Saturday, 10 September 2016


We had heard beforehand of the unique Russian republic between the Black and Caspian seas called Kalmykia—the only place in Europe where a plurality of the population is practising Buddhists, which is pretty remarkable to learn in itself, but we had never known about the first and still (nominally so, at least) Jewish state (autonomous oblast) called Birobidzhan until listening a really engrossing discussion about it on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Established in 1931 in the Soviet far east, on the border with China, almost two decades before the founding of Israel, the territory partially planned and to a large part championed by Swiss-German Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer. After the Bolshevik Revolution which suppressed religious practises and outlawed private property and put enterprise under the mantle of the USSR, Jewish people, who already faced discrimination and were excluded from many public pursuits and now lost their livelihoods as owners of small businesses. Birobidzhan was advertised as a homeland where they could express their Yiddish heritage (and speak the language, whereas Hebrew predominated in Israel) without fear of reprisal—but as the discussion reveals, it was far from ideal—with cultural labels imposed and thrust upon individuals rather than allowing people to self-identify (which is usually the case in such situations) and the migration seemed more of an expulsion to a harsh and remote land, hardly arable and with no infrastructure. After initially being encouraged to build a community, those members of the “elite” who promoted it and tried to make a success out of the experiment were themselves victims of subsequent Stalinist purges. Be sure to check out the whole fascinating and tragic interview in the link up top.