Wikipediaphile: Jewish Autonomous Oblast

I can’t remember how I came to hear of this place, but when I did I became fascinated by it. A ‘Soviet Zion’ in the Russian Far East! I think I should very much like to visit it one day.

Jewish Autonomous 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.

…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.

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