Revival of Siberian Zion

Shaun Walker “Revival of a Soviet Zion: Birobidzhan celebrates its Jewish heritage”

露西亜の東の果て、シベリアに「ユダヤ自治州」があるというのは知らなかった(汗)。以前読んだAnna Reid The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia*1でもユダヤ人についての記述は欠けていたのだった*2。ビロビジャン*3。現在ユダヤ人は全人口の1%しかいないが、近年になって、ユダヤ文化の復興が行われ、世界中のユダヤ人の移民も募られ始めている。

The Jewish renaissance in Birobidzhan is the latest chapter in the surreal tale of this would-be Siberian Zion, founded nearly a century ago.

Nestled on the border with China, seven timezones east of Moscow and a six-day journey away on the Trans-Siberian railway, the region was first settled en masse during the early 1930s as part of a plan to create a Soviet homeland for Jews during the rule of Joseph Stalin.

Its story since then has reflected the vicissitudes of Soviet and then modern Russian history. The population of the area, still officially called the Jewish Autonomous Region, is barely 1% Jewish, but the authorities are trying to cultivate the memory of Jewish customs and history among the residents and even hope to attract new Jewish migrants.


When the area was officially established as the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934, 14 years before the foundation of Israel, it was the first explicitly Jewish territory in modern times. By 1939, 18% of the population was Jewish and Birobidzhan had a Yiddish theatre and Yiddish newspaper. The work of the police department, courts and city administration was carried out at least partially in Yiddish.

Some historians have suggested the Birobidzhan project was tainted with antisemitism from the very beginning, creating a “dumping ground” for Jews thousands of miles from any areas where they had traditionally lived and in terrain that was miserably difficult for human habitation.

But in the 1930s many Jewish intellectuals promoted the project with vigour. Jews travelled to Birobidzhan from inside the Soviet Union, western Europe and even farther afield – infected with a revolutionary fervour that gave a Jewish flavour to the utopianism that characterised many of those involved in the early Bolshevik project.

The optimism was short-lived. During Stalin’s purges, much of the local party leadership was executed and expressions of Jewishness were discouraged. After the second world war, the region saw a new influx of Jews who had escaped the Holocaust and had no homes to which to return. A new wave of antisemitic purges was followed by decades of disinterest in Jewish identity.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, cheap goods from across the border in China flooded the market and economic misery ensued, as in almost all the former Soviet lands. But unlike most other Soviet citizens, the Jews had a way out from the misery: to leave for Israel. Iosif Brener, a local historian, estimates that 20,000 Jews left Birobidzhan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the majority for Israel.

Alexander Levintal, the region’s governor, said Birobidzhan was still suffering from the effects of mass Jewish emigration. “When the Soviet Union collapsed and the borders opened, about 70 families of Jewish doctors left, and medicine in the region has still not fully recovered,” he said.


In Birobidzhan there is certainly an attempt to keep Yiddish and other elements of Jewish heritage alive. Street signs use both Russian and Yiddish, and one school still offers Yiddish lessons, although the university Yiddish faculty closed down a few years ago.

A four-day Jewish cultural festival held this month in the city featured a concert from a cantor of Vienna’s main synagogue and the opening of an exhibition on the city’s history, organised by an Austrian diplomat and featuring Russian, American and Israeli artists.

Archive photographs in the exhibit show the enthusiasm with which many Jews took to the project, including shopfronts with Yiddish signage and the first years of Valdgeym, a Jewish collective farm established a few miles outside the city.

One of the stranger parts of Birobidzhan’s story is that although it was meant as a Jewish statelet, religious Judaism was alien to Soviet atheism and thus frowned upon. The local museum contains Yiddish leaflets warning locals not to celebrate Passover, and Sarashevskaya leafed through back issues of Birobidzhan Shtern from the 1980s, pointing out that although the newspaper was in Yiddish it contained no discussion of either Judaism or Israel.

With so few Jews now living in Birobidzhan, the massed Yiddish dances and mannequins of gurning Jews that welcome visitors to the Jewish cultural centre give the impression of a Jewish Disneyland rather than of a living, breathing community.

なお、ユダヤ文化復興の影には、(地元新聞Birobidzhan Shternの記者Elena Sarashevskayaのような)イディッシュ語などのユダヤ文化に魅せられた非ユダヤ人(露西亜人)の存在もある。
The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia

The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia