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Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region

It would be difficult to find a destination in Russia more out of the way than Birobidzhan, a province of Russia located in southeastern Siberia bordering Mongolia to the west and China to the south. About 220,000 people live in Birobidzhan province, most in the capitol, which is also named Birobidzhan. In the early part of the 20th century, the Soviet government deemed the region to be strategic and initiated efforts to populate it.

The problem was, few Russians had any desire to live so far from “civilization” in an undeveloped, swampy place where the average temperature in winter hovered around minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, the “desires” of Russians in those days took a back seat to those of Josef Stalin. Stalin saw in far-off Birobidzhan a way to settle a mainly uninhabited region on the one hand, and remove a “troublesome” ethnic minority on the other.

So it was that in 1928, with great fanfare and a flood of over-optimistic advertising, the Jewish National District was established. To many Jews who were suffering repression and persecution, the distant province seemed like a good place to start anew. More than 40,000 Jews from all over Russia and Eastern Europe packed up their belongings and traveled to Birobidzhan via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Although the city of Birobidzhan hosted several synagogues and Jewish schools, life in the wild and untamed province was incredibly tough. By the late 1930s nearly 70% of the emigrants had fled for greener pastures. Those who stayed managed to carve out lives for themselves and were able to escape the horrors of the Second World War.

Perhaps Birobidzhan would have grown and prospered as a center for Jewish culture if the State of Israel had not been created in 1947. It was not to be - a crackdown on religious institutions following the war and widespread emigration to Israel and the US in the 1980s saw Birobidzhan’s Jewish population drop to a mere 3,000 by the mid-1990s. Today, after the fall of communism, Birobidzhan is seeking to renew its Jewish roots. Yiddish is once again being taught in schools, read in newspapers and seen on street signs. To visit the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan today is to step into another world that most people never knew existed - just be sure to arrive in the summer!

 



User Comments & Reviews: 4 Comment(s)

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hpt - 2009-11-24 16:29:14

I'm visiting because of a piece in Slate.com on this region by Masha Gessen http://www.slate.com/id/2236079/

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nat ward - 2009-11-01 23:29:00

Founds sheets of stamps from here 1930-50s. Good information re background/history. Thanks.

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Admin - 2009-10-26 13:12:25

To Neil, Thank you for visiting Russia.com. We invite you to join our Forums where you can express your views and interact with other forum members on a wide variety of topics. Regards, Russia.com Team

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