09 February 2016

Birobidzhan, a Russian Jewish autonomous oblast near Vladivostok

Theodor Herzl, World Zionist Council president, sought support from the world’s great powers for the creation of a Jewish homeland. At the 6th Zionist Congress at Basel in 1903, it seemed as if it would take too long to save all the Jews in Europe by establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. While waiting for the great powers to act, there was a risk that the 6 million Jews in Russia and 3 million Jews in Poland could be in dire peril. A temporary refuge was desperately needed. Uganda? Extremely remote territories in Canada and Australia, Iraq, Libya or Angola? They were all unsuccessful.

After WW1, the search continued in remote territories. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the situation of the Jewish people was considered as part of the overall question of ALL min­orities within the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders invested significant resources toward the cultural and national development of the Soviet Union’s many ethnic minorities. Soviet policies defined nationality primarily on the basis of language and territory, an understanding with which many East European Jewish intellectuals agreed. Most Jews in Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish so the Jews had a native language, but they did not have a territory; this was a problem that socialist Jewish activists and the Soviet state worked to rectify. 

The solut­ion to the problem of landlessness had been to move Jewish families to farm lands in Southern Russia (now Ukraine). Alas there was almost no room left on the Crimea.  So the new plan was to create an autonomous Jewish oblast/territory within the Soviet Union and to encourage Jews to move there.

Trans-Siberian Railway 
from Moscow to Vladivostok via Birobidzhan

Birobidzhan, on the Russian border with China north of Vladivostok, had a harsh geography and climate: it was mountainous, covered with vir­gin forests of oak, pine and cedar, and swamplands; any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch! And build they did – with help. In 1926 Polit­buro member Lazar Kaganovich spoke at a congress of Society for Jewish agricultural settlement Ozet: "The Jewish people now faces the great task of preserving its nationality. For this pur­pose a large segment of the Jewish population must transform it­self into a compact farming population, numbering at least several hundred thousand souls."

If most Russian Jews had worked primarily as traders and small-scale craftspeople, not as farmers, could they be moved from their socio­economic position into agriculture? Since the heart of the distant settle­ment was the Trans-Siberian railway and Birobidzhan Stat­ion, the railways prov­ided the only com­munic­ation link AND tons of emp­loy­ment opportunities. And to make colonisat­ion more enticing, the Soviet government allowed private land-ownership.

Then in March 1928, the General Executive Committee of the USSR passed the decree for the settlement of working Jews near the Amur River in the Far East, the Jewish administrative unit in Birobidzhan. This new oblast would be located on the Trans-Siberian Railway and would become a separate economic unit.

 Biro­bid­zhan's main railway station (above). Note the names in
Russian and Yiddish

Settlers statue in front of the main railway station (below)

In the same year the first organised group of Jewish settlers arrived from cities and villages in Russia, including what is now Ukraine and Byelorussia. These indiv­id­uals settled in many different areas of the autonomous oblast, some in Biro­bid­zhan City and others in various rural settlements. Vald­geym was the first organised Jewish collective farm started in the oblast. The very next year, in 1929, Valdgeym's first school was opened with all subjects taught in Yiddish and Russian.

The number of Jewish citizens peaked at 30,000 and since they made up more than a quarter of the oblast’s total population, primary schools, high schools, training centres, Yiddish theatres and the Shalom Aleichem regional library were founded. The synagogue was small and only made of timber, because the soc­ialists were very interested in Judaism as a culture, not as a rel­igion.

Thus the mid-1930s was a period of great achievements in Birobid­zhan's development as a centre of Russian Jewish settlement. Even more excited were the 2000 Jewish pioneers from out­side the Soviet Union who emigrated to Birobidzhan in the 1930s. The American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidjan/Ambidjan, established in 1934, was heroic in its financial and practical support (at least until Senator McCarthy and his allies destroyed the Committee’s leaders and supporters in the USA).

Jewish farmers in Vald­geym, a rural area in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast
They originially came from Southern Russia, now Ukraine

Why did the Russians spend a fortune on the autonomous Jewish oblast? An important goal of the Birobidzhan project was to increase settle­ment in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable bord­er with China. The then-Manchurian border was often infiltrated by the Chinese, and threatened by Japan. So in Moscow they were encouraging:
1] a military and civilian population along the vulnerable bor­der with China,
2] an urgently needed comm­u­n­­ic­ations, especially a sophisticated train system and
3] a Russian base for tertiary studies and science expedit­ions in the East. And
4] Birobidzhan had abundant mineral wealth, especially in its tin ores. These would be the basis of a large national metallurgical industry.

In the end Birobidzhan Jewish community was greatly reduced. Twice, in 1936–37 and in 1948–49, Stalinist purges damaged Jewish dreams. Most remaining settlers immigrated in 1950 and 1951, ending the era of autonomous Jewish life and culture in Birobidzhan. Nonetheless the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok via Birobidzhan is still excellent; visitors can locate their grandparents’ houses, businesses and synagogues, and can still see the railway station named in Russian and Yiddish.

06 February 2016

Inch Kenneth (Island) in the Scottish Hebrides

The island of Inch Kenneth lies a short distance off the west coast of Mull, not far from Ulva. Note Mull, Arran, Kintyre, Jura and Islay on the map.

Inch Kenneth is has typical Hebridean setting complete with sea cliffs, but its fertile soil promotes flower-rich grassland. Less than 2 ks in length and 1 k at its widest, the island provides easy walking surr­ounded by some wonderful scenery on the Isle of Mull.

The island might be tiny, but it has had four events in history of note.

Firstly the arrival of Christianity. The island was named after Saint Kenneth (c525-600) who was Irish abbot & miss­ion­ary. A contemporary of Columba, the two men started converting the Picts together. Pictish king Brude Mac Maelchon was one of Saint Kenneth’s success stories; he and his kingdom were converted to Christianity, either voluntarily or otherwise. Kenneth was one of the most popular Celtic saints and he clearly loved Scotland, but I am not sure why he chose a minutely small northern island to found monastery on.

warrior chief Hector McLean’s grave stone
 Chapel ruins

Secondly the medieval era. What evidence has been found on the island noting a specific Viking presence? Not much! A Scandinavian silver hoard dating to the late 10th or early 11th centuries was recovered from Inch Kenneth. And one interesting gravestone with a weathered slate depiction of a Viking Longship.

However visitors can easily find the ruins of a C12th chapel on the island with its double lancet window on the east wall. Historic Scotland maintains the medieval chapel and the land around it. Clan MacLean owned Islay, much of Mull and many of the smaller is­lands. Most stones found around the chapel commemorate Clan MacLean, but it was said that Kings of Scotland were buried here if storms prevent­ed passage to their alternative resting place, Iona.

The C14th-16th stones are carved with var­ious intricate animals, plant scrolls, ring knots, galleys and swords. Beside the church within the graveyard grounds is the warrior chief Hector McLean’s grave stone. The sandstone slab showed an armed man in high relief, his head rested on a cushion and his feet against an animal. In his right hand he held a round ball, on his left arm a raised shield showed a coat of arms. He also carried a sword and a dirk.

Thirdly the island was visited in Oct 1773 by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell during their tour of the Hebrides; they were entertained there by Sir Allan MacLean, head of the Maclean clan, for two days and two nights. Both Johnson and Boswell loved their visit.

Johnson wrote in The Works of Samuel Johnson Vol 12: We all walked together to the mansion, where we found one cottage for Sir Allan, and two more for the domesticks and the offices. We entered, and wanted little that palaces afford. Our room was neatly floored, and well lighted; and our dinner, which was dressed in one of the other huts, was plentiful and delicate. Its only inhabitants were Sir Allan Maclean and two young ladies, his daughters, with their servants. The anchorage seems quite far out from the shore but is pretty good, even I should imagine in rough weather”.

Boswell wrote in  Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: Being informed that there was nothing worthy of observation in Ulva, we took boat, and proceeded to Inchkenneth, where we were introduced by our friend Col to Sir Allan M'Lean, the chief of his clan, and to two young ladies, his daughters. Inchkenneth is a pretty little island, a mile long, and about half a mile broad, all good land. As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson's heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

Fourthly the modern era. Baron Harold Boulton had owned the island, living in a tall cream manor house originally built in the 1830s and modernised by him in the 1930s. Then the island was bought by David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale. The entire Mitford family loved holid­aying on Inch Ken­neth, living in the only house on the island.
Manor house, built in the 1830s
Bought and renovated by Baron Harold Boulton
Then bought by Baron Redesdale and the Mitford clan.

One of six Mitford sisters, Unity Mitford (1914-48) was a staunch supp­orter of the Fascist movement and an intimate of Adolf Hitler. When her sister Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley married in Goebbels’s drawing room in October 1936, Unity and Hitler were there to celebrate. But after five years in Hitler's inner circle, Unity’s love for the Fuhrer fell apart. In 1939 Hitler warned Unity and Diana that war with Britain was inevitable and imminent, and they should return to the UK. On the day war was declared, Unity shot herself in the head in Munich. She survived, returned to Britain and spent her last years on Inch Kenneth.

Unity used to hang the Nazi swastika from the flagpole in the hall; she was so passionate in her belief in the Nazi cause that her bedroom in the island house was covered in pictures of Hitler. Clearly brain damaged, she spent those nine years planning her own funeral. She died from meningitis in 1948 in nearby Oban.

When their mother Lady Redesdale died in 1963, the island was inherited by the surviving Mitford sisters. The Mitfords sold it in 1967 to Yvonne Barlow, an artist. If people want to visit now, Mull Charters conduct regular charter boat trips to Inch Kenneth from Easter to October. The piano is still there, along with Unity’s gramophone and the recordings of German marching songs with swastikas on the covers. The Mitford’s dining table and the four-poster beds are in place, as is the collection of books published by the Nazis.

Inch Kenneth marked in black off Mull.
Note Mull, Arran, Kintyre, Jura and Islay on the map.

This little spot in the Scottish Hebrides is still population-free, fertile, scenic and serene.

02 February 2016

History Carnival Jan 2016. Architecture, the visual arts and literature

We often assume that hist­ory can only be analysed via near-contemporary texts, so the theme of this month’s carnival was "the use of the visual, performing, musical and literary arts".  We can analyse history via these modes that did not come from official royal, church or military sources.

First architecture. Nick V at Intelliblog analysed Ephesus. Town planning made the Greek city famous; the Temple of Artemis c550 BC was an Ancient Wonder, but it was Emperor Constantine who rebuilt the public architecture.

Adrian Yekkes' fine example of Russian art nouveau was the 1902 Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow. Now the Maxim Gorky House Museum, visit the rooms used to exhibit paintings, Gorky's library and his furnishings. The house also tells the history of the Old Believers sect.

Heather Cowper in Heather on Her Travels saw Venice's  St Mark’s square, Doge’s palace and the Basilica, San Georgio Maggiore Island & Palladio's church, Murano's glass industry and Madonna dell’Orto Church with Tintoretto art and the Old Customs House with golden Fortuna. 

C18th Venice was a city famous for high quality art, music and fest­iv­ities. Masked revellers att­ended the opera. Vivaldi was maestro di concerti at the Pietà, responsible for composition, rehearsal and performance. But artistic reputations come and go, as Venetian Cat showed.

San Georgio Maggiore in Venice 

In Heritage CallingShrewsbury’s Flaxmill Maltings was a large factory embodying modern structural engineering. 50% of the workforce were women and 35% were children under 16, working long weeks. Engines with dominant boilers and tall chimneys appeared like a modern skyscraper.

On The Convict Trail discussed Horsecroft, an early colonial structure in Sorell Tasmania. Captain Glover and the convicts built the 400 acres homestead and stone barn in 1826 and a stone walled sheep fold. Read the history of bush rangers, and of Queen Victoria and her far flung colonies.

Louise Wilson, Author wrote Australian history, natural and built, in one post. She discussed the floods, droughts, hard woods and bushfires, noting the impact on The First Fleet, convict architect Francis Greenway, churches, gold rush, creation of Canberra and the nation's transport systems.

Now Sculpture. Black Mark by Mark Holsworth told Melbourne's public sculpture story. Bertram Mackennal's dad did the architectural ornamentation on Victoria’s Parliament House. Bertram soon became Australia’s star at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Ornamental Passions by Chris Partridge analysed Temple Bar Memorial. City of London authority extended beyond the old walls, becoming both decorative & functional. A new stone bar was built post-Great Fire. And redesigned by Horace Jones (1819–87), architect of Tower Bridge.

Then paintings, photos & film. A thing for the past analysed the history of beards, shaving and razors in the C18th. Johan cleverly analysed Scandinavian paintings and sculptures, and looked for differences based on age, income, participation in the military and urban/rural settings.

Follow Jacques Tissot's career in A fancy Frenchman’s Jewish Jesus. Tissot lived the good life in London from 1871 on, painting lush society women. Only in 1885, aged 50, did he have a St Paul moment. He visited Ottoman Palestine, painting landscape, architecture, religion and people.

Art and Architecture, mainly analysed the history of modern German art, starting with Die Brücke's campaign against Wilhelmine morality in 1905. Most of the artists now in a Israel Museum Exhibition were branded degenerate after 1933, and their art confiscated, destroyed or sold.

Ben Knowles in The Victorian Era examined Russian paintings of porcelain tea sets and asked about the social history of tea drinking in Scandinavia and Russia.

Bruce Dearstyne wrote about Albany's Institute of History & Art in The New York History Blog. "The Capital Region in 50 Objects Exhibit" tells of conflict, industrial history, politics and culture. The site was established in 1791 as the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures.

Environment, Law, and History by Mark Weiner analysed the Austrian landscape around Salzburg. His video explored it as an inheritance of the legal principles of monarchy and of a desire for security. In the same blog David Schorr wrote "Art and the history of environmental law", a series that started with the Impressionists and continued into the C20th.

Jason M Kelly discussed Indianapolis' Museum of the Anth­rop­ocene. The idea was to create an outdoor, city-wide museum that explored their history, science, art and beauty. Vista markers along Indianapolis’ 8 mile Cultural Trail highlight important park features and and cultural districts.


Now literature. Stylisticienne highlighted the role of noble women in commissioning mid C15th English verse. Note the literary interests of teenage Queen Margaret of Anjou who arrived in England in 1445 to marry King Henry VI. 

Elma Brenner analysed a C15th treasure in the Wellcome LibraryFolding almanacs contained astrological, medical and calendrical information, portable reference tools. Its fine artwork and silk binding indicated a wealthy patron.

the many-headed monster by Jonathan Willis showed Oliver Cromwell and his C17th puritans tried to ban Christmas because of the revelries!! The abolition of Christmas was a hot topic in the popular pamphlet war of the 1640s-50s.

Napoleon on St Helena reading books was in Finding Napoleon by Margaret Rodenberg. He was always a great reader/book collector; as a general and emperor, he carried a mahogany travelling library! Discover the books he read on St Helena and the men who spent long evenings listening.

The Resident Judge of Port Phillip examined the Melbourne Debating Society from 1841. Janine Rizzetti cited Jeffrey McNairn's book The Capacity to Judge in Upper Canada 1791-1854, analysing the topics selected and the benefits of vigorous public debates in Canada and Australia.

In The Pirate Omnibus, Simon Abernethy examined railway fares in London, in a 1937 Royal Commission. London Transport analysed New York's system of flat rate fares and found that when transport costs were pushed down, rents in distant boroughs rose. But would that happen in London?

In his memoir My War Gone By, I Miss It So Anthony Loyd travelled across Bosnia-Herzegovnia and spent time in Grozny at the height of the First Chechen War. Mandy Southgate reviewed Loyd's history of the region in her blog A Passion To Understand, in the light of subsequent history and trials.


Now American history. The word terrorism was analysed by The Junto blog, starting in a 1795 American news­paper, Philadelphia’s Gazette. In The Reign of Terror (1793-4), France's government purged France of counter­-revolution. The alarmed Washington administration used the term.

The Grems Doolittle blog followed brothers Henry and John Glen, merchants in Albany in the 1760s, and into military affairs during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. And finally the US Congress.

Crailo State Historic Site blog examined King George’s War, a major colonial war fought between England and France which spread to Canada and then the US. The war, which ended in 1748, made few North American border changes.

The Friends of Schoharie Crossing blog followed the career of James Shanahan as a contractor on the Erie & Oswego canals, then railway projects, into New York state politics and finally Superintendent of New York State Canals.

The Quack Doctor blog discussed the use of a medicinal powder to cure drunkedness, Antidipso. These Edwardian advertisements were targeted at the wives of male drinkers.

Kelli Huggins viewed Elmira’s Most Eligible Bachelors in Chemung County Historical Society. The newspaper used images of the town's most eligible single men in 1888. In the same blog, Erin Doane analysed an explosion at Elmira’s Museum building (then a bank) in 1884. And the personal and political life of the bank president, John Arnot Jnr.