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The Crazy, Failed Idea of Creating a Jewish State in Russia

Birobidzhan was a small region near the Chinese border in Russian that was established as the world's first autonomous Jewish region in the early 1930s. It didn't last long. Author Masha Gessen discusses the strange history of the would-be territory.

by Peter Moskowitz
Sep 10 2016, 1:20pm

Images courtesy of Penguin Random House

Masha Gessen, a journalist, was born to a Jewish family in Moscow. In the early 1980s, facing a potentially bleak future for their children in the USSR, her family emigrated to the US, though Gessen moved back to Moscow after college. Gessen is a lesbian, and after anti-gay rhetoric heated up in Russia in 2013, she decided she'd only feel safe if she, her partner, and her three kids returned to the US. That double emigration left Gessen fascinated with the idea of space, safety, and identity.

Gessen, known for her work covering Russia's homophobic politics and the machinations of Putin, began looking into Birobidzhan, a small region near the Chinese border in Russian that was established as the world's first autonomous Jewish region in the early 1930s. Birobidzhan was never much: the climate and surrounding land was too harsh to support sustainable agriculture. No more than 30,000 Jews ever actually inhabited the region.

Birobidzhan was always more a dream than an actual place. The idea for Birobidzhan was based on the philosophies of Simon Dubnow, a Jewish writer and activist, who saw Jewish cultural autonomy as crucial to maintaining identity in the face of increased calls for Jews to assimilate. He saw cultural autonomy as a more enlightened alternative to state and military autonomy, but even Dubnow was skeptical of the dream of Birobidzhan. Soon after the Jewish region was established, Soviet leaders decided that Yiddish and Jewish autonomy was antithetical to a united Soviet front, and many of the region's leaders were murdered. Birobidzhan was over before it started.

Gessen's new book, Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, is out now from Schocken/Penguin Random House. It follows the creators of Birobidzhan as they attempt to create an idyllic Jewish enclave, traces Masha's family's history of emigration, and explores what it means to be a Jew and to have a safe space to live. VICE spoke with Masha Gessen to find out how Birobidzhan got started, and what we can learn from it today.

VICE: Why did you want to write this book?
Masha Gessen: I first wrote it in 2009. There was this draft that was lying around for years. I knew the draft needed to be reworked, but I couldn't get myself excited enough to rework it. Then when I emigrated for the second time, fleeing Russia again, as my parents had done 35 years earlier, that sort of gave me the motivation to rework the book and turn it into the draft that was finally published.

What drew you to Birobidzhan as a topic, in specific?
I was never particularly interested in Birobidzhan as an actual place, just because there isn't a whole lot to say about Birobidzhan as a place. Birobidzhan, in a way, never happened. It was an idea that was tied to a place. I was interested in the idea of autonomism, and I was also interested in this idea of a safe place for Jews, which is intimately tied to the idea of autonomism. I knew that the book ultimately had to be a rumination on safety, immigration, exile, and diaspora. I wasn't in that state of mind until I had to go into exile for the second time in my life.

In some ways, the book is a history of Birobidzhan, but it's not just a history because the idea of a separate place for Jews is still a very controversial, right?
I hope it's not purely historical. I think that the theme of exile, the theme of diaspora, the theme of are you ever really safe if you're not with your own people? are all universal. I'm also really interested in the idea of what it means to be Jewish. And that is why Simon Dubnow, the originator of the idea of autonomism is such a major character in the book. He is incredibly eloquent on what makes a Jew. He talks about the possibility of a secular Jewish identity, the possibility of a cultural Jewish identity, the possibility that you can be non-observant but Jewish, but you cannot be Jewish and observant in another religion. He was very clear about that. He focused very closely and brilliantly on the conflict between emancipation in the sense of being granted cultural rights and cultural identity.

I think most American Jews have an incredibly narrow idea of what being Jewish is, and it actually ties to my own life and my kids' lives as exiles. My 18-year-old son was telling me that just the other day, that he keeps getting into arguments with other teenagers who tell him he can't be Jewish if he's not religious. But he probably knows more about what it feels like to be a Jew in the world than many religious Jews here.

Was the dream behind Birobidzhan different from the reality?
In the early 20th century, there was an ongoing debate among different factions of Jewish thinkers. There was the assimilationist urge, and there were two kinds of reactions to the urge to assimilate. One was the Zionist argument: The Zionist argument was basically founded in the idea that as long as Jews live in diaspora, they will be followed by anti-Semitism, and that you could never get rid of anti-Semitism as long as Jews were a minority where they lived. The only way for Jews to live free of anti-Semitism was to have their own state. In the Zionist argument, the location of that state was not terribly important—although it was better if it was in Palestine—but it had to be a full state with its own army and with sovereignty.

And then there was Dubnow's argument. He basically said on one level that Jews had lived in diaspora for 2,000 years and there's no reason to move elsewhere, but at the same time there was every reason to resist the assimilation. And the way to do it, to maintain a cultural identity, was to strive for a kind of autonomy, but that autonomy should not include state sovereignty and should not include having a Jewish army. Jews could be protected by the state where they live, but they should have the right to self-government. He saw the Jews lacking military and lacking state sovereignty as a positive, as what allowed Jews to become the purest, the best kind of nation. And this really breaks my heart, but his argument was Jews would be unable to oppress another people with their military might, because they've never had military might. They're unable to fight over territory, because they've never had their own territory. Which is sad because today we see that's obviously not true.

What was Dubnow's take on Birobidzhan?
Dubnow was no advocate of Birobidzhan. His ideal of autonomism was already perverted by Birobidzhan because he didn't think that Jews had any way of benefiting from the Bolshevik state. He was very much a realist on that. But it was that idea that the founders of Birobidzhan ran with, and you have to admit it sounded pretty good on paper. But then, of course, when the first reconnaissance mission to Birobidzhan returned, they said that place is pretty much uninhabitable. It was either swampland or rocks and it was infested with, as they put it, these evil insects, which really make it impossible to survive the summer there for both man and cattle. And the Soviet State was never concerned with the human cost of whatever project they undertook, so they just sent Jews to this uninhabitable place, and when they arrived, it was a nightmare. They had no real shelter. The weather was awful. There were no roads. They couldn't work the land because they didn't know how and because the land was almost impossible to cultivate.

Birobidzhan is a like a monument to an idea that never came to fruition—Masha Gessen

What did you think this region was like before you went, and what did it turn out being like when you visited?
I'm not sure I was expecting anything. I just wanted to check it out. It's a weird little place. On one hand, it looks like any other Russian provincial town. It's close to the border with China, so it's very much oriented toward China economically, and at this point, even culturally. The border is fairly permeable so there are a lot of Chinese people in Birobidzhan, a lot of traders, Chinese restaurants, that sort of thing. In other ways, Birobidzhan is like a monument to an idea that never came to fruition. It was just populated by statues and monuments of something that was never really there.

Did you come away with any feelings one way or the other about the need for a separate space for Jews?
I think that for me, the very, very, very long process of trying to figure out what kind of Jew I am has settled into a fairly comfortable place of thinking many contradictory things at the same time, which I think is a very Jewish thing to do. I think I would like to live in an imaginary Birobidzhan or an imaginary Jewish autonomy. I don't think I would actually like to live in an actual Jewish autonomy. I think that I like living in New York City. In fact, that's probably as close as one comes to living in a kind of Jewish autonomy.

You dedicate the book to your parents. Specifically you say "To my parents, who had the courage to emigrate," and I was wondering why you decided on that dedication.
This book is largely a rumination on exile and on emigration, and the question that I keep circling back to is how do you know when it's time to go? And sort of implicit in that question is how do you get up the courage to jump into the unknown? To this day, I can't imagine what it was like for my parents. I was a young teenager then, but I didn't have responsibility for much. I know how scary it was for me to pick up my family, which includes my partner and our two kids, to move to New York City, where I had been to college. And I had a US passport and I had the money to buy a house. Still, it was really scary to uproot my whole family, to put my kids through losing everything that they had taken for granted, and enter the culture shock of emigration.

I can't imagine what it was like for my parents who didn't know where they were going, who didn't have papers, who had to go through a very mild form of refugeehood. We were in refugee camps in Austria and then Italy for a couple of months. What does it feel like to know that you had responsibilities for two young kids and you didn't even know how you were going to make a living? My mother has been dead for 24 years, but my father is still around and doing fine. And he has told me that he thinks of it as a great adventure and an incredible opportunity that they had. I think that's a really awesome way to think about it.

'Where the Jews Aren't' is out now on Penguin Random House. Order it here.

Follow Moskowitz on Twitter.