‘I was then … as poor, as poor can be, although to tell the truth, I am by far no rich man today, … but as compared to those days I am today a well-to-do man with my own horse and wagon, with a couple of, knock on wood, milch cows and another cow that is due to calve any day now. It would be a sin to complain, we have cheese and butter and fresh cream every day, all earned with our labor, we all work, nobody is idle.’2
This is how the hero of the best-known Jewish book of the twentieth century — Reb Tevye from Anatovka, Tevye the Dairyman — introduces himself to his readers.
There can be no doubt that, in creating the figure of Tevye, Sholom Aleichem wanted, in his role as a national writer, to give his people a hero who would embody within himself the national ideal — and he succeeded brilliantly. Tevye the Dairyman became a kind of new Bible, at least for the Jews of the Russian empire and their descendants scattered throughout the world. The figure of Tevye became ‘one of us’ for Jews both orthodox and assimilated, observant and non-believing, ‘simple’ and educated, Zionist and Communist, in the USA as well as in the USSR. For all that, Tevye is a socially atypical figure: a Jew who has broken with his traditional shtetl background to become a farmer, working on the land.
In the 1920s and 1930s tens of thousands of Jews migrated from the towns of the former Pale of Settlement to the agricultural colonies in southern Ukraine, in the Crimea, and later — after 1928 — in the Far East, in the Birobidzhan region.
The history of the creation of Jewish autonomy in the USSR can only be rightly understood in the context of the Jewish nation ideological search for its own social and national redefinition in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the projects that related to these aspirations. Of these the best-known was the Zionist project — the founding of the State of Israel, in the shadow of which the Soviet project of the 1920s and 1930s — in many ways analogous — has been forgotten. The juxtaposition of these two projects allows us to see their similarities and differences, and to gain a deeper understanding of the causes of Israel’s success in the light of the Soviet experiment’s failure.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Jews of the Russian empire were not only subject to external oppression; they also underwent an inner crisis, a crisis of a religious, cultural, economic and social character — a national identity crisis, bound up with the necessity of modernisation.
Jews tried to find the solution of this problem in agriculture. How is it that working as peasants on the land was seen by these people, who for generations had been town dwellers, as a means to personal and also to collective, national salvation? It is a question not only of a real process of resettlement ‘onto the land’, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but, in the first instance, of a historical idea, an ideology, which had persisted among the most influential denizens of the ‘Jewish street’ for not less than 150 years.
This is not to say that there were no Jewish peasants in the Russian empire. There were Jews who were occupied with growing vegetables and keeping animals, with growing vines and tobacco; there were Jews who tilled the land in Jewish agricultural colonies. Before the Revolution there were almost 200,000 Jews involved in agriculture; this, however, represented no more than 3.5 percent of the Jewish population of the Russian empire.3
One of the first attempts to overcome the crisis of traditional Jewry was the activity of the maskilim (‘enlighteners’). The maskilim were unquestionably the first European intellectuals among the Jews; they were influenced by various European ideas (from Rousseau to the French physiocrats) on the economic and — no less importantly — the moral value of peasant work. The maskilim had one more important reason for this outlook: influenced, admittedly, by general European ideas about the Old Testament (the main and, above all unique, Jewish contribution to world culture), they went, as it were, behind the back of all Talmudic traditions to their source, to the Bible — a memorial to an agrarian civilisation, a memorial to an epoch when every man lived ‘from his own vines and Fig trees’. The maskilim were in favour of the revival of Hebrew, of the reform of Jewish education, of the transformation of Judaism into a ‘church’ religion and of the Jews into a nation, of the ‘normalisation’ of the economic position and the moral aspect of the Jews with the help of ‘productive’ — in the first instance, of agricultural — labour.4
Thus agriculture took its place among the ideas which were significant for Jews in the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The idea that agriculture might be the Jews’ salvation proved to be especially close to the hearts of Jews in the Russian empire, a country where urban culture was by no means strongly established, and in which the peasantry made up 75 percent of the population. In Russia, ‘life on the land’ was regarded, by the authorities as well as by the country’s intellectual elite, as the only truly normal, fulfilling mode of existence. These ideas and opinions inevitably influenced both the Jewish masses and the Jewish intelligentsia.
From the first half of the nineteenth century, the ideologues among the Jews saw in agricultural labour, together with education, a panacea for all the Jewish people’s ills. It is from this time that agriculture began to be a central point of all ideological and political programmes on the ‘Jewish street’.
To some extent the expectations of the Jewish ‘enlighteners’ began to be realised in the 1860s and 1870s. One important practical result of their theories was the founding in Petersburg in 1880, at the end of the age of ‘great reforms’, of the Society for the Promotion of Handicraft and Agricultural Work among Jews in Russia (ORT). The objective of this organisation was the overcoming of the social problems associated with the Pale of Settlement by means of the ‘productivisation’ of the shtetl ‘people of the air’. The initiative to found ORT received immediate and widespread support; throughout Russia Jewish professional-technical and agricultural schools and courses began to be formed, the graduates from which were destined to play an important role after the Revolution, in the establishing of Jewish agricultural settlements, workshops, and autonomy.
ORT’s mission was taken up at the end of the nineteenth century by various parties and movements, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from Zionists and autonomists to socialists of various trends and Communists; they saw in agriculture a means of resolving the ever more pressing ‘Jewish question’. It is wholly characteristic that the majority of ORT officials were at the same time active in various socialist and Zionist parties and movements.
The idea of the necessity, for ‘national salvation’, of agricultural labour was closely bound up with another basic idea, that of territory — of a ‘Jewish homeland’. The Jewish people were still without ‘a land of their own’, a point of especial importance in view of the dying out of traditional communities and the ever-increasing threat of anti-Semitism. They saw themselves as doomed at best to be assimilated, at worst to degenerate and wither away. These two ideas — of ‘our own home’ and ‘our own land’ were closely bound together: any future ‘Jewish homeland’ should without question be a land suitable for agriculture.
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, this complex of ideas in its various versions had spread not only through the political and intellectual elite but also through the majority of the Jewish population in Russia and Eastern Europe. One may say that in the twentieth century the Jewish people’s fundamental new ideology and new national consensus became an ideal of a national-agrarian utopia.
The Zionist movement and the colonisation of Palestine, leading ultimately to the founding of the State of Israel, was a successful — and much the best known — attempt to embody this utopian ideal, but it was by no means the only one.
The second most significant attempt, both in numbers and duration, was the attempt to create Jewish autonomy within the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s: in southern Ukraine, in the Crimea and in the Far East at Birobidzhan.One of the brightest pages in the history of the Soviet Jews has practically disappeared from the general consciousness; at best, Birobidzhan is remembered simply as a joke — Jewish autonomy without the Jews. Indeed, this epoch has been forgotten by Soviet Jews even more completely than by Jews in America. Who in Russia remembers the famous 1930s song ‘Dzhankoy’? But there are, to this day, elderly American Jews who still sing this song with pleasure as a symbol of their youth and its youthful hope.
However, in the 1920s and 1930s the analogy between the Soviet and Zionist projects was evident; these projects were regarded as being in competition with one another, and it was far from clear which had the better prospects of succeeding. A speech given by M. Kalinin in 1926, in which he proclaimed the Soviet government’s support for plans for Jewish autonomy, was referred to in the Western press as ‘the Kalinin declaration’, by analogy with the ‘Balfour declaration’. The English Labour politician Joseph Kenworthy, addressing Parliament in 1929, said: ‘The conduct of the Russian government in the Crimea stands in such conflict with English conduct in Palestine that it represents a positive danger to Zionist efforts in Palestine.’5
The analogy between Zion and the ‘Red Zion’ was by no means superficial. The impulse that drove Jews to Palestine was the same impulse that drove Jewish settlers to the Crimea and the Far East. Zionist and Socialist ideas were closely bound up together. The interrelatedness of these ideas was often apparent on a personal level: the future builders of the Palestine kibbutzim and the Crimean kolkhozes were members of the same parties in their youth. For example, the right wing of the Poalei Tsion (Workers of Zion) party, to which David Ben-Gurion belonged, was of great influence in the life of the Jewish Yishuv (Hebrew: settlement) in Palestine. The Avoda party, founded on the basis of this party, formed the government in the first thirty years of the state of Israel’s existence. At the same time, from the left wing of Poalei Tsion came many active workers in Soviet Jewish organisations. The first colonies in the Crimea, at the beginning of the 1920s, were founded by young Zionists, a number of whom — unless they succeeded in getting to Palestine — formed the nucleus of the population of the future Crimean Jewish kolkhozes. In 1928 several hundred activists of the leftist movement Gdud Ha-Avoda (Battalions of Labour) emigrated from Palestine to the Crimea, to the ‘Via Nova’ colony6.
Jewish colonisation in the USSR was supported by a substantial portion of the worldwide Jewish community. This support was seen not only in the donating of millions of dollars and in the sending of equipment, seed and fertilizer, but also in the sympathy for the Soviet project expressed by the Jewish intellectual elite: politicians, writers, poets, artists. Jewish writers in America as well as in the Soviet Union wrote with joy about the new Jewish settlements. In 1936, American Jewish artists brought together and sent to the USSR a large exhibition entitled ‘A Gift for Birobidzhan’. That leftist and Yiddish circles should lend their support seems logical enough, but they were by no means the only ones in sympathy with Soviet policy with regard to the Jews.
In the second half of the 1920s the American Jewish press wrote much more about the Jewish colonies in the USSR than about those in Palestine. Above all, in Tel Aviv in 1928, H.-N. Bialik, a great Jewish poet and one of the spiritual leaders of Zionism, refused to condemn American Jewish charities for donating funds not to the kibbutzim in Galilee but to the agricultural colonies in the Crimea. In the words of a contemporary, he spoke with sympathy of this ‘Bolshevist Uganda’.7
The Soviet Jewish colonists’ slogan was ‘To the Jewish Homeland!’ This slogan did not come from the Soviet leadership, to whom it smacked of nationalism; but at the same time it acted as an excellent reminder that settling in the Crimea, and particularly in the Far East, should answer not only the economic, but also the political, aspirations of the Jewish colonists, so they could not refuse it. One of the leaders of Evsektsia, the Jewish section of the CPSU, A. Merezhin, wrote in 1929: ‘I doubt very strongly whether, without the slogan “To the Jewish Homeland!”, we would have been able to persuade sufficient numbers of essential workers to set off for Birobidzhan. And in view of the fact that this slogan is helping to open up this large and difficult territory, that it is helping with the construction of our socialist fatherland, should we not support the use of this slogan as being animating, revolutionary, appealing to the young and the bold rather than to the old and conservative; not appealing to nationalist prejudices, not pointing to our ancestors and their tombs, but rather away from them to a new socialist future?’8
In these words can be seen not only a careful exploitation of Zionist ideals, but also a polemic against Zionism.
Mention has already been made of the deep community of ideas to which the Soviet and Zionist leaders kept. This community of
ideas could not help but give rise to competition. But apart from
the competition, apart from the Bolshevik leaders’ steady hostility to Zionism as ‘bourgeois nationalism’, there was one more important difference in the ideological bases of the Soviet and Zionist projects.
A fundamental aspect of the history of the Jewish diaspora is the struggle between two ideologies: the national, allied to the idea of the ‘Jewish nation’, and the ethnic. All Jewish leaders saw it as their principal task to transform the Jewish people into a modern nation state. For the Zionists this task consisted in the creation of a single ‘Jewish nation’, in the ‘uniting of those in exile’, while for the Soviet Jewish leaders, as for the leaders of other Soviet peoples, it was the making of a nation from their ethnic group, the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe. Hence all projects for the autonomy of the Soviet Jews were closely bound up with the building up of Yiddish culture. It is characteristic that Yiddish was for the Soviet Jewish leaders not simply a language but something with the basic symbolic value of a banner, just as Hebrew was for the Zionists.
Striving not only to preserve their own ethnic group, but to turn it into a fully fledged nation, the Soviet Jewish leaders understood that their only chance was to create a real ‘Jewish homeland’ in accordance with the Soviet standard — a country where the people would live on their own ‘native’ soil. The old Jewish township, the shtetl, transformed into a Soviet-style settlement of living quarters attached to a factory or plant, was no longer attractive to the descendants of craftsmen and small traders; in the big cities there was the threat of rapid assimilation; only regions settled by Jews offered any hope of building up the Jewish nation in the long run.
The history of Jewish colonisation is one of the last episodes in the history of the USSR in which the Jews took part in the historical process as active subjects rather than passive objects. The number of applications for resettlement continually exceeded the actual possibilities offered by the organisations in charge of the programme. For a short time the party leaders’ plans, the feverish national-utopian aspirations of Jewish public figures and the ambitions of the mass of the Jewish people were in complete accord.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Russian maskilim had also called on their fellow Jews to take up agricultural work and had welcomed the actions of the Russian authorities, who began in the first half of the nineteenth century to create agricultural colonies for Jewish settlers in Novorossiya (the old name for Southern Ukraine). This brief period, during which the aspirations of some Jewish ideologues coincided with the intentions of the authorities, is strongly reminiscent of the events of the 1920s and 1930s in the interaction of Jewish settlers, Jewish organisations and the Soviet authorities. Above all, the region of ‘old’ agricultural colonisation became in the 1920s one of the centres of the new Jewish settlement programme, and these ‘old’ colonies became the ‘capitals’ of the new Jewish autonomous regions in Ukraine. A coincidence such as this shows that we are not dealing here with a historical anecdote but with the realisation of ideas which had been of the utmost importance for centuries.
But what — apart from the demands of the Jewish population — prompted the Soviet authorities to support Jewish settlement and colonisation? There were several factors. There was, as already noted, the desire to counter Zionism with something substantial. There was the desire to attract funds, equipment and specialists from abroad, to create an additional pro-Soviet lobby in the West. There was a sincere desire to set up the new Soviet policy in opposition to the not-yet-forgotten anti-Semitism of the Tsarist government. Such an outlook was especially characteristic of old Bolshevik-internationalists such as M. Kalinin, A. Tsyurupa, P. Smidovich, and N. Semashko. Semashko wrote: ‘We will help the poor, of whatever nationality, with all possible means, but we will not conceal the fact that the Soviet state, like a mother, has a duty above all to look after that child who for centuries has been oppressed and has lived in the worst of conditions.’9
There were also highly serious socio-economic problems which made it necessary to speed up resettlement. The overpopulation of the shtetl (not to mention the high rate of emigration), the absence of resources and of work meant that, before the Revolution, more than 20 percent of the Jewish population lived in absolute poverty. During the First World War half a million Jews were removed by the Russian army from areas close to the front. 700,000 Jews suffered during pogroms in the Civil War in Ukraine and Belorussia. Altogether 911 settlements were devastated and 300,000 children were orphaned. Although many regions of the former Russian empire with large Jewish populations lay outside the USSR, there were still 2.8 million Jews within the country, mostly in the cities and towns of the Western region. Towards the end of the 1920s these inhabitants of the former Pale of Settlement, already poor, became still poorer.
The final blow for the shtetl came with the radical re-ordering of the USSR’s economic structure. The shtetl with its markets and fairs was the most important point of economic exchange between the city and the country: the destruction of trade in farm commodities and the State’s monopoly of trade deprived the shtetl of its economic function and its population of their means of existence. The last relatively safe period for the shtetl was the time of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The abolition of the NEP brought the Jewish population to the brink of extinction. ‘The position of the inhabitants of the Jewish townships is truly tragic’,— wrote the journal Tribuna (Tribune) at the end of 1928.10
Apart from the economic problems, the social problems were also becoming more acute. The Revolution, though it had freed the Jews from oppression as a people, nevertheless exposed them to social discrimination. At the end of the 1920s, as against the ‘acceptable’ 1 million Jewish labourers, white collar workers and peasants there were 1.8 million who were traders, artisans and craftsmen or who had no definite occupation and thus belonged to the section of the population whose citizens’ rights had been curtailed — the so-called lishentsy (‘disenfranchised’). These disenfranchised persons made up approximately 7 percent of the population of the USSR, but among the Jewish population 30 percent were disenfranchised, and in the townships of Ukraine the figure was 40 percent.
The large cities, suffering as they were from unemployment, could not house or give work to the unqualified Jewish population. The transformation of part of the declassed Jewish masses into peasants appeared as a way out to the authorities and — more importantly — to the Jews themselves.
Although the question of Jewish agriculture had already been discussed at a conference of Evsektsia in 1919, the first real help for the new peasants and settlers came from Jewish organisations abroad: the Jewish Colonisation Association (EKO), ORT, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The government of the USSR, together with the governments of Ukraine and Belorussia, began to concern itself with Jewish agriculture only in 1924. Soviet and foreign organisations gave assistance to the old Jewish agricultural colonies which had existed in the Ekaterinoslav and Kherson provinces since the first half of the nineteenth century. At this time new Jewish agricultural colonies were founded on the lands left vacant around the cities and towns of the former Pale of Settlement, and also by means of resettling Jews in new regions in order to create territories with a compact Jewish peasant population.
From the first the Soviet government set itself a grandiose task: to settle half a million Jews ‘on the land’ in ten years. In the years from 1925 to 1937 (when resettlement was suspended) 126,000 people were resettled, of whom 56,000 or 42 percent went to completely new places of habitation. Taking into account the old colonies and the new kolkhozes created around the towns and cities, before the beginning of the Second World War over 200,000 Jews were involved in agricultural labour — 8.5 percent of the overall Jewish population of the country (as against 3.5 percent before the Revolution). This resettlement became a significant page in the history of Soviet Jewry, although it did not constitute a solution to the social problems of the Jews of the former Pale of Settlement. The majority (and above all the young) moved from the former shtetls to the big cities. The end point of the shtetls’ history came with the Second World War when their ‘superfluous’ Jewish population was exterminated by the Nazis.
It was not only the Ashkenazim who were affected by this agrarian reconstruction, but also the Bukhara, Mountain and Georgian Jews. In the Caucasus (in contrast to Central Asia) it proved wholly successful, as the majority of Jews in the Caucasus were already — or had been until recently — farmers. In Georgia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan Jewish kolkhozes were created; land was provided for Jews who in the past had been landless. In addition two kolkhozes were created for resettled mountain Jews in the Crimea.
The basic area for resettlement was, at the outset, Southern Ukraine (mostly the Kherson, Krivoy Rog, Pervomaisk and Zaporozhie regions), in the first instance the region of the ‘old’ colonies, and later the Crimean Steppes. The Amur region — Birobidzhan — only appeared in these plans much later, at the end of the 1920s. But in addition, separate Jewish agricultural settlements were founded far from the basic area of colonisation, in the Moscow, Leningrad, Bryansk, Smolensk and Astrakhan regions, in the Northern Caucasus, in the Urals, in Siberia and Uzbekistan. Gradually hundreds of new Jewish settlements were created: communes, sovkhozes and finally kolkhozes. Alongside the majority of the small towns in the former Pale of Settlement Jewish kolkhozes also grew up. National autonomy was envisaged for the Jewish settlements (160 in Ukraine, 29 in the Crimea, 27 in Belorussia), for five Jewish national regions (three in southern Ukraine and two in the Crimean Steppes11) and, finally, for the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East. Altogether, not including Birobidzhan, around 500,000 hectares of arable land was granted to Jewish colonists. The area of the Birobidzhan region (the future Jewish Autonomous Region) amounted to 3.8 million hectares. The total amount of arable land at the disposal of Jewish kolkhozes in the 1930s was four times greater than the amount of land being cultivated by Jewish settlers in Israel at the time of the proclamation of the independent Jewish State in 1948.12
In 1924 two special structures were created for the realisation of the plans for Jewish agricultural colonisation: one by the state, the Committee for the Agricultural Settlement of Jewish Workers (KOMZET); the other, a voluntary organisation, the Society for the Agricultural Settlement of Jewish Workers (OZET). KOMZET concerned itself with the immediate allotment of land and its settlement, OZET with the mobilisation of public opinion, propaganda, fundraising, the organisation of public and professional education, medicine, the cultural life of the settlers, and co-operation with international Jewish organisations. KOMZET and OZET were headed by respected old Bolsheviks, the former by P. Smidovich, the latter first by Yu. Larin and later by S. Dimanshtein.
If it was the Soviet government that gave land to the newly-founded Jewish colonies, it was from foreign organisations that the funds, the equipment and the fertilizer needed for their cultivation largely came. Foreign sponsors provided about 70 percent of these, the Soviet government about 20 percent, while only 10 percent came from the settlers themselves. Organisations that took part in providing finance for the resettlement project included ORT, EKO, JDC and, ultimately, specially founded pro-Communist Jewish organisations: IKOR in the USA, PROKOR in Argentina, AGRU in Palestine and other, similar organisations in various countries of America and Europe, and in Australia and South Africa. Each of these organisations had its own specific character and function.
After the Revolution the leaders of ORT, forced to operate outside Russia, founded the World ORT Union in Berlin. The structure of ORT in Soviet Russia was ‘communisticised’. Russian ORT, formally independent of the headquarters in Berlin, continued its activities, receiving funds for its programmes from the World ORT Union. In 1930 the Soviet ORT was dissolved and merged with OZET, but the World ORT Union continued to work actively in the USSR until 1938, when the Soviet government broke off relations with all foreign Jewish organisations.
In the 1920s there were among ORT’s leaders — emigrants from Russia — a number of convinced ‘territorialists’: supporters of the creation of compact territories for Jewish settlement elsewhere than in Palestine. The ORT officials could well imagine a specifically Russian Jewish territory; their goals — the changing of the social and professional make-up of the Jewish masses — largely coincided with the goals of the Soviet authorities with regard to the ‘Jewish question’. The assistance it provided was not so much financial as practical: the provision of tools and equipment, and the organising of professional and technical education. ORT’s efforts related not only to agriculture but also to industry. ORT was the only non-Communist Jewish organisation which agreed to take an active part in the Birobidzhan project.
The EKO, created to aid the resettlement of Russian Jews in agricultural colonies in Argentina, was founded in 1891 by the French philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. It ultimately came to support Jewish agricultural colonies in various parts of the world. Its share in the creation of the ‘Red Zion’ was limited to the support of some Jewish agricultural colonies in Ukraine.
In the 1920s most of the financial assistance for the newly founded agricultural colonies (primarily in the Crimea) came from the JDC. It was founded in 1914 with the object of assisting Jewish victims of the First World War. It acted first and foremost as a charitable organisation. From 1919 it began to help Soviet Jews who were suffering from famine during the Civil War. With the beginning of the Jewish resettlement movement a special agronomy corporation, Agro-Joint, was founded; it provided funds for the assistance of settlers during the 1920s to the tune of over 16 million dollars.13 However, Joint did not, on the whole, support the Birobidzhan project.
In the 1930s an important role among foreign organisations began to be played by leftist, pro-Communist organisations like IKOR (the Association for Jewish Colonisation in the USSR), which, while not dispensing significant amounts of money, helped mainly by assisting Jewish enthusiasts from the countries of the West to relocate to Birobidzhan. At the same time a great deal of work relating to the arrangement of the Jewish emigration from Eastern European countries still performed by the World ORT organisations.
In 1928 various international Jewish organisations, among them ORT, concluded an agreement with KOMZET regarding co-operation over a period of ten years, on the basis of which funds would be transferred and tools, equipment, seed and so forth would be provided for the Jewish colonies.
Up until 1938 the Soviet Union pursued an active and, in its way, constructive ‘Jewish policy’. Agrarian colonisation formed the most important part of this policy, while KOMZET and OZET became essentially a kind of ‘Jewish government’ within the USSR. The role of these organisations became continually more important, especially after the abolition of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs and, later, of Evsektsia.
OZET consisted of a central board and various more or less independent subsidiaries: Moscow OZET, Leningrad OZET, Georgian OZET etc., each of which presided over a particular Jewish region, group of settlements and so on. To promote the growth of regions with a solid Jewish population, OZET concerned itself more and more with questions of cultural and social development. OZET also undertook a good deal of publishing work, bringing out large numbers of periodicals, books, and brochures in Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian and other languages, among them the Russian-language journal Tribuna. The prestige of OZET was augmented by the fact that on the boards of its regional sections were some prominent cultural figures. For example, among the members of the board of Moscow OZET were the actor S. Mikhoels and the poet V. Mayakovsky. To raise funds for the settlers OZET mounted a lottery. From 1927 to 1933 OZET held five lotteries throughout the Soviet Union. We know that the first of these raised more than 365,000 roubles. The OZET lotteries were also open to participation from abroad — Jews in Europe and America were glad to take part in them.
Soon enough OZET began to lose the characteristics of a genuine voluntary organisation and to turn into a typical Soviet public body. At the time of OZET’s creation it was proclaimed that any person not facing a criminal charge could become a member, thereby opening up a way for the mass of the disenfranchised to participate in its work. However, already in 1928 a resolution was passed to ‘prohibit participation of non-working elements in the work of OZET.’ At first the leadership of OZET declared its ‘neutrality’ with regard to settlement in Palestine, but by the end of the 1920s it had taken an openly anti-Zionist position. The number of OZET’s members grew continually, reaching 300,000 by the beginning of the 1930s, but this membership was largely formal in nature, since it included collectives of factory workers, military units, students and so on as ‘collective members’. By the mid 1930s OZET had essentially lost its function. In 1937 its entire leadership was subjected to repression, and in May 1938 OZET was dissolved by a special resolution of the Central Committee of the Party, as ‘a haunt for all manner of counterrevolutionary elements, members of the Bund and other traitors and spies.’
Nevertheless, in 1924–1928, the most successful period for Jewish colonisation, OZET was a popular, influential and, to some extent, public organisation not just formally but in reality. At this period the cooperation between the authorities, the settlers and foreign organisations appeared wholly harmonious. The Crimea and the Ukrainian steppes lay not far from the traditional regions of Jewish settlement. The Soviet authorities’ policy was still one of relative openness both to the settlers’ own initiatives and to the activities of foreign charitable organisations. Ultimately, with the international isolation of the USSR, these foreign Jewish organisations became not only a source of sorely needed new technology, but also, to a certain extent, channels for political contacts with the countries of the West, above all with the USA, with which the USSR had had no diplomatic relations for a long time.
However, there were at this time already substantial problems with the resettlement project, problems which became more acute with time. The greater part of those wishing to relocate to the new settlements came, naturally, from among the poor and unemployed. Nevertheless KOMZET demanded that settlers should possess private means sufficient to live on until the first harvest. But these potential settlers had no money of their own, and the help from charitable organisations was not enough to cover everything. The Crimean Steppes was an area where agriculture was risky14: the continual drought inflicted heavy losses on the resettled farmers. KOMZET and OZET often could not share their functions, which created a situation of friction and confusion.
The first stage in the creation of the ‘new’ Jewish agriculture was the spontaneous movement of the Jews to agricultural work. After the end of the Civil War and until 1925 that is, until the start of organised support for Jewish agriculture by the authorities, 45,000 Jews went over to agricultural work.
The majority of the newly-founded Jewish farms were near the townships, on land which had formerly been part of landowners’ estates. But already during these years small groups of settlers were making their way to the lower Dniepr region (the area of the ‘old’ colonies), and to the virgin lands of the northern Crimea. Among these pioneers were members of the Halutsim15 movement, who held that they must acquire farming skills in readiness for their future emigration to Palestine.
From 1925 the resettlement began to take on a more organised character. In all more than 6,000 Jewish families relocated to Southern Ukraine, and around 2,000 to the Crimean Steppes. Resettlement was especially intensive in the years 1928 to 1932, when the abolition of the NEP left tens of thousands of people without any means of existence.
Although Southern Ukraine continued to take more settlers, it was the Crimea which became the symbol for this epoch, eclipsing the other Jewish resettlement projects of the 1920s, just as it was later itself eclipsed by Birobidzhan. This was to a great extent bound up with enthusiasm for the opening up of the virgin lands, for the ploughing of dried up and salty lands, which were considered ill-suited for life and for agriculture.
The settlers’ existence in the Crimea was a harsh one: at first the majority of people lived in tents and dugouts. This is how the sanitary problems of the settlers were decribed by Moscow doctors: ‘There is one more detail concerning the sanitary arrangements to which Moscow OZET should give its attention — the absence of soap. If there are temporary interruptions in the supply of soap in the north, given that there is wood and running water, it will not make itself felt very strongly (linen can be washed with ashes and in running water); but under the conditions of the Crimea, where there are no ashes and no running water, the lack of soap is felt by the population far more acutely.’16
Nevertheless, despite the enormous difficulties, resettlement to Southern Ukraine and the Crimea proceeded wholly successfully and continued to arouse enthusiasm. Gradually the settlers’ existence began to improve. The farms of these people who until recently had been town dwellers (this was true of both of settlers in the virgin lands and of those settling in the vicinity of the former Jewish shtetls) went from making a loss to making a profit. The main problem in the drought-stricken Crimean Steppes was water. But even this problem was solved little by little by the boring of artesian wells. Not without reason, the artesian well became the main ‘hero’ for artists and photographers depicting the opening up of the Crimean virgin lands.
The main farming activity of the settlers in the lower Dniepr region and the Crimea had been the cultivation of cereals. Alongside cereals vines were planted in the Crimea, and, in the settlers’ farms in the Odessa region, vegetables. In the Jewish colonies of the Evpatoria region animal husbandry was developed, supplying the Crimean resorts with dairy products.
The Jewish colonies in the Crimea and Ukraine received appropriate political and cultural support. Five national regions were created (three in Ukraine, two in the Crimea), a whole range of Jewish technical colleges and other educational institutions, and Jewish newspapers. Simfeporol was the home of a Jewish inter-kolkhoz theatre.
However, the ‘Crimean project’ did not continue to flourish for long. A number of clear agricultural and political problems began to be evident in the nascent ‘Red Zion’ as early as the end of the 1920s.
In the ill-starred year of 1929, the ‘year of the great crisis’, the position of the Jewish colonies began to get rapidly worse. Collectivisation inflicted irreparable harm on the colonies, especially as many farms had only been recently created and were not yet self-sufficient. The tempo of collectivisation was much more rapid in the Jewish settlements than on average in Belorussia and Ukraine. In the ‘old’ colonies mass dispossession of the kulaks took place. In the new settlements, existing — and perfectly effective — forms of cooperation were destroyed. The forcible collection of cereals from the newly organised kolkhozes led in 1931–1933 (as it did everywhere in Ukraine) to widespread famine. This raging famine was accompanied by a sharp decrease in assistance from the JDC as a result of the world economic crisis. The settlers, deceived in their hopes, moved to the big cities, in which industrialisation was proceeding at an increasing rate. By the end of the 1930s the number of Jewish peasants in Ukraine had fallen by two fifths compared with the number at the end of the 1920s. The effect of collectivisation on the Jewish colonies was so shattering that several leaders of OZET, for example S. Dimanshtein, even dared to speak out in opposition to ‘unrestricted collectivisation’ in the national regions. Needless to say, their views were completely disregarded.
Social policy with regard to the resettlement question also changed. At first those sent to the Crimea were young people capable of working. However, the inception of the Five-year Plan meant that there was an acute shortage of labour. The government commanded KOMZET to send young Jewish people into industry. The agricultural regions were now seen as a place for dumping the ‘superfluous’, the unemployed, the weakest strata of society.
A further sign of the crisis developing in the matter of Jewish resettlement was the official appearance in 1928 of the Birobidzhan project.
Alongside Jewish agriculture, the central task for the Jewish leaders was the creation of a high level of Jewish national autonomy. This question of Jewish autonomy had been constantly discussed in the first years of the Soviet state, and had sometimes taken fantastic forms. For example, in 1923 A. Bragin, one of the activists of the resettlement movement, had called for the creation of a Jewish Soviet Republic, whose territory would encompass the northern shores of the Black Sea, northern Crimea, the area around the Sea of Azov and the Caucasian coastal area right down to the Georgian border. This wholly utopian plan was discussed in all seriousness by the leaders of the country and the Communist Party.
If in the Crimea and Ukraine the agrarian question had been solved more or less successfully, the slogan ‘To the Jewish Homeland!’ remained unrealised. It was understandable that the authorities in Ukraine and the Autonomous Tatar Republic of the Crimea would not grant autonomy to the prominent Jewish national regions within their territory. The leaders in Ukraine were actively constructing a Ukrainian nation state; the leaders of the Crimean Tatars, counting on the repatriation of their fellow tribesmen from Turkey, were likewise not prepared to ‘share’ their republic. It was the task of OZET to resolve this problem, a problem which seemed insoluble: to find a territory suitable for agriculture and at the same time sparsely populated. What was needed was a — so to speak — ‘Palestine minus the Arabs’.
At the end of the 1920s OZET had already sent out a number of reconnaissance expeditions: to the Caucasian steppes, to Kazakhstan, to the Kuban river flats, to Altai, to Belorussian Polesie. As a result of these detailed searches it became evident that the only place that would fulfil these demands was the territory of the Amur Cossacks, the so-called Birobidzhan region (named for two tributaries of the Amur — the Bira and the Bidzhan). It was situated not far from the railway and was suitable for cultivation. The reconnaissance expeditions had valued the soil of the region, and its mineral wealth, highly. The original inhabitants of the area were Cossacks who had supported the Whites; they had left the country following the Civil War and emigrated to China.
A number of initiators of Jewish colonisation, for example A. Bragin and Yu. Larin, raised objections to the Birobidzhan project, correctly pointing out that the remoteness of Birobidzhan would only serve to cool the ardour of both settlers and charities. Nevertheless, in 1928 a plan was formed for the opening up of the region, and in the same year the first special trains took Jewish settlers to the Far East.
The fears voiced by the opponents of Birobidzhan proved for the most part to be justified. Agro-Joint and EKO continued to support the settlers in the Crimea and Ukraine, but took no part in the Birobidzhan project. Support for Birobidzhan came from ORT and from pro-Communist workers’ organisations such as IKOR, whose capacity to provide help was much more limited. The numbers of those relocating to Birobidzhan did not come anywhere near the numbers of those resettling in Ukraine and the Crimea. The remoteness of Birobidzhan, its harsh and unfamiliar climate, the absence of even the most basic conditions for existence compelled many settlers to return. Thus, in 1928–1932, out of 19,000 who relocated to Birobidzhan only 7,000 remained there. By 1938 there were altogether 20,000 Jews living in the Jewish Autonomous Region — 25 percent of the total population.
The Soviet authorities tried to enhance the attractiveness of the Far East by giving the area autonomous status. In 1934 Birobidzhan became the Jewish Autonomous Region, and serious consideration was given to making it an Autonomous Republic. The efforts of OZET were fully re-oriented in the direction of Birobidzhan. The prominent Communists M. Khavkin and I. Liberberg became the leaders of the new autonomous region. Outstanding Soviet Jewish writers were enlisted to promote the region’s cultural development.
Despite all obstacles, the opening up of Birobidzhan proceeded quite successfully. In contrast to the purely agricultural Jewish autonomous regions of Ukraine and the Crimea, Birobidzhan was of a more complex nature. As well as farming, it also offered scope for the exploitation of mineral wealth and for the creation of industry. The first fruits of industry appeared: a furniture factory, an agricultural machinery plant, a marble quarry. But these (to judge from the comments in the press) exemplary enterprises were founded and equipped using ORT funds; ORT provided them with specialists and with the best of the graduates from its technical-professional colleges abroad.
It was intended that Birobidzhan should become a centre of Jewish culture. The Yiddish newspaper Birobidzhaner Shtern (The Birobidzhan Star) was edited by the famous publicist G. Kazakevich, father of the writer Em. Kazakevich. The local authorities hoped that the Jewish prose writer D. Bergelson would relocate to Birobidzhan, and even built a house for him. A Jewish theatre was founded, and a library named after Sholom Aleichem.
In general, although the Birobidzhan settlers represented only a small percentage of the Jewish population of the USSR, they became the heroes of Soviet Jewish art and literature. The amount of propaganda produced in support of Jewish resettlement in this new region far exceeded the relatively modest actual achievements of the project.
The life of Jewish kolkhozes in Ukraine and the Crimea was depicted by such artists as M. Gorshman, M. Akselrod, N. Altman, M. Epshteyn. A. Tyshler, I.-B. Rybak. The topic of Jewish colonisation was widely represented in photography and film. For example, in 1926 Abram Room produced a documentary film, ‘Jews on the Land’, with a script by V. Mayakovsky and V. Shklovsky. Those who wrote about Birobidzhan included D. Bergelson, Der Nister, P. Markish, D. Gofshteyn, Sh. Galkin. In Birobidzhan a whole circle of young writers grew up, including Em. Kazakevich, A. Vergelis, B. Miller, H. Beyder.
Jewish art and literature was not only produced in accordance with State decrees; it did not simply try to be ‘national in form and socialist in content’. The theme of ‘Jews on the land’ fascinated artists and writers with its novelty, and attracted them with its almost Biblical emotional associations. The project of Soviet Jewish autonomy, as a project above all ideological in nature, a project for the creation of the ‘new Jew’, was extensively and variously interpreted by creative artists. Paradoxically the main vestiges of Jewish agriculture in the USSR are not on the land — Stalin and Hitler between them saw to it that all such vestiges were wiped out — but in art and literature.
A task of the highest importance in the political and cultural reconstruction of the ‘Jewish street’ in the USSR was not only the creation of a ‘Soviet Jewish homeland’ but also the creation of the ‘new Jew’. In this part the ‘Soviet Project’ had much in common with that of ‘Zionism’. New art and new literature popularised this type of the ‘new Jew’ — proud, strong, devoted to physical labour, having nothing in common with his forebears in the old Jewish shtetls. The creation of a new Soviet culture in Yiddish was to be the basis of a new Jewish identity free from ’religious residues’. The most unlikely things could be interpreted, in this context of the creation of a ‘new man’, as having significance. For example, the development of pig-rearing was of importance, not simply as an aspect of animal husbandry, but primarily as an anti-religious measure.
The tragic point in the story of Jewish colonisation and of the creation of Jewish autonomy was reached in the years 1937–1938. In 1938 the relocation of Jews to both the Crimea and the Far East was suspended. In 1937–1938 the entire leadership of KOMZET and OZET was liquidated. All contact with Agro-Joint, ORT and other foreign organisations was cut off and all Soviet citizens working for them, and the majority of settlers returning from abroad, were subjected to repression. In 1938, in accordance with a new domestic policy aimed at the total removal of cultural and administrative autonomy for scattered minorities, the Jewish regions and village soviets were abolished, and (everywhere except in Birobidzhan) Jewish schools and technical colleges were closed down.
The Stalinist repressions hit Birobidzhan particularly hard. The entire leadership of the region was liquidated, from the secretary of the regional committee M. Khavkin and the chairman of the executive committee I. Liberberg, to the majority of the kolkhoz chairmen. This removal of people who had been the ‘motor’ of the resettlement programme and the opening up of new territory stifled the project at the root. Altogether, in a region with a population of less than a hundred thousand, 7,500 were arrested. The by no means flourishing agriculture of Birobidzhan was further undermined by the deportation to Central Asia of all Koreans in the region — experienced farmers who fed a significant part of the region’s population.
The tragedy of Birobidzhan seems even more terrible when one considers that this region could have become a place of refuge from the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews in Europe. Despite the increasing inhumanity and isolationism of the Stalin regime, Jewish organisations persisted to the last in supporting Birobidzhan precisely in connection with the growing threat of Nazism. In the mid 1930s the JDC was looking into the possibility of resettling German Jews in the USSR. According to an unconfirmed rumour, in 1940 Hitler suggested to the Soviet Union that it should ‘take in’ all the Jews from the Reich and Poland to the Far East, but Stalin, who had ceased long ago to be interested in Birobidzhan, thought this was ‘not expedient’. Even if such an exchange never took place, the mere existence of the rumour bears witness, better than any truth, to the fact that many continued to regard Birobidzhan as the last hope of the Jews in the face of the approaching genocide.
Following the ‘Great Terror’ the Jewish agricultural colonies in the Crimea and Ukraine were further threatened by the Second World War. Jews who did not succeed in being evacuated perished at the hands of the Nazis. The majority of those who were evacuated and survived did not return. Of those who did return in 1946–1948, some moved to Birobidzhan.
An attempt to revive Jewish autonomy in the Crimea after the war was turned into a pretext for incriminating the Jewish Antifascist Committee, almost all of whom were shot. In the post-war years the former Jewish villages and settlements in the Crimea and Ukraine were nearly all renamed, so that the map of the USSR was wiped clean even of Jewish place names. The final blow to the last remaining outpost of Jewish autonomy in the USSR, the Jewish Autonomous Region, was delivered by a new wave of terror in 1948–1949 which brought a new, state-sponsored, outburst of anti-Semitism.
There can be no doubt that this tragic experiment, of the creation of a Soviet ‘Jewish homeland’, lay in the main current of that quest which animated the Jewish nation through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It affected the fate of hundreds of thousands of people. Those who played a part in it deserve to be remembered.
The transformation which the country was undergoing was — it goes without saying — not without influence on the aesthetics of photography: the undisguised severe realism of the 1920s gave way to the frankly propagandistic style of the 1930s. But through the gloss of propaganda the features of living people can still be discerned, arousing in the viewer not only genuine interest but also a sharp feeling of shared experience and warmth: for we already know the tragic fate that lay in store for these men and women who smile so brightly, these as yet unsuspecting builders of the ‘Red Zion’.