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 when Jews dispersed throughout Russia.

In the Soviet Union, Jews received formal equality but their status as an official nationality was precarious because they lacked some of the criteria for a legitimate nationality that Stalin, as commissar of nationalities, had laid down, one of which was possession of their own territory. According to him, the Jews were not a true nation because they lacked a homeland.

In November 1926, Michael Kalinin, the chairman of the Communist Central Committee, announced that the Jews should possess their own area and the search for it got underway. Years later he explained his motive:

We have many Jews but they possess no state entity. It is the only nationality of the USSR, rich in three million souls, which does not have its own state. I estimate that under these conditions the creation of an autonomous region is the only means of providing a statist evolution for this nationality.1

Initially, Soviet authorities focused on Crimea but this possibility had to be abandoned because of the outcry that the Jews should not be allotted the region with the country’s balmiest climate and semitropical vegetation. Attention then shifted to the Far East. Here, on the border with China, Russia possessed immense but sparsely populated territories that its rulers wanted to colonize as a way of protecting them from China and Japan. As early as the middle of the nineteenth century, the tsarist government settled Cossacks there for this purpose. Indeed, it seems probable that such strategic considerations played a greater part in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Birobidzhan than did the desire to accord Jews the status of a proper nationality. In the words of the Polish historian Artur Patek:

The choice of this region for the needs of territorial concentration of the Jewish population was determined by the concrete political goals of the Soviet Union. Among them were, inter alia, the striving for the enhancement of the defensive potential of the regime in the Far East by means of an agrarian and industrial center which—in the case of need—could solve logistic dilemmas and defend the border from Japan and China; the exploitation of the considerable natural riches of the region with the help of settlers who possessed a relatively high level of technology and culture; the possibility of quick and relatively cheap solution of the economic and social problems of the Jewish population by means of mass migration to the Far East. An important factor was also the striving to deliver a heavy blow to the ideology of Zionism by designating Birobidzhan as a kind of alternative to the “promised land” and diverting by this means the attention of Jews residing in the USSR from Palestine.2

Some who visited the region were struck by its natural beauty. But owing to its topography and climate, the region chosen for the Jewish homeland was not favorable for settlement. Some 60 percent of its territory was mountainous. There were frequent floods and the land was infested with mosquitoes. Winters were severe and summers exceedingly hot. Life here was hard. As Masha Gessen describes it in Where the Jews Aren’t:


In the summer of 1928 there were torrential rains, causing flooding that washed out what little the new settlers had managed to plant, stymied by the late arrival of seeds. Their cattle arrived late, too, and were felled by an anthrax epidemic that raged that first year. The settlers at Birofeld, though they managed to put up eighteen houses over the summer, faced a cold winter of relentless hunger, surrounded by their ruined fields and foreboding woods, where tigers and bears roamed.

Most importantly, this region had nothing to do historically with Jews, who at the beginning of the twentieth century were largely committed to Zionism: in the elections to the All-Russian Congress held in 1917, 60 percent of Jews voted for the Zionist ticket. But the Bolsheviks despised Zionism and all that went with it—including the teaching of Hebrew—and one of the reasons they wanted Russian Jews to settle on Russian territory was to cut them off, both physically and spiritually, from Palestine. At the same time, they encouraged some institutions for the study of Yiddish, the traditional language spoken by many of the settlers along with Russian.

The name Birobidzhan comes from the blending of the names of two tributaries of the Amur River, the Bira and the Bidzhan, which flow by the territory assigned to the Jews. The region was also served by the Trans-Siberian Railroad that links Moscow with Vladivostok.

In March 1928 the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party decreed that the region be transformed into a Jewish homeland. The following month there arrived the first Jewish settlers, who found nothing ready for them: neither a post office, nor a phone service, nor paved roads. Even so, between 1928 and 1933 some 20,000 Jews settled in Birobidzhan: this was but a fraction of the population expected to migrate there. Some 1,400 of these Jews came from abroad. But they did not stay: in time, 60 percent of these migrants chose to leave. The majority of those who remained avoided the collective farms assigned to them, preferring to make their home in the capital city. Jews remained a small minority of the region’s population even though in May 1934 the Central Committee granted Birobidzhan the status of the Jewish Autonomous Region, an apparent prelude to declaring it a national republic. Moscow expected this region ultimately to be populated by 100,000 Jewish citizens.

In 1941, the Soviet government temporarily suspended emigration to Birobidzhan, a suspension that was lifted after the war when Moscow increased the flow of Jews to this region. The Jewish population, which had been decimated by the Holocaust, now grew to 30,000, the highest number in Birobidzhan’s history. But this trend was not destined to last. Stalin, disappointed with the pro-Western policies of the newly created state of Israel, initiated anti-Semitic policies that, had he lived longer, would have caused the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union to be banished to Siberia and Central Asia. One victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitism was the Yiddish institutions of Birobidzhan, nearly all of which were liquidated. Many Jewish writers were arrested and some were executed for alleged sabotage. In effect, the Jewish state ceased to exist.

In April 1958 Nikita Khrushchev gave an interview to Le Figaro in which he admitted the failure of Birobidzhan but blamed it on the Jews:

The Jews departed en masse for Birobidzhan. They were enthusiastic, exalted. They came from all corners of the Soviet Union and, I can say, from all countries of Europe. And then? And then very few stayed….

How many Jews remain in this region? One has to concede that Jewish colonization in Birobidzhan ended in failure. They came with hopes and then, one after the other, they left. Khrushchev told Le Figaro:


How to explain this disagreeable phenomenon? In my opinion, by historical conditions. Jews have at all times preferred artisanship, they are tailors, they work glass and precious stones, they are merchants, pharmacists, cabinet makers. But if you take the building trade or metallurgy, as far as I know, you cannot find a single Jew. They don’t like collective labor, group discipline. They have always preferred to be dispersed. They are individualists.3

The success of the Jewish state of Israel proved him wrong. The true reason Birobidzhan did not work out was that the territory it occupied on the border of China meant nothing to Jews whose native land and compatriots were located thousands of miles away. They kept on leaving and today number two thousand people, a mere one half percent of Birobidzhan’s population.

Masha Gessen is a Russo-American writer and journalist who migrated to the United States with her parents as a teenager. She is a prolific writer: one of her recent books is The Man Without a Face (2012), a biography of Vladimir Putin.

The blurb on the back cover of the advance reader’s edition of Where the Jews Aren’t claims that it is “the first complete account of the rise and fall of Birobidzhan—Joseph Stalin’s short-lived haven for Jews.” The claim is unwarranted. There are numerous histories of Birobidzhan in various languages, several of them listed in Gessen’s own bibliography. Nor is her book a “complete account…of Birobidzhan.” It is rather a personal record of the author’s interest in the Soviet Jewish homeland. Of her Jewish childhood in Russia she has this to say:

We lived in a country where we were hated. Throughout my childhood, this hatred assumed the relatively benign form of consistent discrimination: Jews faced extreme hurdles gaining admission to universities and obtaining jobs; the study of Hebrew and most forms of Jewish communal life were criminalized. Who could tell when this daily hatred would again turn deadly for the Jews?

For people who knew little of Israel or the United States, the realistic escape from this prospect seemed Birobidzhan.

To a large extent, Gessen focuses her account of Birobidzhan on the Yiddish writer David Bergelson, who after a successful literary career was executed in 1952 for treason during the crackdown on Yiddish culture. He has a central position in this book although it is not clear why.

Bergelson was born in 1884 to rich and pious parents. His father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian, only Yiddish. As a child, Bergelson was taught to speak and write in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. When he grew up, he began to write novels in Russian and Hebrew but they attracted little attention. He became well known only when he switched to Yiddish, and it has been said that he was the most popular Yiddish author of the 1920s.

After the Revolution, he moved to Berlin, a favorite exile place for Russians who disapproved of the Bolsheviks. But in 1926 he apologized to Soviet institutions for his hostility and began to consider resettling in the USSR. One of the reasons he came to approve of the Soviet regime was its rejection of Hebrew in favor of Yiddish as the Jewish national language. He soon revisited his native country. He traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to visit Birobidzhan, which he found most attractive, as Gessen writes:

His description of Birobidzhan—its “three distant horizons,” its “pure” and “shimmering” light, the powerful sun, “marvelously lofty skies,” “myriad rivers gleaming in the sun,” two variations on the word expanse and five uses of blue in a single paragraph—show that he was genuinely awed, after a decade and a half spent running from one crowded city to another in an overstuffed train car, or as a third-class ship passenger, to be offered something so plainly huge: “and all of this taken together was the land that the authorities had allocated for the working Jews, all of this together bore the name: Birobidzhan.”

After the rise of Hitler, Bergelson moved permanently to the USSR and in 1935 made his home in Birobidzhan. Here he founded a Yiddish literary journal called Forpost. But his happiness was not to last. Two years later Soviet publications began to criticize the Yiddish cultural movement and Yiddish publications were shut down. Initially, Bergelson joined the persecutors, accusing some Yiddish writers of treason and thus, for the time being, protecting himself. In the end, however, he too was accused of treason, arrested in January 1949, tortured, and, in the end, executed.

It is not quite clear why Gessen has chosen Bergelson as the protagonist of her narrative unless perhaps to show, in the case of a single writer, the ups and downs of Soviet treatment of the Jewish population. This treatment was determined by Stalin’s anti-Semitism as well as by Soviet nationality policy. Concentrating on Bergelson, Gessen’s book is otherwise something of a rambling account, partly drawn from historic documents, partly from personal experience, of one of the Communist regime’s many failures.