Jewish Autonomous Region

Jewish Autonomous Region

Jewish Autonomous Region or Birobidzhan, 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.

Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Евре́йская автоно́мная о́бласть, Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast) is a federal subject of Russia (autonomous oblast) situated in the Far Eastern federal district, bordering Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast of Russia and Heilongjiang province of China. The region was created in 1934 as the Jewish National District. It was the result of Joseph Stalin's nationality policy, which allowed for the Jewish population of Russia to receive a territory in which to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage within a socialist framework.

Time zone

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is located in the Vladivostok Time Zone (VLAT/VLAST). UTC offset is +1000 (VLAT)/+1100 (VLAST).


The climate in the territory is monsoonal/anti-cyclonic, with warm, wet, humid summers due to the influence of the East Asian monsoon; and cold, dry, windy conditions prevailing in the winter months courtesy of the Siberian high-pressure system.

Administrative divisions


Population (2002 Census): 190,915.

Ethnic groups: As per the 2002 census, ethnic Russians at 171,697 (89.93%), constituted by far the largest part of the population, followed by ethnic Ukrainians at 8,483 (4.44%), Jews (the oblast's titular nation) at 2,327 (1.22%), Tatars at 1,196 (0.63%), and Belarusians 1,182 (0.62%). There were also reported to be 672 Moldavians (0.35%), 594 Azeris (0.31%), 453 Germans (0.24%), 402 Koreans (0.21%), 401 Mordovians (0.21%), 320 Chuvash (0.17%), 282 Armenians (0.15%), 188 Bashkirs (0.10%), 156 Uzbeks (0.08%), 148 Poles (0.08%), 132 Roma (0.07%), 128 Tajiks (0.07%), 103 Mari (0.05%) and 102 Chinese (0.05%). All in all, residents identified themselves as belonging to no less than 95 different ethnic groups.

Vital Statistics for 2007:

  • Births: 2,418 (13.02 per 1000, 12.29 in Urban areas & 14.46 in Rural areas)
  • Deaths: 2,794 (15.05 per 1000, 16.08 in Urban areas & 13.03 in Rural areas).
  • Natural Growth Rate: -0.20% per year (-0.38% in Urban areas & +0.14% in Rural areas).

In 2007, deaths outnumbered births(-376) in urban areas, while rural areas reported a slight excess of births over deaths(+90).


Military colonization and the advent of the Trans-Siberian Railway

In December 1858 the Russian government authorized formation of the Amur Cossacks for protection of the southeast boundary of Siberia and communication on the rivers of Amur and Ussuri. This military colonization included settlers from Transbaikalia. During the years 1858-1882, sixty three settlements were founded, including, in 1857, Radde settlement; in 1858, Pashkovo, Pompeyevka, Puzino, Yekaterino-Nikolskoye, Mikhailo-Semyonovskoye, Voskresenovka, Petrovskoye, and Ventzelevo; in 1860, Storozhevoye, Soyuznoye, and Golovino; later in the decade, Babstovo, Bidzhan, and Bashurovo settlements. Expeditions of scientists — including such geographers, ethnographers, naturalists, and botanists as Venyukov, Schrenck, Maksimovich, Radde, and Komarov - promoted the development of the new territories. Their achievements produced the first detailed "map of the Amur land".

Construction began in 1898 on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Chita and Vladivostok, starting at each end and meeting halfway. The project produced a large influx of new settlers and the foundation of new settlements. In 1908 Volochayevka, Obluchye, and Bira, Russia stations appeared; in 1910, Birakan, Londoko, and In stations; in 1912, Tikhonkaya station. The railroad was completed in October 1916, with the opening of the 2590 m (8500 ft) Khabarovsk Bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk. In the pre-revolutionary period most local inhabitants were farmers. The only industrial enterprise was the Tungusskiy timber mill, although gold was mined in the Sutara River, and there were some small railway workshops. During the civil war, the territory of the future Jewish Autonomous Oblast was the scene of terrible battles. The economy declined, though it was recovering in 1926 and 1927.

Jewish settlement and development in the region

On March 28, 1928, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee of the USSR passed the decree "On the attaching for Komzet of free territory near the Amur River in the Far East for settlement of the working Jews." The decree meant that there was "a possibility of establishment of a Jewish administrative territorial unit on the territory of the called region".

On August 20, 1930 the General Executive Committee of RSFSR accepted the decree "On formation of the Birobidzhan national region in the structure of the Far Eastern Territory". The State Planning Committee considered the Birobidzhan national region as a separate economic unit. In 1932 the first scheduled figures of the region development were considered and authorized.

On May 7, 1934, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee accepted the decree on its transformation in the Jewish Autonomous Region within the Russian Federation. In 1938, with formation of the Khabarovsk Territory, the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) was included in its structure.

According to Joseph Stalin's national policy, each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework. In that sense, it was also a response to two supposed threats to the Soviet state: Judaism, which ran counter to official state policy of atheism; and Zionism, the creation of the modern State of Israel, which countered Soviet views of nationalism. The idea was to create a new "Soviet Zion", where a proletarian Jewish culture could be developed. Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, would be the national language, and a new socialist literature and arts would replace religion as the primary expression of culture.

Stalin's theory on the National Question held that a group could only be a nation if they had a territory, and since there was no Jewish territory, per se, the Jews were not a nation and did not have national rights. Jewish Communists argued that the way to solve this ideological dilemma was by creating a Jewish territory, hence the ideological motivation for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Politically, it was also considered desirable to create a Soviet Jewish homeland as an ideological alternative to Zionism and the theory put forward by Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov that the Jewish Question could be resolved by creating a Jewish territory in Palestine. Thus Birobidzhan was important for propaganda purposes as an argument against Zionism which was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews.

Another important goal of the Birobidzhan project was to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. In 1928, there was virtually no settlement in the area, while Jews had deep roots in the western half of the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia proper. In fact, there had initially been proposals to create a Jewish Soviet Republic in the Crimea or in part of Ukraine but these were rejected because of fears of antagonizing non-Jews in those regions.

The geography and climate of Birobidzhan were harsh, the landscape largely swampland, and any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch. Some have even claimed that Stalin was also motivated by anti-Semitism in selecting Birobidzhan: he wanted to keep the Jews as far away from the centers of power as possible. On the other hand, it must be said that the Ukrainians and Crimeans were reluctant to have a Jewish national home carved out of their territory, even though most Soviet Jews lived there, and there were very few alternative territories without rival national claims to them.

By the 1930s, a massive propaganda campaign was underway to induce more Jewish settlers to move there. Some of these incorporated the standard Soviet propaganda tools of the era, and included posters and Yiddish-language novels describing a socialist utopia there. Other methods bordered on the bizarre. In one instance, leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belarus. In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness told the story of a Jewish family that fled the Depression in the United States to make a new life for itself in Birobidzhan.

As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. A Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern (Биробиджанер Штерн, ביראָבידזשאַנער שטערן, "Star of Birobidzhan"), was established; a theater troupe was created; and streets being built in the new city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz. The Yiddish language was deliberately bolstered as a basis for efforts to secularize the Jewish population and, despite the general curtailment of this action as described immediately below, the Birobidzhaner Shtern continues to publish a section in Yiddish.

Valdgeym is a Jewish settlement within the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The settlement was founded in 1928 and was the first collective farm established in the oblast. In 1980 a Yiddish school was opened in the settlement. Amurzet also has a history of Jewish settlement in the JAO. For the period 1929 through 1939, this village was the center of Jewish settlement south of Birobidzhan. The present day Jewish Community members hold Kabalat Shabbat ceremonies and gatherings that feature songs in Yiddish, Jewish cuisine, and broad information presenting historical facts on Jewish culture. Many descendants of the founders of this settlement, which was established just after the turn of the 20th century, have left their native village. Those who remained here in Amurzet, especially those having relatives in Israel, are learning about the traditions and roots of the Jewish people. The population of Amurzet, as estimated in late 2006, is 5,213. Smidovich is another early Jewish settlement in the JAO.

Stalin and the Doctors' Plot

The Birobidzhan experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges. Jewish leaders were arrested and executed, and Yiddish schools were shut down. Shortly after this, World War II brought to an abrupt end concerted efforts to bring Jews east. Curiously, around these decades, some Japanese officials were pushing the Fugu Plan to attract Jews to the Japanese vassal state of Manchukuo in the former Chinese part of Manchuria.

There was a slight revival in the Birobidzhan idea after the war as a potential home for Jewish refugees. During that time, the Jewish population of the region peaked at almost one-third of the total. Efforts in this direction ended, however, with the Doctors' plot, the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, and Stalin's second wave of purges shortly before his death. Once again, the Jewish leadership was arrested and efforts were made to stamp out Yiddish culture—even the Judaica collection in the local library was burned. In the ensuing years the idea of an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union was all but forgotten.

Some scholars such as Louis Rapoport, Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov assert that Stalin had devised a plan to deport all of the Jews of the Soviet Union to Birobidzhan much as he had internally deported other national minorities such as the Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans, forcing them to move thousands of miles from their homes. The Doctors' Plot may have been the first element of this plan. If so, the plan was aborted by Stalin's death on March 5, 1953.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and new liberal emigration policies, most of the remaining Jewish population left for Germany and Israel. In 1991, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was transferred from under the jurisdiction of Khabarovsk Krai to the jurisdiction of the Federation, but by that time most of the Jews had gone and the remaining Jews now constituted less than two percent of the local population. Nevertheless, Yiddish is once again taught in the schools, a Yiddish radio station is in operation, and as noted above, the Birobidzhaner Shtern includes a section in Yiddish.

L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!, a documentary on Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region and its settlement, was released in 2003. In addition to being a history of the creation of the proposed Jewish homeland, the film features scenes of contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.


The Birobidzhan Jewish National University works in cooperation with the local Jewish community of Birobidzhan. The university is unique in the Russian Far East. The basis of the training course is study of the Hebrew language, history and classic Jewish texts.

In recent years, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast has grown interested in its Jewish roots. Students study Hebrew and Yiddish at a Jewish school and Birobidzhan Jewish National University. In 1989, the Jewish center founded its Sunday school, where children study Yiddish, learn Jewish folk dances, and memorize dates from the history of Israel. The Israeli government helps fund the program.

Within Birobidzhan, there are several state-run schools that teach Yiddish, a Yiddish school for religious instruction and a kindergarten. The five to seven year-olds spend two lessons a week learning to speak Yiddish, as well as being taught Jewish songs, dance and traditions. Today, the city’s 14 public schools must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition. The school Menora was created in 1991. It is a public school that offers a half-day Yiddish and Jewish curriculum for those parents who choose it. About half the school’s 120 pupils are enrolled in the Yiddish course. Many of them continue on to Public School No. 2, which offers the same half-day Yiddish/Jewish curriculum from first through 12th grade. Yiddish also is offered at Birobidzhan’s Pedagogical Institute, one of the only university-level Yiddish courses in the country.

In 2007, "The First Birobidzhan International Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Culture" was launched by Yiddish studies professor Boris Kotlerman of Bar-Ilan University. Yiddish is still the region’s second official language after Russian, although it is spoken only by a handful of the 4,000 remaining Jews.

Judaism in the 21st century

In 2004 the Regional Government announced that Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar has agreed to take part in the 70th anniversary celebration for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Rabbi Lazar and Avraham Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities CIS will lead a delegation to Birobidjan for the event. Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner, the Chief Rabbi of Birobidjan,Chabad Lubavitch representative to the region, and host of Yiddishkeit said "Today one can enjoy the benefits of the Yiddish culture and not be afraid to return to their Jewish traditions. Its safe without any anti-Semitism and we plan to open the first Jewish day school here". It is estimated that at least 3,000 Jews live today in the city. Mordechai Scheiner, an Israeli father of six, has been the rabbi in Birobidzhan for the last five years. The Birobidzhan Synagogue opened in 2004. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia estimates the number of Jews in Russia at about one million, or 0.7 percent of the country's 143 million population. Sheiner says there are 4,000 Jews in Birobidzhan—just over 5 percent of the town's 75,000 population. Governor Nikolay Mikhaylovich Volkov has stated that he intends to, "support every valuable initiative maintained by our local Jewish organizations. In December 2005, the candle-lighting of a Hanukkah Menorah in the city's center involved Alexander Vinnikov, who lit the 'shamash' candle and passed it to the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Chabad Lubavich representative, Mordechai Scheiner. For the Chanukah celebration of 2007, officials of Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast claimed to have built the world's largest menorah. Lev Toitman, was the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS Chairman for Birobidzhan's 4,500 member Jewish Community until his death on September 11, 2007.


The economy is based on mining (gold, tin, iron, and graphite), lumber, limited agriculture, and light manufacturing (mainly textiles and food processing).

Amur Bridge Project

Valery Solomonovich Gurevich, government vice-chairman of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast said that China and Russia will start construction of the Amur Bridge Project at the end of 2007. The bridge will link Nizhneleninskoye in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast with Tongjiang in Heilongjiang Province. The 2,197-meter-long bridge, with an estimated investment of nearly US$230 million, is expected to be finished by the end of 2010, Gurevich said. Gurevich said that the proposal to construct a bridge across the river was actually made by Russia, in view of growing cargo transportation demands. "The bridge, in the bold estimate, will be finished in three years," Gurevich said.


See also


  • Shternshis, Anna, Soviet and Kosher; Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2006, ISBN 0-253-34726-2.
  • Weinberg, Robert, Stalin's Forgotten Zion; Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, ISBN 0-520-20989-3.


External links

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