In addition, a Jewish theater and a library with a sizable Judaica collection were established. In 1935 the local authorities decreed that all government documents had to appear in both Yiddish and Russian. Many left-wing Jews and pro-Soviet organizations in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere closely followed events in Birobidzhan; many sent money and machinery, while perhaps one thousand to two thousand Jews decided to move to the purported Soviet Zion during in the 1930s.

Despite efforts to encourage Jews to resettle in the region during the first decade of its existence and again for a few years after the end of World War II, the Birobidzhan experiment failed dismally. Not only did the region fail to attract many Jews because of its remoteness from the center of Jewish population, but the harsh conditions kept significant numbers of Jews from migrating. By 1939 just less than 18,000 of the region's approximately 109,000 inhabitants were Jews. Soviet Jews were more inclined to move to one of the major cities of the western Soviet Union, such as Minsk, Leningrad, Kiev, Moscow, or Odessa, than to uproot themselves to the marshes of Birobidzhan, where there were limited educational and job opportunities. Moreover, the Kremlin's attitude toward Jews turned hostile by the time of the Great Purges of 19361938, when the regime clamped down on Jewish settlement. The government closed almost all the Yiddish schools in the region, dismantled agencies dealing with Jewish resettlement, shut down many cultural and social Jewish institutions, and promoted the cultural assimilation of Jews. While retaining Yiddish as an official language and maintaining the fiction that Birobidzhan embodied the national and cultural aspirations of Soviet Jewry, the regime nonetheless stifled the emergence of Jewish culture and society.

In the wake of World War II, the Kremlin revived in 1946 and 1947 Jewish migration to Birobidzhan and resuscitated Yiddish culture. But the emergence of government-sponsored anti-Semitism during the last years of Josef Stalin's life destroyed any hope that Birobidzhan would develop into the center of Soviet Jewish life. Still, Yiddish remains one of the official languages of the region to this day, and since the early 1930s a Yiddish newspaper, one of the few of its kind, has been published continuously, except when World War II disrupted publication for several years. Indeed, in the early 1990s the offices of the KGB displayed plaques in both Russian and Yiddish, as did all other government buildings, despite the fact that Jews numbered no more than several thousand out of a total population of more than 200,000. Even fewer Jewish inhabitants knew Yiddish, and even fewer know it today. Nevertheless, Birobidzhan's continued existence is a curious legacy of Soviet nationality policy.

See also: jews; nationalities policies, soviet

bibliography

Abramsky, Chimen. (1978). "The Biro-Bidzhan Project, 19271959." In The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917, 3rd ed., ed. Lional Kochan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kagedan, Allan Laine. (1994). Soviet Zion: The Quest for a Russian Jewish Homeland. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Mintz, Mattityahu. (1995). "The Birobidzhan Idea: When Was It First Proposed?" Jews in Eastern Europe 1(26):510.

Schwarz, Solomon. (1969). "Birobidzhan. An Experiment in Jewish Colonization." In Russian Jewry, 19171967, ed. Jacob Frumkin et al. London: Thomas Yoseloff.

Weinberg, Robert. (1998). Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, an Illustrated History, 1928-1996. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robert Weinberg

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Birobidzhan." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Birobidzhan." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/birobidzhan

"Birobidzhan." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/birobidzhan

Jewish Autonomous Region

Jewish Autonomous Region or Birobidzhan (bērōbējän´), autonomous region (1995 pop. 211,900), c.13,800 sq mi (35,700 sq km), Khabarovsk Territory, Russian Far East, in the basins of the Biro and Bidzhan rivers, tributaries of the Amur. The capital is Birobidzhan. The region is bounded on the south by China (Heilongjinag prov.) and on the north by the Bureya and Hinggan (Khingan) mts., which yield gold, tin, iron ore, and graphite. Mining, agriculture (chiefly on the Amur plain), lumbering, and light manufacturing are the major economic activities.

Formed in 1928 to give Soviet Jews a home territory and to increase settlement along the vulnerable borders of the Soviet Far East, the area was raised to the status of an autonomous region in 1934. The Jewish population peaked in 1948 at about 30,000 (one fourth of the total population). Despite some remaining Yiddish influences—including a Yiddish newspaper—Jewish cultural activity in the region has declined enormously since Stalin's anticosmopolitanism campaigns and since the liberalization of Jewish emigration in the 1970s. Jews now make up less than 2% of the region's population.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jewish Autonomous Region." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Jewish Autonomous Region." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jewish-autonomous-region

"Jewish Autonomous Region." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jewish-autonomous-region

Birobidzhan

Birobidzhan: see Jewish Autonomous Region, Russia.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Birobidzhan." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Birobidzhan." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/birobidzhan

"Birobidzhan." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/birobidzhan