02 August 2009

Letter from Lhasa, number 114. (Weinberg 1998): Stalin's Forgotten Zion

Letter from Lhasa, number 114. (Weinberg 1998): Stalin's Forgotten Zion

by Roberto Abraham Scaruffi

Weinberg, R., Stalin's Forgotten Zion. Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland. An Illustrated History, 1928-1996, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA, 1998.

(Weinberg 1998).

Robert Weinberg

Stalin “theoretical” “analyses” on nationality may be assumed more as evidence of [understandable (the national field is not an easy one and it is impossible to deal rigorously with it with political prejudices and goals)] confusion on the field, than as some causality from theory to practice. Bureaucracies, whatever State/“government” bureaucracy, are resilient to “theories”. Finally, what triumph are prejudices, stereotypes, idiosyncrasies and State interests or supposed interests. Reality, real history, is not consequence of Stalin's or Bolshevik essays.

So, some our casual reflections, here, on “theories”, are more intellectual-heuristic exercises than some research on ex-ante foundation of future realizations or mis-happening. On the other side, there is nothing original in quoting Stalin, whose “theories” on nationality are largely quoted probably for their inevitable banality. Banality actually conjugated with power, since Soviet Union was not an intellectual or intellectualist creation. Power makes “fascinating”, or at least quotable, the worst nonsenses. Power, generally, creates authorities. Stalin was even made to become an authority on the matter, in the Bolshevik milieux - whoever helped him to write, or wrote for him, his essay on nationality -, probably because he was from Georgia, he was disciplined relatively to the public enunciation of whatever party line, he was a perfect and skillful apparatchik, and nationality was such a sliding and inextricable matter, rigorous theoreticians would have had problem to deal with, that a whoever would have been happy to let the burden to a practical man skillful in not rejecting impossible missions. A Georgian reasoning as a Great Russian would have been perfect. Stalin was perfect as an “authority” on “the national question”.

Until the Bolshevik organization was not a government party, dealing with nationalities was, largely, a question of public declarations, alias of empty propaganda. Party concern was only to fight against “nationalist deviationism”, as bundism for instance. It was just party quarreling. When the Bolshevik organization became a government party, dealing with nationalities was finally a not new State question. Previous Russian bureaucracies, at the various levels, not demolished contrarily to the claims of Lenin's The State and Revolution, had always in some way dealt with the multinational Russian Empire. The apparently new political power would have immediately learnt, as human being learn in such fields, in some adaptive way, to deal with the nationalities of the now Soviet Empire. Labels change. People are always the same, eventually with new uniforms and slogans.

Nations, in part also races, are largely inside minds. So, they are really nearly indestructible. Material conditions appease or create some psychological need of communions and rivalries. Whatever explanation one want to give to such needs, whatever root the may have, there are finally deep psychological needs making feeling comfortable or uncomfortable with various categories of people. Whatever evolution since experience, there are some deep needs making one to recognise others as friends or enemies before any real knowledge of them. Ones' minds already have, or immediately create, as a previous “sure” experience ones use for immediately orienting ones own behaviour relatively to various categories or races of people.

In its 1913 essay, Stalin gives common sense answers to questions he is in need to answer for becoming “the national question Bolshevik authority”.

What is a nation?

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.

(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht)

Formally perfect. Bukharin scholastics perhaps. However, sometimes the territory there is not. Sometimes there is not the common language. There are other commonalities but not these ones or both these ones.

Stalin contests the opener Otto Bauer definition of nationality, he quotes: “"A nation is an aggregate of people bound into a community of character by a common destiny."(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht). In effect, that concepts of “community of character” and “common destiny” binding people may have immediately seemed suspect to pseudo-Marxists looking for immediate “materialistic” foundations. In fact, Stalin felt the need to ridicule the Bauer positions. Just after the Bauer definition, Stalin comments:

“We thus have common national character based on a common destiny, but not necessarily connected with a common territory, language or economic life. But what in that case remains of the nation? What common nationality can there be among people who are economically disconnected, inhabit different territories and from generation to generation speak different languages? Bauer speaks of the Jews as a nation, although they "have no common language"; but what "common destiny" and national cohesion is there, for instance, between the Georgian, Daghestanian, Russian and American Jews, who are completely separated from one another, inhabit different territories and speak different languages?”

(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht)

The Bauer's definition is actually stronger than the Stalin's pedantic one. The Stalin's considerations on the Jewish people differentiations would not be banal. However, they are founded on the anxiety to demonstrate the correctness of his all purpose definition.

What does, despite differentiations, make a nation if not the binding “"into a community of character by a common destiny." ”? In other cases, the Italic one for example, despite [perhaps a] common territory and perhaps even a roughly finally achieved [prodigies of the TV-era!] common language, there is no nation precisely because there is no community of character, no common destiny. The anxiety to get money from government is not sufficient to imprint, in people minds, a common destiny.

Nation is really something inside minds, in whatever way it is created. The same notion of “common territory” is generally a propagandistic banality. What is a common territory? Do you really imagine that one could look at a 300,000 sq km peninsula or at a 17,000,000 sq km space and really deeply think “this is our common territory”? Common to whom? Why? The notion of common territory must have some material basis or it is really fantasies, eventually propaganda. Agricultural communities or hunting communities may really have, inside their mind, the minds of their members, and imprinted in their real existential experience, the concept of “common territory”.

The area your tribe uses and needs is your common territory. What is necessary to a modern tribe? What is a modern tribe? What is necessary as a common space for individual lives.

A system is more than a territory and does no necessarily need a territory or a defined territory. The question of the language is more delicate because language is a communication device. A territory may be eventually easily changed. A language is something deeply rooted. Common understandings and communication languages may however bypass the eventual non-existence of one single common language.

The Stalin's objections to Otto Bauer are weak. So Stalin finds the need to ridicule: “if there is anything common to them left, it is their religion, their common origin and certain relics of the national character. All this is beyond question. But how can it be seriously maintained that petrified religious rites and fading psychological relics affect the "destiny" of these Jews more powerfully than the living social, economic and cultural environment that surrounds them? And it is only on this assumption that it is possible to speak of the Jews as a single nation at all.”

(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht)

It is not abstract question of what is stronger. It is the Stalin's method to be wrong. He has no scientific method. He just wants to demonstrate supposedly orthodox theses. In fact, following the quotation above, there is “What, then, distinguishes Bauer's nation from the mystical and self-sufficient "national spirit" of the spiritualists?”

It is only rhetorics. There is some supposedly idiosyncratic image of the addressed milieu. One identifies one's own target with that idiosyncrasy. One supposes the idiosyncrasy is extended without need of further arguing. “Spiritualism” is bad => You are a spiritualist => You are bad => You must be wrong. If the reader is already a Bolshevik, he/she is already convinced. It one is not a Bolshevik, one does not read such stupidities. If you become later a “great” Statist, million books are published with your writings and so you are a “great” theoretician. Stalin watched amused, behind a curtain and smoking cigars, the show of a tried Bukharin, who had then written such stupidities for his friend Stalin, now abjuring all personal human dignity for trying saving his life, what he did not, by submitting to his butchers. In 1913, Lenin needed to improvise “a Georgian” as an authority on the national question. So, he asked Bukharin to help Stalin, in Vienna, to write on the national question. In 1938, Stalin needed the final liquidation of the old Bolsheviks had survived previous crackdowns. In March 1913 the “Stalin's” booklet was published. In March 1938, Bukharin was executed.

Spiritualists or non-spiritualists, if unexplained “national prejudices” persist, it is because they are not prejudices and one cannot explain them.

To refer to supposedly “petrified religious rites and fading psychological relics” would be a better starting point for explaining a national resilience or peculiarity relatively to the surrounding environment instead than some sarcastic remarks for avoiding analysis. What is odd was eventually that the creators of the homus sovieticus, with supposedly solid material new bases, tried to perpetuate nationalities. Actually, nationalities were indestructible despite the attempt to reduce them to the “respect” of some linguistic “prejudices”. They survived their Soviet reduction to the homus sovieticus with propaganda in his own mother tongue.

In his Die Frage der Nationalitäten und die Sozialdemokratie, Otto Bauer denies language as main characteristic of a nation: “The diversity in national character is an empirical fact that can only be denied by a doctrinaire who sees only what he wants to see and not what is obvious to all. Despite this, differences in national character have been repeatedly denied, maintaining that language is the only thing that distinguishes one nation from another. (…) The view that national differences are simply linguistic is founded on the atomistic-individualistic view in which society appears merely as the sum of externally connected individuals, and the nation appears simply as the sum of individuals related externally, namely by language.” He is looking for something deeper. Although the same Otto Bauer talking about real characteristic marks of different populations perhaps forgets or prefers not to underline that environments, also class belongings, generally mould specific spiritual and behavioural marks. Travel impressions, as the ones may be found in the Bauer's work, may be cues but they are not really solid foundations.

Stalin tries to argue about a supposed difference between nation and tribe: “Bauer is obviously confusing nation, which is a historical category, with tribe, which is an ethnographical category.” (Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht). Actually, there is no real difference. The nations of which Stalin (and who cooperated with him in his essay) should be talking about should be “ethnographical” categories. Differently, what would be the question, the so-called “national question”?

This opposition between nation and tribe is indicative of feelings against [others'] nationalities. Whatever nation is a tribe, even if tribe is sometimes currently used for marking some contempt. In fact, nationalities were seen as a question, a problem, not only a problem for czarist Russia but a problem for whatever Russia. The problem was not how to deal with nationalities, respecting them and for some common advantage from the coexistence of many different nationalities. The problem was how to functionalise nationalities unnaturally assembled to some destiny or supposed destiny of the usual Great Russia of Russian chauvinism. Stalin assumed the usual point of view of the usual Russian Empire, of the so-called Czarism.

Otto Bauer investigates about national and nationalist feelings. Stalin is only concerned on how to preserve the Russian Empire with socialist rhetorics. It was what he and his Bolshevik comrades do as an opposition party claiming wanting to revolutionise Russia and the world. They needed to show themselves as usual Great Russians, although with “social-democrat” rhetorics.

The right of self-determination means that only the nation itself has the right to determine its destiny, that no one has the right forcibly to interfere in the life of the nation, to destroy its schools and other institutions, to violate its habits and customs, to repress its language, or curtail its rights. This, of course, does not mean that Social-Democracy will support every custom and institution of a nation.

While combating the coercion of any nation, it will uphold only the right of the nation itself to determine its own destiny, at the same time agitating against harmful customs and institutions of that nation in order to enable the toiling strata of the nation to emancipate themselves from them. The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.”

(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht)

A nation has the right freely to determine its own destiny. It has the right to arrange its life as it sees fit, without, of course, trampling on the rights of other nations. That is beyond dispute. But how exactly should it arrange its own life, what forms should its future constitution take, if the interests of the majority of the nation and, above all, of the proletariat are to be borne in mind? A nation has the right to arrange its life on autonomous lines. It even has the right to secede. But this does not mean that it should do so under all circumstances, that autonomy, or separation, will everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation, i.e., for its majority, i.e., for the toiling strata.”

(Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, Prosveshcheniye, No. 3-5, March-May 1913, http://www.tamilnation.org/selfdetermination/nation/stalin.ht)

It is everything clear. In the Stalin-Bolshevik vision, a nation has whatever right but NOT the right to exercise its rights. It is as the Wilson's nationalities. Claims on nationalities are excuses for whatever dirtiness.

The practical vision of nationalities in Soviet Russia was to let languages and, eventually, territories, but without culture, since culture should be “Soviet culture”, alias soviet propaganda translated in national languages. In practice, it was a constrained ethnic cleansing. It was anyway convenient to be or to seem and to be registered as a Russian, as a member of the Russian nationality. There was also a liberal aspect in the Russian practical dealing with the matter, because, identified a nation in a territory, whoever Soviet Union subject could choose the nation one wanted written on one's own I.D. and one could freely change it.

What happened, in the case represented in this book, (Weinberg 1998), NOT to Jews but using a fraction of Jews, the poorest ones actually, was odd, probably only bureaucratic stupidity in last analysis. It was the the need of some party bureaucracy to do something combined with the interests of State bureaucracies to create new offices for new experiments, alias for wasting State funds. It was odd, overall in the general climate of growing Zionism with Palestine as natural final destination for world Jewry, excluded the part would have preferred to live sparse around the world even if generally reassured from the existence [since 1948] of the Jewish State. Actually, Russian bureaucrats did not dream a second or an alternative Israel, only an Yiddish fatherland. Obviously, apart from the territory, the language was different even if finally the people spirit was the same, it was from the same Jewish tribe. Despite some Russian bureaucratic dream, you may not create an Yiddish region without synagogues. If you do not allow them, they'll exist clandestinely.

Russian bureaucracies created a so-called Jewish Autonomous Region, actually with Yiddish language. Finally, Jewish population remained absolutely minoritary in its region.

The project to settle Jews in Birobidzhan was one of the most exotic and controversial attempts to solve what was perceived as a ''Jewish problem" in the Russian Empire and its successor state, the Soviet Union.” (Weinberg 1998, Introduction by Zvi Gitelma, p. 1 [We follow the numeration of the pages of the book in html format])

The Russian Empire had the largest Jewish population in the world. The census of 1897 enumerated 5,215,800 Jews, but between 1881 and 1914 nearly two million emigrated, seeking better economic opportunities and escaping persecution.” (Weinberg 1998, Introduction by Zvi Gitelma, p. 1)

As Robert Weinberg makes clear, the Birobidzhan project failed and was probably designed to do so. The agricultural settlements in Ukraine, Belarus, and Crimea, which were within or near the former Pale of Settlement, were more likely to attract and retain Jewish colonists.” (Weinberg 1998, Introduction by Zvi Gitelma, p. 8)

Despite claims to having created a "new Soviet man'' and to having formed a "society of a new type," where all ethnic tensions were eliminated, in the 1980s glasnost' revealed the failures of the system. The fissiparous nationalisms that led to the breakup of not only the former USSR but of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia prove dramatically and tragically that the "national question" was not settled by Soviet-style socialism.

Thus, the attempt to create a Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East remains largely forgotten in both Soviet and Jewish history It is so partly because history is written by winners, and Birobidzhan's chief competitors, the Zionists, have emerged triumphant. We need to be reminded, however, that many intelligent and discerning men and women committed themselves strongly to an idea that failed. We should ask why they made that commitment and ponder whatever lessons we think we may derive from this episode. As anyone who has ever conducted a laboratory experiment realizes, we learn as much from failed experiments as we do from the few that are ultimately successful.

(Weinberg 1998, Introduction by Zvi Gitelma, p. 9)

Soviet bureaucracies followed the same paths of tsarist bureaucracies fighting against the same stereotypes of Jews actually built from “Christian” racial and racist policies. These policies had built the Jews practicing only some allowed professions. Now, pseudo-integrationist policies fought against these imaginary Jews previously built by discriminatory policies. Previously, “Christians” built ghettos. Now, they self claimed that there was a Jewish question because there were those ghettos. However, an autonomous region was thought as another ghetto, even it in practice, since the failure of the delirium or “experiment”, let the Jewish population largely minoritarian in its same region.

The anamnesis was wrong. The therapy was wrong. Actually, there were no illnesses, neither ill people, to be cured. The pathologies were power, in the specific case Russian regime's and people's, pathologies. The obsession for differences is a pathology. The desire for uniformity is not sane and is not a virtue. Different nations, as different network of whatever kind may coexist and de facto coexist on the same territories. Rivalries and fights are always created. They are power's creations. Spontaneously, people are busy with their own lives.

Failed, with Jews, pro-atheist policies, the “solution” was the usual one: to build other Jewish ghettos. In the mid-1920s, bureaucratic organizations for the resettlement of Jews in Ukraine, Belarus and the Crimea were created. The philosophy perhaps was: “We make them peasant. They'll cease to be Jews. They'll become just a “soviet” nationality.” ...Just folklore. Or perhaps there was no specific philosophy, only the will to create an Yiddish nationality and, since all other nationality had a land, the need to create an Yiddish nationality with an official land. Some bureaucrat may have thought: “How to write “Yiddish” or “Jewish” on the nationality case of the I.D. if we have not an Yiddish Republic or Region?” So they created a Jewish Region.

A March 1928 decree reserved the Biro-Bidzhanskii District for the settlement of Jews who would work the land. In 1934, the district was designated as Jewish Autonomous Region, with Birobidzhan as its capital city. So it was established as the national territory of Soviet Jewry. Despite incentives were planned, reality was different from bureaucratic dreams and tales. Settlers were abandoned to themselves. They suffered hardship and starvation. Settlers joined the experiment from abroad since ideological reasons, and also because they thought they could find some refuge in a climate of world economic crisis, were rapidly disillusioned.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the population of the J.A.R. during its early years remained highly mobile, continually searching for viable niches outside agriculture. Furthermore, the dismal state of affairs throughout the J.A.R. contributed to a high drop-out rate for Jewish settlers. During the first decade of its existence approximately 35,000-40,000 Jews moved to the region, though most chose not to remain there. The yearly drop-out rate among Jewish settlers reached 50 percent and even higher during the first several years of settlement as Jews either left the countryside for life in one of the larger cities of the Soviet Far East, such as Khabarovsk or Vladivostok, or returned to their native homes. Those Jews who did choose to remain were more likely to gravitate to the capital city of Birobidzhan and to nonagricultural employment with which they had prior experience work in the retail and service sectors, for example, or in government offices. More important, Jews had no historical roots in the region and were wary of starting life anew in an unknown and forbidding part of the Soviet Union. They were understandably reluctant to pick up and move several thousand miles to endure an arduous existence as agricultural settlers. It is hard to see how the designation of a remote territory, a good portion of which was unsuitable for agriculture given the abundance of swamps, marshes, and mountains could have served as a magnet for the impoverished.

That Jews were attracted to nonagricultural employment should also be understood in the context of the priorities of the planned economy emphasizing industrial development and the modernization of agriculture through the creation of state and collective farms. Begun in earnest soon after the settlement of Birobidzhan was initiated, the concerted industrialization drive of the Soviet Union diluted the government's effort to resolve the "Jewish question" through agrarianization. By the early 1930s the specifically agricultural aim of Jewish resettlement in the J.A.R. had been watered down by the government's decision to step up the diverse and broadly based economic development of the region, a policy in accordance with a 1931 decree to transform the territory into an autonomous administrative entity for Soviet Jews by late 1933. Manufacturing, construction, and the extraction and processing of the region's natural resources (timber, fish, limestone, iron ore, tin, coal, copper, graphite, and even gold) were never entirely ignored by government planners. The promotion of well-rounded economic growth was necessary to develop the region's infrastructure and satisfy the diverse needs of the populace; it was essential that some of the settlers engage in manufacturing, construction, and sales and clerical work to make a living as well as to provide support services to those working in agriculture. In addition, many Jews who moved to the land may have been disappointed that they were treated by the state as proletarians or farm laborers employed on state farms. What they wanted was the opportunity to become individual farmers tilling their own land. Thus, one of the goals of settling the J.A.R. was never reached; by 1939 only 25 percent (4,404 of 17,695) of the total Jewish population in the territory lived in the countryside, and not all of these Jews engaged in agricultural pursuits. The plan to resettle large numbers of Jews on the land was stillborn.

(Weinberg 1998, p. 31-32)

If fact, another aspect just evidenced in the above quotation is that, in the climate of forced industrialization and connected rhetorics, Russian bureaucrats could have thought as attractive an agricultural settlement. Yes, there was the connected countryside “proletarization”. However it was just bureaucratic propaganda because “soviet” agriculture remained Russian-style never becoming American-style. American-style agriculture was and is a real “proletarian” agriculture, not the Soviet, Russian, one. Without development, modernization, advanced technology and efficiency there is no “socialism”, no “communism”.

Anyway, while people moved from agriculture to industry, in some Moscow office it was imagined to link Jews to the land making them to become peasants. Only bureaucrats can be such “geniuses”. Sometimes, or frequently, to do nothing solve problems. Employment policies may be useful, if skillfully planned and implemented. In that specific case, a problem was the poor living conditions in the Pale of Settlement. However, evidently, bureaucrats had something else in mind for imagining a J.A.R. at the Chinese borders. If one wanted an eventually attractive ghetto, one could imagine a near coastal area. No, they imagined a continental place at the Chinese borders. In addition, even, if somebody had imagined to forcefully move there, one day, all the Jewish population, that would not have been enforceable because, in Soviet Russia, it was easy to change the nationality written on the I.D.. Since that, it may even that the Jewish population of the J.A.R. was more or less numerous than officially stated but that, for some personal choice, the nationality written on the I.D. was different, since some personal choice, from the real one.

By the eve of World War II most non-Soviet observers concluded that the Birobidzhan project was an abject failure; the fact that Jews accounted for just 16 percent (17,695 of approximately 109,000 inhabitants) of the J.A.R.'s population in 1939 is stark evidence of the inability of the government to build a genuinely Jewish region in the Soviet Far East.(Weinberg 1998, p. 69)

Official propaganda and self-deception was however different form this outside evaluations: “The irony is that as Soviet Jewry achieved the semblance of national-cultural consolidation, little was left of the specifically Jewish content of the culture in the territory; the government aimed at stripping the region of all traditional manifestations of Jewish culture. The policy of "national in form and socialist in content" had reduced culture and national identity to language, while imposing strict limits on content. For most government and party officials, however, the existence of a Jewish territorial enclave in the Soviet Union (as opposed to the stirrings of Jewish settlement in Palestine, to which emigration was closed off by the 1930s) was sufficient evidence of the Kremlin's successful policy toward Soviet Jewry.(Weinberg 1998, p. 69-70). It is actually sufficient to claim a failure as a success and to diffuse that claim of success as evidence that there were also “other points of view” contemporarily to the thesis of the failure.

For Jews, in the same Russia, reality, opportunities included, was different from politico-bureaucratic deliria: “By the mid-1930s Jews seeking escape from the dead-end world of the shtetl had other avenues for social and economic advancement than migration to the J.A.R. Since the abolition of the Pale of Settlement and the establishment of Communist rule, hundreds of thousands of shtetl Jews had been flocking to the cities of the Russian heartland, a process accelerated during the crash industrialization of the 1930s, which brought opportunities in education, government employment, technical and vocational training, and factory work. Why would a Jew from a shtetl in Belarus or Ukraine choose to move to the J.A.R. when a new life beckoned in Kiev, Moscow, Odessa, or Leningrad, cities that boasted rich cultural offerings and well-established Jewish populations, not to mention myriad work opportunities?(Weinberg 1998, p. 71). Apart from desperate situations or hoping in some inscrutable advantage, why to reach a lost place, along the Chinese borders, while chances were better everywhere in the effervescences of the war economy and connected forced industrialisation? [a map for the localization of the Oblast or Region:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Russia_-_Jewish_Autonomous_Oblast_(2008-03).svg ]

There was again some post-WWII, also Jewish, emigration to the JAR, but of the order of the thousands or several thousands. The new settlers were perhaps attracted from various incentives were offered, or were escaping from living conditions perceived as worse. Verified what offered from the new homeland, and perhaps also attracted from other incentives elsewhere, many left: “In 1946 as many as nine thousand of the fourteen thousand persons (including many former residents of the J.A.R.) who had arrived in Birobidzhan city after demobilization moved to other parts of the Soviet Union.(Weinberg 1998, p. 82).

Contrarily to intentions, religion had not been extirpated: “In late 1946 the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults approved a petition submitted by Jews in Birobidzhan to open a synagogue.(Weinberg 1998, p. 77). It was the formalization of an unofficial synagogue or of synagogues already existed.

With no rabbi and only a cantor, the Birobidzhan synagogue was the only registered synagogue in that part of the Soviet Far East and received a Torah donated by the Jewish community of Irkutsk. The secret police noted that the city government had helped repair the building that became the synagogue, using funds originally allocated for the repair of schools.

With characteristic ambivalence, however, party officials expressed alarm that in 1947 some four to five hundred persons, including army officers and policemen in uniform, attended High Holiday services. This participation prompted the officials to note that the management of several factories and even some party leaders in Birobidzhan had not taken adequate measures to counteract the influence Judaism still had on many Jews.”

(Weinberg 1998, p. 77)

Only bureaucrats could imagine Judaism without synagogues and religious practices. They imagined they could preserve a nation only by soviet propaganda in Yiddish. For Soviet bureaucrats, this would have been sane, while religion just despicable superstition.

On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was formally created. That should immediately change the whole contest, so the attitude towards Jews in Russia, despite Soviet Union was the first State of the world to recognise the Jewish State.

The revival of the J.A.R. came to an abrupt halt by the end of 1948. Fearful of the perceived political disloyalty of Soviet Jewry once the state of Israel had been created, and motivated by unrestrained anti-Semitism, in 1948 Stalin launched a murderous campaign to destroy all Jewish intellectual and cultural activity throughout the Soviet Union. His ruthless attacks on ''rootless cosmopolitans" and "bourgeois nationalists" culminated in early 1953 with the infamous Doctors' Plot. Numerous prominent Jewish doctors were accused of plotting the murder of leading party officials. A rumor circulated that Soviet Jews were to be sent to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Far East, including the J.A.R. Barracks to house the deported Jews were reportedly built, but Stalin's death in 1953 prevented the implementation of this sinister plan.

In the J.A.R. itself, leading Jewish party and government officials, along with the Jewish cultural elite, were arrested for "bourgeois nationalism" and "rootless cosmopolitanism," the two accusations most frequently lodged against Soviet Jews during the last years of Stalin's life. The Kremlin claimed that they had betrayed the interests of the Soviet people, because ties between the J.A.R. and AMBIJAN facilitated the dissemination of pro-American sentiments among the residents of the J.A.R. By accepting relief packages from abroad and asking for even more assistance from AMBIJAN, the leadership of the J.A.R. intimated that the Soviet Union required outside help and thereby fueled anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. Thus, Bakhmutskii and his assistants were guilty of "anti-patriotic conduct" and insulting "the honor and worth of the Soviet people" because their actions gave the impression that the United States and not the Soviet people were responsible for the achievements of the J.A.R. 45 Bakhmutskii was stripped of his party post and arrested for a variety of "gross political mistakes in the ideological, economic, and cultural spheres."46 Among his misdeeds were the suggestion that the J.A.R. be elevated to the status of an autonomous republic and the promotion of Yiddish schools and publications, even though an appropriate basis for these institutions, namely a readership and student body desiring to attend Yiddish schools, did not exist.

(Weinberg 1998, p. 82)

A strong xenophobia was directed against Jews: “All contact between non-Soviet Jewry and the Jews of the J.A.R. halted, and the region retreated into a period of enforced isolation. The Jewish Theater was closed, instruction in Yiddish in the schools was again forbidden, and the synagogue shut its doors and then burned down in 1956 after a fire broke out in an adjacent factory. The secret police arrested the staff of the Birobidzhaner shtern. (A new staff, however, continued to publish the newspaper.) The Kremlin dismantled the Jewish division of the museum, and in perhaps the most tragic action, local officials burned some thirty thousand books from the Judaica collection of the public library. In 1994 Efim Kudish, a resident of the J.A.R. since 1946, recalled the book burning and how he risked his life by concealing dozens of Yiddish books under his clothes in the library and taking them home for safekeeping.

The anti-Jewish assault of Stalin's last years delivered a mortal blow to the Birobidzhan experiment. As Basya Spivak, a Soviet Jew from Ukraine, noted facetiously about the J.A.R., "I only know that the climate is terrible there. Yes. They have chosen the best place for the Jews ... Birobidzhan." Such sentiments were shared by most Soviet Jews in the post-Stalinist era who considered the Soviet Zion a hoax, if not a downright joke.

The region could never become a center of Jewish culture and life in the absence of a Jewish press, theater, schools, and intellectual and cultural activists. Jewish migration to the J.A.R. was once again suspended, though the government offered non-Jews who moved to collective farms in the region free transportation and a host of other inducements such as cash payments, tax incentives, and low-interest loans. Those Jews who did remain were terrified to express their Jewishness. The J.A.R. would never recover.

(Weinberg 1998, p. 84)

They had the land, Lenin and Stalin in Yiddish, but...

Weinberg, R., Stalin's Forgotten Zion. Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland. An Illustrated History, 1928-1996, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA, 1998.