In a corner of the Russian Far East, just across the Chinese border and wedged in between Heilongjiang’s upturned chin and lip, lies the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Region) whose capital is Birobidzhan. The Oblast is somewhat larger than Israel, but with a fraction of the population: it peaked at 214,000 in the late 1980s, and has dropped by some 20% since then. The Oblast is neither very autonomous nor terribly Jewish—well under 2000 Jews live there now. Where the Jews Aren’t, Masha Gessen’s story of this peculiar place, has an apt title.
The present tense of the title might lead one to expect, erroneously, a sort of travelogue. Gessen does visit Birobidzhan, but only for a brief final chapter. This is instead a slice through the wider story of Russian and Soviet Jews’ tortured history in and outside their country, starting with Gessen herself who emigrated from the USSR to Boston in 1981 when she was twelve. She returned to Russia as adult, and left again in 2013. This book about Birobidzhan is, she says, about “the concept of home, and knowing when to leave.”
“The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan”, as the book is subtitled, is a rather literary history, focusing primarily on poet and author David Bergelson. Born in Ukraine, Bergelson left the incipient Soviet Union in 1921 for Berlin where he established himself as one of the foremost Yiddish writers supported in no small part by checks from American Yiddish publications. He returned to the USSR in 1933 and soon became involved in, and a promoter of, Birobidzhan.
Making sense of Birobidzhan is impossible. Gessen explains that
The Bolshevik Government adopted a strategy of trying to harness nationalism to preserve the empire rather than pull it part—by granting each self-identified ethnic group a for of autonomy…
The logic was rather twisted; in the case of the Jews—considered a “nationality” in the USSR—particularly so.
Between nationalization and some warped sense of justice, Jewish autonomy became bound to agriculture; the Jews, who had not been allowed to own land in czarist Russia, would now toil at collective farms.
It didn’t help that “as the Soviet regime eliminated private enterprise large and small, increasing numbers of Jews lost their livelihoods.”
It was decided—or rather, Mikhail Kalinin decided—that what was needed was for “the Jewish masses” to “have any hope for the continued existence of their nation” was a “compactly settled agricultural population”. The region for what became Birobidzhan was chosen in spite of an agronomist report detailing all the reasons why it was unsuitable: terrain that was mountainous where it wasn’t swamp, bad weather and “blood-sucking insects—the exceeding quantities of gadflies, mosquitoes and midges”.
Birobidzhan’s claim on the imagination is more for what it eminently is not than for what it is.
The settlers started arrived in the late 1920s, with results than can be expected. Well-meaning Americans providing some funding and plans for industrialization. While it would not be accurate to call it a complete disaster—after all, the place still exists—neither was the exercise particularly successful. What did, however, develop—perhaps against the odds, but writing in Russia has always seemed to beat the odds—was at least some semblance of cohesive Yiddish literary culture with both writers and publications.
Bergelson arrived for a visit in late 1932 and began to sing the project’s praises. How much of it he believed, or wished to believe, isn’t clear. Bergelson moved to Moscow the next year. This is not as strange a decision as it might seem: Bergelson’s writings had been selling well in Russia and “royalties, paid in inconvertible rubles, had been accumulating in Russia for years.”
It took less than a decade for the political tide to turn and what had previously been lauded became tarred with the epithet of “bourgeois nationalism”.
Birobidzhan had a second influx of settlers after the World War II, primarily from the previously occupied Ukraine and Crimea.
Jews found that they could not reclaim their homes, occupied by non-Jewish locals for years … or even secure the documents necessary to live legally in their hometowns. The authorities offered an alternative, however: free railroad tickets to Birobidzhan…
Bergelson, meanwhile, was increasingly under suspicion. He was arrested in 1949, tried in secret and executed in 1952 in the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets”. Bergelson, who had been looking his entire life for somewhere safe, never found it.
Yiddish, however, managed to hang on in Birobidzhan, if only sometimes by its fingernails. The infographic on the book’s endpapers that compares the Jewish Autonomous Region and Israel, those two very different Jewish homelands, leaves out one fascinating difference: the former adopted Yiddish while the later chose Hebrew.
Birobidzhan hangs ghostlike in the background of a literary biography that is reminiscent in sensibility as much as subject matter of Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist, a biography of writer Lev Nussimbaum, the Kiev-born and Baku-raised author of Ali & Nino under the pseudonym Kurban Said. Nussimbaum, like Bergelson, seems to have sought sanctuary in a certain romantic reimagining of his world.
Birobidzhan’s claim on the imagination is more for what it eminently is not than for what it is. Gessen, however, concentrates more on the sadness than the absurdity. What stands out in Where the Jews Aren’t are Gessen’s qualities as a storyteller, one able to weave together political history, biography and personal experience into a singularly poignant tale.