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.


Andrew said...

In a way it is sad the settlement folded and the sole Jewish settlement became Israel, a rather climatically inhospitable place. It pleases me that the settlers were more focused on race than religion.

Hels said...


That is so true. The Soviets would pour money into schools, farms, theatres, newspapers etc - all cultural pursuits. But not religious institutions.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I never knew about this settlement before. Compared to what was happening before, this offer seems quite generous and well-intentioned, although I am not sure just how good this remote area really was. Also, even if more Jewish settlers relocated there, I wonder how long it would have lasted, given the various politics over the intervening time.

Train Man said...

I have been to Shanghai and Harbin, but never to Birobidzhan. So your paper at the Brisbane conference should be timely.

Hels said...


Not a "settlement" in the sense we normally understand that term. An autonomous oblast was an administrative territory, perhaps akin to a state within a federated nation. And a decent size - the Birobidzhan Oblast covered 36,000 square km, 40% of the size of Tasmania for example and much bigger than New Hampshire.

Even now the population is still under 200,000. Nonetheless the autonomous oblast had/has its own, small legislative assembly. Alas Stalin was hugely destructive across Russia and no community was going to survive his purges.

Hels said...

Train Man

I went to the largest Jewish library in the southern hemisphere and found dozens and dozens of books on the Chinese Jewish communities - Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin in particular. But not a single book on the Russian Jewish autonomous oblast of Birobidzhan. As you suggest, the situation is probably true for organised tourists trips as well. Very strange.

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Hels said...

Sarovar hotel

thank you for your support. I don't do ads in this blog. But I will give you a reference, should you want to read about the autonomous oblast further.

See YIVO Encyclopaedia http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/birobidzhan

Mandy Southgate said...

Reading this I'm reminded again how the genocide machine had been grinding for generations and how precarious the position of Russian and European Jews was. It's an important reminder for genocide scholars - there is always a deep historical precedent for genocide, that's why it always seems to happen so 'easily'. The second thing that stands out is how completely the Nazi achieved their plan. Growing up in a Jewish community, with so many hundreds, if not thousands of families, it was only as an adult that I came to comprehend that they really did wipe out nearly every Jewish community in Europe.

Hels said...


I gave this paper at a history conference this weekend where people said the same thing as you. The crucifying of Christian toddlers by Jewish men to make matzah with their blood goes back to Norwich and Lincoln even before the Expulsion of 1290 AD. Yet the libel continued on for centuries.

Jonathan Arlan said...

The Jewish population of Birobidzhan has dwindled. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the bottom essentially dropped out when Jews started leaving Russia for Israel in droves. Now, around 2,000 of the city’s 70,000 residents are Jewish. Nevertheless, the city clings to its roots. Indeed, in an absurd, theme-park kind of way, it celebrates them.

Step off the Vladivostok-bound train and see, for example, above the station, the name of the city spelled out left to right in blocky Russian and right to left in wobbly Yiddish. Go straight and then left on Sholem Aleichem, one of two main avenues, to a lively pedestrian area with a few shops and a large market, another menorah, and a statue of the Fiddler creator himself. Or go right down Lenin (the other main street), toward the synagogue, the Jewish center, and the yet-to-be-completed kosher restaurant. Here you will find Café Simkha—the city’s premiere and only Jewish-themed restaurant.

Jonathan Arlan
Tablet, July 2018

Hels said...


My generation's parents grew up in the 1920s and 30s, and they were totally hopeful that Birobidzhan would provide a safe haven for tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans. As it turned out, some Holocaust survivors had the newly established state of Israel to be their safe haven. But we still need to give thanks for the young Chabad rabbi and the beautiful Birobidzhan synagogue.