In the 1920’, Stalin decided to create ex-nihilo a Jewish colony in far-east Siberia., a new episode to the Russian state anti-Semitism: At the end of the 18th century, Catherine II stated there were too many Jews in the country (5 millions). They were then assigned to residence and couldn’t own lands. At the end of the 19th, after an anarchist assassinated Alexander II, Christians started to assassinate and rape Jews, mass killings approved by Alexander III & Nicholas II; and resulting in migrations to Poland and the US.
Both to get rid of Jews on the West side of the country, and to colonize the East, this “Jewish Autonomous Oblast” was finally funded in 1934, with Birobidzhan as capital city. Mainly Jews from Ukraine and Belorussia migrated there in the 1930’, though many of them left when finding out this was a MARECAGE’ region (36 000 km2 large), not very friendly indeed. It got even worse at the end of the 1930’, when the central powers, more and more anti-Semitic, forbidden Yiddish and synagogues.
When I asked Alexander, yesterdays’ painter if he as born here, in Novosibirsk, he replied: “No, I was born in Birobidzhan”. Of course I tried to know more: What were his parents doing there (had they been forced to move being the real interrogation), how had been his childhood, why had he left? Answers were kind of elliptic.
His mum was an economist; his dad was a Sports’ teacher, sent there because he was a communist… Alexander didn’t mention religion at all. He left Birobidzhan to study Arts, and chose Novosibirsk because it was halfway from Moscow and his hometown. As I seemed interested still, he finally showed me this book, in Yiddish and Russian languages.
Later in the conversation, I asked about censorship nowadays. Not much, as far as he is concerned. Nothing in comparison to the soviet times of course. And he showed us illustrations he had prepared for a book, back in the 1970’. They were rejected. The wolf: Not Russian enough. The king: Not Russian enough. The hills: Not Russian enough. So what? Too Jewish…
Many Jews moved to Israel after the Perestroika. The synagogue only reopened in 2004. According to Wikipedia, there are 4,000 Jews in Birobidzhan, 5 % of the town’s population of 75,000.