“The Worst Good Idea Ever”? The Birobidzhan Project and Soviet Jewish Culture

Natalie Belsky

Masha Gessen, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region (New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2016), 192 pages, $25.00

A few years ago while teaching a course on Jewish displacement and migration at University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing and Professional Studies I was pleased to discover that the Chicago Art Institute was hosting a temporary exhibit titled “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950” which featured the work of first and second generation East European Jewish immigrants whose families had arrived in Chicago at the turn of the century. Specifically, the exhibit featured quite a few prints from a folio produced by a group of these artists entitled “A Gift to Birobidzhan: From Despair to New Hope” in 1937 in support of the Soviet creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East in 1934.

Why did these artists participate in this project? What appealed to them about Birobidzhan, a relatively inhospitable place located thousands of miles away on the Soviet border with China? Their work seemed to reflect frustrations over the economic challenges facing immigrant families in the United States, anxieties over the threats posed by the rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe, and a hope that perhaps this new project in the Soviet Union would yield an opportunity for the wandering Jews of Eastern Europe to finally gain a home where they could thrive, economically and culturally, free from oppression and discrimination.

The story of Birobidzhan has now, for the most part, been relegated to a footnote for most in the Jewish mainstream, a hard-to-believe curiosity to be brought up at dinner parties. However, Masha Gessen’s recent book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region places the story of Birobidzhan within a pessimistic narrative of the history of Soviet Jewry and Soviet Jewish culture in the twentieth century. Echoing the themes of Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, Gessen tells a story of constant mobility and continual struggle of Eastern European Jewry to find a place where they could live freely as Jews. Gessen utilizes the story of Birobidzhan to illuminate the tragedy of Russian Jewry. As she explains in the prologue, Birobidzhan “would hold a cracked and crooked mirror up to the story of the Jews in Russia.” 1 1 Masha Gessen, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region (New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2016), 8. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.

Where the Jews Aren’t is far from a traditional scholarly monograph and those looking for specific historical and statistical data about the creation and development (or lack thereof) of the Jewish Autonomous Region will be disappointed. 2 2 Interestingly, the inside covers include statistics and charts about minimum & maximum temperatures, types of land, and surface area of Birobidzhan and Palestine under the British Mandate. It also includes a chart indicating the size of the Jewish population in Birobidzhan over time in comparison with the overall population of the region. At its height in 1937, there were 18,000 Jews in Birobidzhan. As of 2010, 1,628 Jews lived there. A more thorough historical account of the region’s history continues to be Robert Weinberg’s Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: an Illustrated History, 1928-1996. 3 3 Robert Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: an Illustrated History, 1928-1996 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). The sources Gessen utilizes here are largely memoirs and biographies of the book’s main characters. In fact, Birobidzhan itself barely comes up in many of the chapters. There’s an understandable reason for that. The history of Birobidzhan itself follows a relatively standard Soviet script: a grandiose, utopian project whose realization was plagued from the beginning by a lack of necessary resources and the shifting political fortunes of those at the helm. The region’s ostensibly “Jewish” identity served largely as window-dressing to serve the Soviet leadership’s ideological and propaganda needs to create a “territorial home” for every national minority and solve the “Jewish Question.”

One could even say that Gessen’s book is ultimately less interested in Birobidzhan itself and its material history than in seeing Birobidzhan as a unifying theme for an account of Soviet Jewry more broadly or, perhaps more accurately, as a symbol to match her own struggle with being Soviet and Jewish. The story is bookended by a personal account of Gessen’s leaving the USSR with her family in the late 1970s. For Gessen, the myth of Birobidzhan runs parallel to her own life in and out of, during and after, the Soviet Union. The Jewish Autonomous Region where few Jews ever lived, where most attempts to create a genuine Jewish culture resulted in the arrests of those involved, and where in 2009 there was only one Yiddish speaker left, represents the silences, the “absence of a story,” the erasure of a culture and identity that contemporary Russian Jews continue to confront (7).

Rather than follow Birobidzhan’s history, Gessen instead focuses on a single main protagonist to mirror her own narrative: an intellectual biography of the Yiddish modernist writer David Bergelson, with a complementary role played by the well-known Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow. Bergelson and Dubnow were two of the most prominent proponents for the creation of a Jewish homeland outside of Palestine, which would celebrate the Yiddish language and promote a secular Yiddish culture. Both Dubnow and Bergelson attempted to chart a middle path between the Zionist vision of an independent Jewish state in Palestine and the increasing reality of assimilation among Jews living in the diaspora—the territorial project of Birobidzhan being just one such effort.

Living through the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, Dubnow and Bergelson were both forced to be constantly on the move, looking for a place where they could live safely and continue their work. Born in 1884 in a Ukrainian shtetl, Bergelson, to whom Gessen attributes time and time again “the gift of knowing when to run” (12) (until, that is, there was nowhere left to go), participated actively in the creation of a Yiddish literary culture in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century. Following the Russian Revolution, Bergelson was active in the Kultur-Lige in Kiev and Yevsektsiia in Moscow, playing a key role in the development of a secular and progressive Soviet Yiddish culture. However, sensing the potential risks in his alliance with the Soviet regime, Bergelson and his family relocated to Berlin in the early 1920s, where he found new publication opportunities and continued to labor for “his cause” which “as ever, was modern Yiddish literature, a schizophrenic construction that might have existed fully in his imagination only” (34). Like Bergelson biographer Joseph Sherman, Gessen stresses that Bergelson struggled to adapt to the social and political upheavals of the time and his writing reflected that struggle. 4 4 Joseph Sherman, “David Bergelson (1884-1952): A Biography,” in David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism, eds. Joseph Sherman & Gennady Estraikh (Leeds: Legenda, 2007), 1-78.

By the late 1920s, Bergelson was growing increasingly anxious about his situation in Berlin and was beginning to cast his glance back to the Soviet Union. For Sherman, Bergelson’s return to the Soviet Union and association with Birobidzhan was motivated by the basic fact that as a modernist Yiddish writer writing about and for a bourgeois Yiddish-speaking audience, Bergelson had “lost not only his subject matter but also his readership to the revolution,” 5 5 Sherman, 39. and, by the late 1920s, the Soviet Union remained the only remaining market. To ingratiate himself to the Soviet authorities, Bergelson agreed to sing the praises of Birobidzhan. In 1932, Birobidzhan had six Yiddish language schools, a Yiddish language newspaper, and a Yiddish printing press (60). It also had a harsh climate, very few settlements outside of the main city, barely any industrial production, and few Jews to speak of. Upon returning to the Soviet Union in 1934, Bergelson was actively involved in the effort to publicize and advocate for the Birobidzhan project, even declaring his intention to settle there permanently. Bergelson was also on the editorial board of a new party-funded Yiddish literary journal, Forpost (67).

In early 1936, Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s closest associates, visited Birobidzhan and proposed that the region host a large scholarly conference on the Yiddish language. The conference was planned for early 1937 and Bergelson was one of its main organizers (67). However, the conference was never to take place. The planned conference and many of Birobidzhan’s leaders fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. A decade later, the cycle of expulsions and arrests would be repeated during the anti-Semitic campaigns of the late 1940s. Having escaped the first round of purges by leaving Birobidzhan, Bergelson had nowhere left to run a decade later. He was arrested, put on trial and executed as part of the trial of the members of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee; the trial is described in some depth in Gessen’s book. Bergelson was charged with promoting Jewish nationalism and culture, in Birobidzhan among other places. As Gessen writes, he died “doing what he had always done: trying to square the circle of Jewishness in a world that did not want Jews, protecting the seeds of a religion he did not practice, and insisting on his right to try to keep alive a dying language” (125).

Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009 where she found some relics that attest to the region’s Jewish past (street names, a synagogue, a few exhibits at the regional museum, and a Jewish community center) but very few indicators of any sort of genuine Jewish identity in the present or any hopes for the future. Upon visiting the regional museum, Gessen discovered an exhibit about a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement and an exhibit on the war which never mentioned the Holocaust. Reflecting yet again the sensation of “absence,” Gessen commented, “there might be a synagogue and a community center in Birobidzhan, but there was still no place in the Jewish Autonomous Region to talk about the Jewish people and what had happened to them” (137). At the time, five people in the region “were engaged on an ongoing basis with Jewish culture,” and one spoke Yiddish (139).

At the beginning of the work, Gessen describes the Birobidzhan project as “the worst good idea ever” (5). There are several ways to interpret this evaluation. I would argue that it reflects the notion that Birobidzhan initially represented, at least for some, hope and opportunity for a true home for Jews and Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Instead, it became a shell of what it was meant to be—with some of the trappings of “Jewishness” but without much substance. For Gessen herself, the study of Birobidzhan signifies a personal, not just a scholarly, quest. As she readily admits, Where the Jews Aren’t represents her attempt to come to terms with her own Jewishness, an identity that was consequential but one that she struggled to understand, sentiments that can certainly be ascribed to many other Russian Jews.

However, by bookending the book with anecdotes of leave-taking, Gessen suggests a none-too optimistic answer to the questions being posed. In the prologue and epilogue, she narrates her own departures from Moscow as a teenager in 1981 and again as an adult in 2013. On both occasions, she spent her last nights in nearly empty apartments, stripped already of most of the furniture and books, as if indicating a leave-taking that has already taken place, a foregone conclusion. In fact, Gessen notes that “the going-away-forever party” in 1981 was “as close as most of us can come to attending our own wakes” (140).

In the prologue and epilogue, she also returns to the story of Leonid Shkolnik, “the youngest Yiddish speaker in Birobidzhan” (146), who was the editor of the Birobidzhan Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner shtern, in the late Soviet period, but emigrated to Israel in the 1990s. Shkolnik was born after the war and decided to learn Yiddish as an adolescent; he was an idealist who hoped to revive Yiddish-language culture in the USSR and “thought of himself as a freethinker” (146). However, by the late Soviet period, Shkolnik had come to realize the emptiness and meaninglessness of Jewish culture in Birobidzhan, best expressed perhaps in the last lines of a poem by Shkolnik (originally written in Yiddish) that Gessen quotes in the last pages of her own monograph: “I would have liked to pass the baton to my sons, but I have nothing to pass on, save for the grief, the pain, and the happiness I lack, and the belief that I can still find it” (145). In Gessen’s view, Shkolnik represents the last hope, a swansong, of Yiddish-language culture in Birobidzhan. His disillusionment and eventual departure symbolizes for Gessen the conclusion of a project that seemed destined to fail from its inception. Birobidzhan here becomes a stand-in, a shorthand of sorts, to represent the stories and fates of Bergelson, Shkolnik, and others like them, including even Gessen herself, individuals with a passionate commitment to Jewish culture who found that their visions could not be realized in the USSR. The somber mood of these episodes seems to suggest that, despite some recent positive developments such as the opening of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in 2011, there is little hope for genuine Jewish cultural life in Russia today.

The last line of Shkolnik’s poem expresses his continued optimism, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, that he can still find the happiness and fulfillment he seeks. It is this continued quest that brought him to Israel and Gessen to the US, the sites of today’s largest Jewish communities, or in other words, “where the Jews are.”

Belsky, Natalie. ““The Worst Good Idea Ever”? The Birobidzhan Project and Soviet Jewish Culture.” In geveb, June 2017:
Belsky, Natalie. ““The Worst Good Idea Ever”? The Birobidzhan Project and Soviet Jewish Culture.” In geveb (June 2017): Accessed Aug 16, 2017.


Natalie Belsky

Natalie Belsky is a historian of modern Russia. She is assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota Duluth.