Jewish Autonomous Oblast
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO; Russian: Евре́йская автоно́мная о́бласть, Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast; Yiddish: ייִדישע אװטאָנאָמע געגנט, yidishe avtonome Gegnt) is a federal subject of Russia in the Russian Far East, bordering Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast in Russia and Heilongjiang province in China. Its administrative center is the town of Birobidzhan.
Jewish Autonomous Oblast
|Еврейская автономная область|
|Coordinates: 48°36′N 132°12′E|
|Federal district||Far Eastern|
|Economic region||Far Eastern|
|Established||May 7, 1934|
|• Body||Legislative Assembly|
|• Governor||Alexander Levintal|
|• Total||36,000 km2 (14,000 sq mi)|
|• Estimate||162,014 (-8.2%)|
|• Density||4.9/km2 (13/sq mi)|
|Time zone||UTC+10 (MSK+7 |
|ISO 3166 code||RU-YEV|
At its height in the late 1940s, the Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000, around 25% of the entire population. As of the 2010 Census, JAO's population was 176,558 people, or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. By 2010, according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, there were only 1,628 Jews remaining in the JAO (less than 1% of the population), while ethnic Russians made up 92.7% of the JAO population. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.
Before the establishment of the JAO
Acquisition of the Amur Region by Russia
In 1858 the northern bank of the Amur River, including the territory of today's Jewish Autonomous Oblast, became incorporated into the Russian Empire pursuant to the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860).
In December 1858 the Russian government authorized the formation of the Amur Cossack Host to protect the south-east boundary of Siberia and communications on the Amur and Ussuri rivers. This military colonization included settlers from Transbaikalia. Between 1858 and 1882 many settlements consisting of wooden houses were founded. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 men from the Russian military moved into the region.
Expeditions of scientists, including geographers, ethnographers, naturalists, and botanists such as Mikhail Ivanovich Venyukov (1832–1901), Leopold von Schrenck, Karl Maximovich, Gustav Radde (1831–1903), and Vladimir Leontyevich Komarov promoted research in the area.
Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway
In 1899, construction began on the regional section of the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Chita and Vladivostok. The project produced a large influx of new settlers and the foundation of new settlements. Between 1908 and 1912 stations opened at Volochayevka, Obluchye, Bira, Birakan, Londoko, In, and Tikhonkaya. The railway construction finished in October 1916 with the opening of the 2,590-metre (8,500 ft) Khabarovsk Bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk.
During this time, before the 1917 revolutions, most local inhabitants were farmers. The only industrial enterprise was the Tungussky timber mill, although gold was mined in the Sutara River, and there were some small railway workshops.
Russian Civil War
Jewish settlement in the region
Soviet policies with respect to minorities and Jews
In 1924, the unemployment rate among Jews exceeded 30%, partially as a result of pogroms but also as a result of the policies of the USSR, which prohibited people from being craftspeople and small businessmen. With the goal of getting Jews back to work to be more productive members of society, the government established Komzet, the committee for the agricultural settlement of Jews. The Soviet government entertained the idea of resettling all Jews in the USSR in a designated territory where they would be able to pursue a lifestyle that was "socialist in content and national in form". The Soviets also wanted to offer an alternative to Zionism, the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov were gaining followers at that time and Zionism was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews. The location that was initially considered in the early 1920s was Crimea, which already had a significant Jewish population Two Jewish districts (raiony) were formed in Crimea and three in south Ukraine. However, an alternative scheme, perceived as more advantageous, was put into practice.
Establishment of the JAO
Eventually, Birobidzhan, in what is now the JAO, was chosen by the Soviet leadership as the site for the Jewish region. The choice of this area was a surprise to Komzet; the area had been chosen for military and economic reasons. This area was often infiltrated by China, while Japan also wanted Russia to lose the provinces of the Soviet Far East. At the time, there were only about 30,000 inhabitants in the area, mostly descendants of Trans-Baikal Cossacks resettled there by tsarist authorities, Koreans, Kazakhs, and the Tungusic peoples. The Soviet government wanted to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. General Pavel Sudoplatov writes about the government's rationale behind picking the area in the Far East: ″The establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Birobidzhan in 1928 was ordered by Stalin only as an effort to strengthen the Far Eastern border region with an outpost, not as a favour to the Jews. The area was constantly penetrated by Chinese and White Russian resistance groups, and the idea was to shield the territory by establishing a settlement whose inhabitants would be hostile to White Russian émigrés, especially the Cossacks. The status of this region was defined shrewdly as an autonomous district, not an autonomous republic, which meant that no local legislature, high court, or government post of ministerial rank was permitted. It was an autonomous area, but a bare frontier, not a political center.″
On 28 March 1928, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee of the USSR passed the decree "On the attaching for Komzet of free territory near the Amur River in the Far East for settlement of the working Jews." The decree meant "a possibility of establishment of a Jewish administrative territorial unit on the territory of the called region".
The new territory was initially called the Birobidzhan Jewish National Raion.
Birobidzhan had a harsh geography and climate: it was mountainous, covered with virgin forests of oak, pine and cedar, and also swamplands, and any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch. To make colonization more enticing, the Soviet government allowed private land-ownership. This led to many non-Jews settling in the oblast to get a free farm.
In the spring of 1928, 654 Jews arrived to settle in the area; however, by October 1928, 49.7% of them had left because of the severe conditions. In the summer of 1928, there were torrential rains that flooded the crops and an outbreak of anthrax that killed the cattle.
On 7 May 1934, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee accepted the decree on its transformation into the Jewish Autonomous Region within the Russian Federation. In 1938, with formation of the Khabarovsk Territory, the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) was included in its structure.
Attempts to encourage settlement in the JAO
By the 1930s, a massive campaign developed to entice more Jewish settlers to move there. The campaign partly incorporated the standard Soviet promotional tools of the era and included posters and Yiddish-language novels describing a socialist utopia there. In one instance, leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belarus. In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness told the story of a Jewish family that made a new life for itself in Birobidzhan.
Growth of Jewish communities in the early 1930s
Early Jewish settlements included Valdgeym, dating from 1928, which included the first collective farm established in the oblast. Amurzet, which was the center of Jewish settlement south of Birobidzhan from 1929 to 1939, and Smidovich.
By 1930, there were three Jewish schools in nine settlements. By 1932, the State Planning Committee ratified the first estimated figures of the economic plan of the Birobidjan region as a separate economic unit.
The Organization for Jewish Colonisation in the Soviet Union, a Jewish Communist organization in North America, successfully encouraged the immigration of some US residents, such as the family of spy George Koval, which arrived in 1932. Some 1,200 non-Soviet Jews chose to settle in Birobidzhan.
As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. The settlers established a Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern; a theatre troupe was created; and streets being built in the new city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz.
Stalin era and World War II
After the war ended in 1945, there was renewed interest in the idea of Birobidzhan as a potential home for Jewish refugees. The Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000 Jews in 1948, around 25% of the entire population of the JAO. However, in 1948, Stalin's anti-Jewish purges made living in the JAO unappealing. Jews were no longer able to get jobs or attend graduate school.
In 1980, a Yiddish school was opened in Valdgeym.
Post-breakup of the Soviet Union
In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast moved from the jurisdiction of Khabarovsk Krai to the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. However, by that time, most of the Jews had emigrated from the Soviet Union and the remaining Jews constituted fewer than 2% of the local population.
In early 1996, 872 people, or 20% of the Jewish population at that time, emigrated to Tel Aviv via chartered flights.
According to an article published in 2000, Birobidzhan has several state-run schools that teach Yiddish, a Yiddish school for religious instruction and a kindergarten. The five- to seven-year-olds spend two lessons a week learning to speak Yiddish, as well as being taught Jewish songs, dance, and traditions.
In 2002, L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!, a documentary on Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region and its settlement, was released by The Cinema Guild. In addition to being a history of the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the film features scenes of contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.
As of 2005, Amurzet had a small active Jewish community.
A 2006 article in The Washington Times stated that Yiddish is taught in the schools, a Yiddish radio station is in operation, and the Birobidzhaner Shtern newspaper includes a section in Yiddish.
An April 2007 article in The Jerusalem Post claimed that the Jewish population had grown to about 4000. The article cited Mordechai Scheiner, the Chief Rabbi of the JAO from 2002 to 2011, who said that, at the time the article was published, Jewish culture was enjoying a religious and cultural resurgence.
By 2010, according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, there were only approximately 1,600 people of Jewish descent remaining in the JAO (1% of the total population), while ethnic Russians made up 93% of the JAO population.
According to an article published in 2010, Yiddish is the language of instruction in only one of Birobidzhan's 14 public schools. Two schools, representing a quarter of the city's students, offer compulsory Yiddish classes for children aged 6 to 10.
As of 2012, the Birobidzhaner Shtern continues to publish 2 or 3 pages per week in Yiddish and one local elementary school still teaches Yiddish.
According to a 2012 article, "only a very small minority, mostly seniors, speak Yiddish", a new Chabad-sponsored synagogue opened at 14a Sholom-Aleichem Street, and Sholem Aleichem Amur State University offers a Yiddish course.
A November 2017 article in The Guardian, titled, "Revival of a Soviet Zion: Birobidzhan celebrates its Jewish heritage", examined the current status of the city and suggested that, even though the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia's far east is now barely 1% Jewish, officials hope to woo back people who left after Soviet collapse.
2013 proposals to merge the JAO with adjoining regions
In 2013, there were proposals to merge the JAO with Khabarovsk Krai or with Amur Oblast. The proposals led to protests, and were rejected by residents, as well as the Jewish community of Russia. There were also questions as to whether a merger would be allowed pursuant to the Constitution of Russia and whether a merger would require a national referendum.
The territory has a monsoonal/anti-cyclonic climate, with warm, wet, humid summers due to the influence of the East Asian monsoon, and cold, dry, windy conditions prevailing in the winter months courtesy of the Siberian high-pressure system.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is part of the Far Eastern Economic Region; it has well-developed industry and agriculture and a dense transportation network. Its status as a free economic zone increases the opportunities for economic development. The oblast's rich mineral and building and finishing material resources are in great demand on the Russian market. Nonferrous metallurgy, engineering, metalworking, and the building material, forest, woodworking, light, and food industries are the most highly developed industrial sectors.
Agriculture is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast's main economic sector owing to fertile soils and a moist climate.
The largest companies in the region include Kimkano - Sutarsky Mining and Processing Plant (with revenues of $116.56 million in 2017), Teploozersky Cement Plant ($29.14 million) and Brider Trading House ($24 million).
The region's well-developed transportation network consists of 530 km (330 mi) of railways, including the Trans-Siberian Railway; 600 km (370 mi) of waterways along the Amur and Tunguska rivers; and 1,900 km (1,200 mi) of roads, including 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of paved roads. The most important road is the Khabarovsk-Birobidzhan-Obluchye-Amur Region highway with ferry service across the Amur. The Birobidzhan Yuzhniy Airfield, in the center of the region, connects Birobidzhan with Khabarovsk and outlying district centers.
Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye railway bridge
The Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoye railway bridge is a 19.9 km (12.4 mi) long, $355 million, bridge under construction that will link Nizhneleninskoye in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast with Tongjiang in the Heilongjiang Province of China. The bridge is expected to open in October 2019 and is expected to transport more than 3 million tonnes (3.3 million short tons; 3.0 million long tons) of cargo and 1.5 million passengers per year.
The population of JAO has declined by almost 20% since 1989, with the numbers recorded being 215,937 (1989 Census) and 176,558 (2010 Census); The 2010 Census reported the largest group to be the 160,185 ethnic Russians (93%), followed by 4,871 ethnic Ukrainians (3%), and 1,628 ethnic Jews (1%). Additionally, 3,832 people were registered from administrative databases, and could not declare an ethnicity. It is estimated that the proportion of ethnicities in this group is the same as that of the declared group.
According to a 2012 survey, 23% of the population of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast adhere to Russian Orthodoxy, 6% are Orthodox Christians of other church jurisdictions or Orthodox believers who are not members of any church, and 9% are unaffiliated or generic Christians. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population. In addition, 35% of the population identify as "spiritual but not religious", 22% profess atheism, and 5% follow other religions or declined to answer the question.
JAO and its history have been portrayed in the documentary film L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!. The film tells the story of Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and its partial settlement by thousands of Russian- and Yiddish-speaking Jews and was released in 2002. As well as relating the history of the creation of the proposed Jewish homeland, the film features scenes of life in contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.
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