[Marxism] Stalin's Jewish autonomous region

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 4 07:51:23 MDT 2012

NY Times October 3, 2012
Despite Predictions, Jewish Homeland in Siberia Retains Its Appeal

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia — Andrey Zasorin, the spiritual leader of the old 
synagogue here in the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, is a 
born-again Jew who found God after 23 years in prison for robbery. Even 
then, he returned to Judaism only after flirting with the Russian 
Orthodox and Pentecostal churches.

Yelena Sarashevskaya, the editor of the local paper, Birobidzhaner 
Shtern, which still publishes two or three pages a week in Yiddish, is 
not Jewish. She is a descendant of Cossacks, but married a Jew and 
learned to read and write Yiddish in college.

Identity is a complex issue in the quixotic Jewish homeland established 
by Stalin here in the mosquito-infested swampland of Russia’s Far East, 
some 20 years before the founding of Israel. While the big menorah 
standing outside the railroad station, the Yiddish street signs and 
ubiquitous Stars of David give Birobidzhan the veneer of a Jewish 
Disneyland, the city often seems to have the religious authenticity of a 
pizza bagel with pepperoni.

Because of this gap between the city’s spirit and its spirituality — not 
to mention the dwindling number of people who actually call themselves 
Jews — commentators have been predicting the Jewish Autonomous Region’s 
demise for decades. But whether on the Upper East Side, or in Jerusalem, 
or on this last patch of Siberia along the Chinese border, Jewish is as 
Jewish does. And when it comes to the so-called Soviet Zion, Ms. 
Sarashevskaya, for one, is sick of the snickering.



(One of the most aggravating things about the crackdown on Pirate's Bay 
is that this was the first place I'd go to in order to find a movie that 
was not on Netflix, Amazon, or other for-pay sites. I saw this 
documentary in 2003 and really found it fascinating.)

L'Chayim Comrade Stalin

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two "sidukah" (charity) 
boxes in his father's shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National 
Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. 
The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region 
that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish 
homeland became the seed for his documentary "L'Chayim Comrade Stalin," 
now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival 
material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the 
period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an 
under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of 
reactions to the "Jewish Question." (Strom utilizes a graphic of these 
two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of 

Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project 
tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a 
desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the 
Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that 
anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a 
geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this 
as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his 
biography of Bukharin that Stalin's despotic "revolution from above" did 
not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. 
Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure 
to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/birobidzhan.htm

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