The Sad Fate of Birobidzhan

A Star of David on a broken apartment block window, Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region, Russia, 1999
Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos
A Star of David on a broken apartment block window, Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region, Russia, 1999

The title of this new book by Masha Gessen refers to Birobidzhan, the province of the Soviet Union in the Far East that Moscow decreed in the 1920s to be a Jewish homeland.

Russia became early in its history an imperial power. Because it was located in the vast territory of Eurasia, its imperial possessions were situated not overseas, as was the case with England and the other European empires, but in contiguous territories. The building of that empire began in the sixteenth century when Moscow conquered and annexed the Tatar state of Kazan. In the following centuries Russia acquired more and more foreign nationalities: according to the last tsarist census of 1897, Russians made up only 44 percent of the country’s population. Following the Revolution, with the loss of Poland and the Baltic states, their proportion of the country’s population rose to 54 percent.

The territorial contiguity of Russia’s imperial possessions, the fact that they were not separated by oceans, meant that Russia was inclined to rule its colonies as if they were part of the metropolis; that is, they were given virtually no powers of self-government. In tsarist times, the Muslim Tatars, the Central Asian Turkish nationalities, the Poles, the Georgians, and the Baltic peoples were administered in the same fashion as were the Russians. This despite the rise among these peoples of a sense of national identity and, along with it, of a desire for self-government.

Lenin was aware of the need to acknowledge the existence of minorities in the state he had constructed, and the Soviet Union that came into existence in 1922 was in theory a federation of individual national republics. But only in theory, because in fact this federation was governed by the Communist Party, which acknowledged no distinct ethnic interests or aspirations. The Soviet Union, despite its multinational façade, was in fact, like the tsarist empire, a unitary state.

This empire disintegrated in December 1991, and today Russia is ethnically almost a homogeneous state, with Russians constituting four fifths of the population. Yet the imperial ambition is not dead, as seen in the forcible annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the encroachments on Ukraine’s eastern borders.

In imperial Russia the Jews were a minority acquired during the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland; until then they were barred from entering Russia. At the beginning of the twentieth century some five million Jews resided in the Russian Empire. The great majority of them lived in Ukraine and Poland because they were confined to the so-called Pale of Settlement: only highly educated and affluent Jews were allowed to reside in Russia proper. The Pale broke down during World War I…

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