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Author opens the Pandora’s box of Russia’s curious autonomous Jewish ghost town

While Chaim Weitzman and Nahum Sokolow were in Britain campaigning for a Zionist state, the Bolsheviks were busy implementing their own vision -- in the USSR

Masha Gessen, author of 'Where the Jews Aren't.' (Lee Towndrow)
Masha Gessen, author of 'Where the Jews Aren't.' (Lee Towndrow)

LONDON — Today, the Russian Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan can only be described as a “shtetl theme park.” However, when created during the late 1920s, it was meant to be a Jewish utopia.

Masha Gessen, a US-based journalist and author born in the Soviet Union, has recently published a book investigating an intriguing but forgotten nugget of Russian and Jewish history, “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad And Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.”

Following the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks claimed they were going to reconstitute the entire Russian Empire as a federation of national autonomies. An ambitious idea certainly, but it was a Leninist fantasy, full of empty rhetoric and false promises.

Still, before it all fell apart, a destination for a new Jewish autonomous region was decided on — a small town called Birobidzhan located in the Far East near the Russian border with China.

‘What was the argument that gave birth to the idea of Birobidzhan in the first place’

“Birobidzhan is an idea that almost never happened,” the 49-year-old journalist explains when we begin chatting.

Gessen explains her motivation for writing the book.

“What seemed more interesting to me was the argument that gave birth to the idea of Birobidzhan in the first place,” she says.

Chiefly, this idea originated — albeit in a roundabout way — from Simon Dubnow, a prominent historian and theoretician on Eastern European Jewry.

In “Letters on Old and New Judaism,” which he published at the turn of the twentieth century, Dubnow argued that rather than assimilate, Jews should have autonomy and self rule. However, unlike Zionism, autonomism sought to avoid the normal trappings of a full state.

Cover, 'Where the Jews Aren't,' by Mashe Gessen. (Penguin Random House)
Cover, ‘Where the Jews Aren’t,’ by Mashe Gessen. (Penguin Random House)

Dubnow’s vision of a self governing autonomy was a state within a state. It would eschew violence, having a military, the need for territorial claims, and sovereignty. Instead, this Jewish autonomous region would concentrate primarily on culture — specifically secular Judaism.

It was Dubnow’s concept of autonomism that laid the foundations, or spurred on at least, the initial idea for an experimental Jewish autonomous region that the Bolsheviks created during the late 1920s.

The Soviets may have used Dubnow’s ideas to bring about the creation of Birobidzhan itself. But Gessen points out that the Belorussian writer never consented to the idea of Birobidzhan in any way.

“Dubnow had no use for the Bolsheviks, and he certainly didn’t believe any good could come from the Soviet experiment for the Jews,” she adds.

The Jewish autonomous region was an abysmal failure from the get-go. For starters, as Gessen’s book points out, it was poorly planned. The Soviet government even ignored a report compiled by Communist bureaucrats as far back as 1926.

Always feasting their eyes on the bigger ideological prize of a world-wide communist revolution rather than thinking about the welfare of its actual citizens, the Soviets pressed ahead nevertheless, aiming to move a million people to Birobidzhan within 10 years.

Most of the Jews who came to Birobidzhan were returning from places like Argentina, the United States and Palestine. Nowhere near a million settlers arrived; in the end, it was actually closer to a few thousand. Those who came were cobblers, tailors and furriers.

Vladimir Lenin (photo credit: de:Moses Solomonowitsch Nappelbaum, Wikimedia Commons)
Vladimir Lenin (photo credit: de:Moses Solomonowitsch Nappelbaum, Wikimedia Commons)

They didn’t know the first thing about agriculture. Besides, even if they did, the land was poor and not fit for farming.

Most settlers, taking a quick look at Birobidzhan when they arrived, quickly moved on, either to Ukraine or Tikhonkaya, where they hoped to get work. The poorer ones stayed.

After World War II, a new influx of Jews arrived too, desperate and destitute.

The fundamental idea of Birobidzhan, in theory, had ambition, aspiration, and nobility. So, is it possible to give the Bolsheviks some credit for at least attempting the project of the Jewish autonomous region even if it didn’t quite work out as planned?

“Well, the Bolshevik Revolution was a revolution of murderers and terrorists,” Gessen makes clear, lest anyone start getting misty eyed for the glory days of Marxism across Eastern Europe during the 20th century.

“Lenin’s ambition was spelled out from the very beginning: to create a dictatorship that advocated state terror.”

But on the other hand, didn’t the Bolsheviks lift the restrictions on Jews that had been there from the time of Tsarist Russia, when Jews couldn’t live outside of the Pale of Settlement?

“Let’s be specific about what happened to Jews under the Bolshevik regime,” says Gessen. “The double-edged sword was evident from the very start. On the one hand, yes, the Bolsheviks lifted the restrictions. But on the other hand, the Bolsheviks banned private business.”

‘Lenin’s ambition was spelled out from the very beginning: to create a dictatorship that advocated state terror’

“For hundreds of thousand of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, this meant catastrophic pauperisation because they could no longer engage in private [trade],” she says. “These Jews were in desperate states and starving, and so a one-way ticket to a land where, just maybe, they would be able to do a little bit better, seemed like a good option to them at that time.”

Economic necessity was certainly one reason for attracting these Jews to Birobidzhan.

But there were cultural reasons too. Historian Dubnow may have been the intellectual mastermind that the Bolsheviks gleaned their ideas from to set up Birobidzhan in the first place, but the Soviets — no strangers to manipulating propaganda to their advantage — would also use another Jewish intellectual to actually implement the idea and bring it to life.

His name was David Bergelson, a writer and scholar at the center of the European-Yiddish literati.

David Bergelson with his son, Lev. (Wikimedia commons/Elisheva Kitrossky)
David Bergelson with his son, Lev. (Wikimedia commons/Elisheva Kitrossky)

Bergelson was a correspondent for the Yiddish-language foreign press outside the Soviet Union for many years. He had also lived in Berlin for a time, promoting Yiddish culture. Eventually though, as the racial rhetoric of Nazism soared in Germany in the 1930s, he returned back to the Soviet Union in the hope of staying alive.

It was Bergelson, employed by the Soviet government, who helped persuade many Jews — especially from the United States — to come to Birobidzhan to take part in what he believed would be a Yiddish cultural renaissance, where Jewish theater, journalism and education would all flourish. That was the promise at least.

Red Terror, as Gessen points out, had already set in the moment the Bolshevik revolution begun in 1917. But Stalinist Red Terror — or what’s otherwise known as the Great Terror — gripped the USSR by the mid-1930s.

Thus, with purges in full flow across the Soviet Union during this time, any hopes for a flowering of Jewish culture were firmly crushed almost before they had even begun.

“What is so absurd about the purges in Birobidzhan during this [period] is that they came just a few years after the initial settlements in the region by Jews,” Gessen explains. “And the reasons people were purged was basically for doing the same thing that they had been told earlier was good — like cultivating Yiddish and cultural autonomy. But suddenly all of that stuff became bad under the Soviet regime.”

This is a classic trait of totalitarianism, Gessen explains.

‘What is so absurd about the purges in Birobidzhan is that they came just a few years after the initial settlements’

“It’s a very important part of totalitarian control to create these unpredictable systems of punishment and rewards. Something is good one day, and bad the next. As Hannah Arendt once said, the purpose of all totalitarian purges is to create a permanent state of instability. And that’s exactly what the [Soviets] did.”

Gessen has been highly critical of Russian politics in various books, op-eds, and essays written over the last two decades. She lived in Moscow until she was 16, before emigrating to the United States.

The author then returned to Moscow in her 20s — this time as a reporter with an American passport — viewing Russia with a foot both in the West and East simultaneously.

Gessen eventually moved back to Moscow to live, only to return to New York again, where she presently resides.

In 2012 Gessen published a book that received global attention, “A Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on the US and Russia's agreement to enforce ceasefire in Syria in his office near Moscow on February 22, 2016. (AFP / SPUTNIK / MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV)
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on the US and Russia’s agreement to enforce ceasefire in Syria in his office near Moscow on February 22, 2016. (AFP / SPUTNIK / MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV)

The book painted an unflattering picture of the current Russian political system, likening it more in structure, hierarchy, and design to an organized mafia crime gang than to a proper democratic state with checks and balances.

If the current system of government in Russia is prejudice against numerous ethnic groups and minorities, things weren’t much better in the Soviet Union. During the entire post-WWII period, for instance, Gessen claims the former communist state was marked by what she calls “systemic forced anti-Semitism.” Even so, she does say this almost immediately stopped overnight once the Soviet Union collapsed.

This state-enforced policy of anti-Semitism reached its apotheosis just one year before Stalin’s death, a subject Gessen spends considerable time discussing in her latest book.

‘What you had was for the first time in the history of Stalinist terror, an ethnic group specifically being targeted’

Namely because it was the moment when David Bergelson — initially recruited by the Soviets to promote the idea of Birobidzhan — was murdered by firing squad.

The murder is commonly known in Soviet history by some as Stalin’s Last Execution. Others refer to it as The Night of the Murdered Poets.

Either way, pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: On August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish-language writers, poets, scholars and doctors were executed by the Soviet regime.

“What you had during this period was for the first time in the history of Stalinist terror, an ethnic group specifically being targeted,” Gessen explains. “That really hadn’t happened before. Never had something that closely resembled racial rhetoric entered into the language of an ongoing campaign.”

“The campaign against the Jews [in the Soviet Union during this time] was very much a media campaign,” says Gessen.

Joseph Stalin in July, 1941, the year after he ordered the assassination of Leon Trotsky. (Public domain)
Joseph Stalin in July, 1941, the year after he ordered the assassination of Leon Trotsky. (Public domain)

“It lasted for nearly five years, from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953. It’s not like the Soviet Union wasn’t anti-Semitic before this. But it really tapped into these deep reserves of prejudice. And created the structure of anti-Semitism that persisted until the end of the [Cold War].”

Gessen insists that the Jewish history of the Soviet Union remains a story without a proper narrative. Russia may have once been home to millions of Jews. But nowadays that’s changed. With so few Jews left in the country today, and with little uniting them, the Russian Jewish world is what Gessen describes as a place full of “absences and silences.”

This was exemplified with great clarity, says the journalist, when, carrying out research for her book, she visited Birobidzhan back in 2009.

“Birobidzhan nominally is still the Jewish autonomous region [in Russia],” says Gessen. “There are still a few people there who identify themselves as Jewish. But the whole place looks and feels a bit like a shtetl theme park.”

“Also, while the local museum does have some Jewish history in it, the Holocaust isn’t a part of that history,” she says.

But then again, she adds, that’s hardly surprising.

“The Holocaust was never talked about as part of the official historiography of the Soviet Union, and so that is how it stayed in Birobidzhan too,” she says. “It’s a story that is never told. But none of this is out of the ordinary. [Today] in Russia you don’t talk about the Holocaust or about Stalin’s Terror.”

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