Saturday, 29 June 2013

Birobidjan: The Story of the First Jewish State made by Stalin

In the 1914 there were approximately 7 million Jews in the Russian Empire, mostly in a region annexed from Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th Century known as the Pale of Settlement. (Wischnitzer) Though they were normally prohibited from leaving the Pale, the disorganization caused by the German invasion  in WWI allowed them to flee it, Westward, into the rest of Russia.In the beginning, Lenin was initially sympathetic towards Jewish persecution; he saw their victimization as a diversion to prevent the workers from focusing on the universal source of oppression- the Czarist regime- and gave addresses to that effect. (Lustiger 47) The new Soviet government even launched an extensive campaign against anti-Semitism in the early part of the regime. (Lustiger 55)
The victimization of which Lenin spoke was the attack of Jews because they are members of the Jewish nation. Persecution of Jews was still acceptable, however, when it was due to their Jewish ideas and thoughts that prevented them from fully immersing in the Soviet way of life. Nonetheless, Lenin largely ignored the first form of persecution so as not to alienate the persecutors. Only a very few czarist style pogroms were perpetrated, mainly during the initial chaos of the revolution and mainly by frustrated fragments of other armies that had become absorbed into the Red Army; those responsible were usually punished severely. (Wischnitzer)
In a continuation of the theme of persecuting harmful Jewish ideas, Jewish schools, publishers and theatres were closed down. By 1927 23% of USSR synagogues had been shut down and by 1939, there were very few synagogues left. (Lustiger 51)
This anti-religious movement was spearheaded by Jewish Communists who took upon themselves the task of freeing the Jews from the shtetles, tearing off their medieval trappings and building them up as a modern Soviet people. The divestment from religion was directed as religion in general and not solely at the Jews. It coincided with the Great Purge, which lasted from 1936 until 1939 in which Stalin ordered mass arrests and executions of party leaders, intellectuals, wealthy people, dissidents. Ironically, many of the Jewish Communists who bravely liberated the Jews were themselves incarcerated, shot or sent to gulags. Most of Birobidjan's local leadership was executed. (Lustiger  67)
Stalin shut down the Jewish and Yiddish institutions in Birobidjan, as well as outlawed the “fan clubs” such as KOMZET and OZET. According to Weinberg, the reason Stalin did this is that the Yiddish culture was no longer appealing to the young assimilated Jews and its presence might have a hindering effect on subsequent assimilation.  This move effectively killed the precarious Birobidjan project. Stalin was left with a the task of recruiting Jews, who no longer saw themselves as Jews, to move to a desolate, backwater region of Siberia on the basis that they are Jews and the region was their cherished homeland for which they had no strong feelings or loyalty to whatsoever. It was if Stalin had a butterfly and he tried to protect it from wind by crushing it between two pieces of glass. Birobidjan did not see positive immigration until after the second world war, when for a short time the fragments of the Jewish community drifted in in search of a place of identity and solace. The region reached its population peak in 1948 (JewishEnc.) and suffered a rapid exodus when those fragments saw Birobidjan for what it was and left for the more promising state of Israel.
It was the practice for all citizens to have their nationality listed on their identification papers. Though the Jews were not recognized as a distinct nationality within the U.S.S.R., “Jewish” was used as a nationality for this purpose. Except within the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the expression of Jewishness was outlawed. The successful establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine was a public humiliation for the planners of Birobidjan; their Soviet-approved version of the Jewish homeland could not compete with the genuine success of Israel and a resurgence of Zionism resulted from the obvious disparity. The Soviet government lashed out at such expression and restricted the freedom of Jews even more, in particular applying their previous round of tactics in Birobidjan with the goal of complete assimilation. Citizens were generally limited in their freedom to emigrate and Jews, especially after 1948, were exceptionally limited.
During the second world war, the Red Army utilized the practice of “scorched earth” that is upon retreating, utterly destroy anything of value to reduce the value of victory for the enemy. The Germans followed a policy of demoralizing and deculturalizing the Russian people and destroyed schools, libraries and places of socialization. They also destroyed valuable things that the Russians missed. As a result, the territory captured by the Germans was concurrently subject to the policies of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army and was utterly ruined. The effects would cripple the industry and agriculture for years.(Service 298) The Soviet government's lumbering command economy7 hindered recovery efforts and ordinary citizens became disillusioned with their leaders. At the end of the war, many returning soldiers with experience with their democratic allies came back with a stark contrast of the two regimes and ways of life in their mind. One prominent example that would be easily communicated between soldiers (as opposed to bilingual discussions of economic theory and Thomas Paine) is that British and American officers would not shoot their own troops for adopting defensive positions or retreating, but the general message absorbed was that the Soviet Union was too repressive for their tastes. The Soviet government became more paranoid and repressive during this period. The rise in dissidence was countered with an increase in repression.
Between the founding of the state of Israel and 1959 nearly 16,000 Jews left Birobidjan (JewishEnc.) and  the already paranoid and xenophobic dictator Joseph Stalin became concerned with the possibility of crossed allegiances amongst the Jewish population and issued a polemic was issued against “rootless cosmopolitans”, a word which was in reference to non-assimilated Jewry. Jewish contributions to the movement, even pertaining to Karl Marx's background were suppressed. Public or literary figures who were, or recorded to be, in favor of anything Jewish were suppressed. Jewish nationalism on the part of scientists was the stated cause of backwardness and Jewish nepotism was retarding the Russian economy. After this trend begun, Jews were purged from military, government and every other genre of prestigious position. As the development of nuclear capability was of paramount importance, Jews working on atomic bomb projects were spared. Even the Jewish Communist party was shut down. The entry on Jews in The Soviet Encyclopaedia was all but scrapped.  (Lustiger 200). One of the few references that were allowed to stay was the fact that the Mensheviks, who opposed the Bolsheviks after the revolution were the chosen party of the Jewish Communists and that Leon Trotsky, Stalin's nemesis, was also a Jew. The Birobidjan library was purged of its Judaica section; over 30,000 books were burned. (Weinberger)
In the final years of Stalin's life, he became convinced that his physicians were trying to kill him- a very believable scenario. Stalin was the exceedingly unpopular ruler of an exceedingly unpopular country with enemies both inside and outside its borders. Even fellow communists did not like him. Tensions were brewing with Albania, Hungary and China and Stalin was in a feud with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, having sent several assassin to kill him; the Yugoslavian secret service intercepted them all and Tito warned Stalin to stop or he would send one to Moscow and would not need to send another. (N.W.E.)


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