Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Putin Wants to Revive Stalin’s Old “Jewish Region” in Siberia; Israel Not Amused

Shalom! and welcome to remotest Siberia!
Vladimir Putin has had some crazy ideas in his time.  Shooting Siberian tigers.  Supporting the dictatorship in Syria.  Hang-gliding with migrating cranes.  Putting the Olympics on the site of a Russian genocide of Muslims just as he is trying to tamp down Islamist terrorism in that very region (discussed extensively last year in this blog (also in this article)).  And, um, you know, stuff like systematically dismantling Russia’s fragile democratic structures and its civil society to replace it with a corrupt and intolerant oligarchy.  But at least he’s put the Stalin era behind him.  Well, not quite.

The conveniently located Jewish Autonomous Oblast
The Russian Federation surprised the world this month with an announcement that it would like to revive the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (J.A.O.), a remote scrap of Siberian tundra on the border with China which Josef Stalin had used as a dumping ground for Jews in the 1930s.  Actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as that sounds.  The creation of the region was not at first punitive in the same way as, say, the removal of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and other peoples eastward later on after the Second World War.  It was part of a Bolshevik plan to keep various internal nationalisms in check by granting autonomous regions for some minorities while also discouraging them from ideologically incorrect ideas such as ethnic chauvinism and religion—and, in the case of the J.A.O., Zionism.  Some of the territorial entities created in this era survive today, such as the Republic of Tatarstan.  Others, like the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic just west of Kazakhstan, or various Cossack autonomous districts, have gone the way of happy-Proletariat posters and scratchy toilet paper.

Downtown Birobidzhan, J.A.O.
The J.A.O. was, by Stalinist standards, an enlightened project.  Yiddish was the official language and throve there, as did other aspects of Jewish culture (except for the Judaism part).  Later, Stalin eyed the oblast as a place to put troublesome dissidents, especially Jewish ones, but after Nikita Khrushchev took power in 1953 he eased up a tad on minorities and dissidents and brought home many of the groups Stalin had exiled eastward (without, however, creating a more conveniently located J.A.O. farther west).  When Leonid Brezhnev opened the floodgates of Jewish emigration in the 1970s, the J.A.O.’s remaining Jewish population was depleted, most leaving for Israel.  Today, the Oblast still has Jewish newspapers and radio stations but by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 only 2% of the population was Jewish, and by 2010 it had dropped below 1%.  It is a Jewish homeland mostly without Jews.

Jewish culture in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is not exactly thriving.
The new plan, as enunciated by Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister, is to offer financial incentives—the equivalent of $8,000 U.S.—for about 2,000 Russian Jews living elsewhere in the Federation, or even in the rest of the former Soviet Union and farther abroad, to settle in the J.A.O.  The problem is that while many Russians might consider the Jews who fled Russia in the 1970s as Russian emigrants whose departure constituted a regrettable brain drain, many of those emigrants today consider themselves more Jewish and Israeli (or American or whatever, depending on where they settled) than Russian.  It remains to be seen how many Jews in non-Siberian parts of Russia would relish relocating.

Monsoon season in the J.A.O.
And, to be honest, the name Siberia does not focus-group all that well for descendants of Soviet Jews.  The J.A.O. is a little bit bigger than Belgium, but with only 175,000 people—mostly Eastern Orthodox ethnic Russians.  It is one of the fartheast east of the Russian Federation’s constituent units, it is landlocked, and its climate is deathly cold and windswept in winter, while in summer it is rocked by monsoons, which this season caused the worst flooding in a century.  Its economy is agricultural but increasingly dominated by mining operations run by Chinese corporations.

Whose numbers are dwindling faster?  Siberian tigers or Siberian Jews?
Alexander Levin, president of the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, probably spoke for many when he said, in response to the Medvedev plan, “We do not think that today, for the Jews, this initiative is relevant or realistic, as the Jews in Russia and Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries live in big cities and are economically successful for the most part. ... Jews have a strong and developed State of Israel and it is specifically there that they should to go to in order to express their Jewish national identity.”

The unlikely founder of the first modern Jewish homeland
Well said.  But here’s another reason Putin might want to just leave the Jewish Autonomous Oblast idea be.  Right now, a wave of bigoted anti-gay legislation in Russia is making the country into even more of a pariah state.  There are calls for a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, and fears in Moscow that the Olympics will become a staging ground for gay-rights protests that will embarrass the regime.  Putin doesn’t want a whole bunch of Olympic athletes pulling out flags like this—

—but if they do, they can get around the laws by saying they’re just flying the flag of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which, I swear to God, looks like this:

[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

1 comment:

  1. Hello, do you know if foreign Jews get automatic Russian citizenship if they take up this offer?


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