[ In September 2017, artist and scholar Yevgeniy Fiks visited the
Jewish Autonomous Region to see what it is, instead of what it was
expected to have been. He shared two essays with us, “Before
Birobidzhan” and “Diocese of Birobidzhan”, originally published
on his website http://yevgeniyfiks.com. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 BEFORE BIROBIDZHAN   [https://portside.org/2018-05-12/birobidzhan] 

 

 Yevgeniy Fiks 
 May 7, 2018
In Geveb-A Journal of Yiddish Studies
[https://ingeveb.org/blog/before-birobidzhan] 

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 _ In September 2017, artist and scholar Yevgeniy Fiks visited the
Jewish Autonomous Region to see what it is, instead of what it was
expected to have been. He shared two essays with us, “Before
Birobidzhan” and “Diocese of Birobidzhan”, originally published
on his website http://yevgeniyfiks.com. _ 

 , Archival photos courtesy of Yevgeniy Fiks’ “Before
Birobidzhan” project. 

 

Birobdizhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region established by Joseph Stalin
in the former Soviet Union, is often mythologized and framed with loss
or nostalgia; most Jews are gone from the region, and the utopian
project of Jewish self-determination there is often viewed as a
failure. But the schools still teach Yiddish, and many thousands of
people still live there. Should the fact that they’re not Jewish
erase them from the history of the region, or indeed from its present?
In September 2017, artist and scholar Yevgeniy Fiks visited the Jewish
Autonomous Region to see what it is, instead of what it was expected
to have been. He shared two essays with us, “Before Birobidzhan”
and “Diocese of Birobidzhan
[https://ingeveb.org/blog/diocese-of-birobidzhan]”, originally
published on his website http://yevgeniyfiks.com
[http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/460665-Before-Birobidzhan-2017.html].

he discourse on Birobidzhan (the Jewish Autonomous Region of the
Soviet Union) consistently revolves around three subjects: utopia,
totalitarianism, and the Jews. In the Western press, the most common
themes when talking about Soviet-era Birobidzhan are a failed utopian
project, Stalin’s plot against the Jews, and a place where Jews
don’t live. These negative notions have been also projected on
present-day post-Soviet Birobidzhan, which is depicted in Western
media as repulsive, laughable, un-Jewish, a failure, and an oxymoron.
However, perhaps neither concepts of utopia, totalitarianism, nor
Jewishness are relevant today for the discussion of the region in
contemporary times circa 2017.

The notion of Jewishness in relation to Birobidzhan appears to be
particularly problematic in evaluating the utopian project and the
region as it exists today. A Jew has become a unit of measure of the
success or failure of Birobidzhan. There are about 2,000 Jews in the
region of 200,000. The objectively tiny number is used as an
irrefutable proof of the failure of the project of the Jewish
Autonomous Region. The fewer the Jews in Birobidzhan the more
laughable and oxymoronic Birobidzhan appears for its critics. For
these critics, the small population of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous
Region (which pales miserably in comparison with the substantial
numbers in the state of Israel) clearly indicate that Birobidzhan has
been unrealized in practice and defeated in spirit.

However, why are we to measure the success of Birobidzhan by how many
Jews live or have lived there? Why is Birobidzhan necessarily about
numbers and Jews? Let’s focus our attention on the current
population of Birobidzhan. Why do we assume that this non-Jewish
majority of Birobidzhan was outside the scope of the Birobidzhan
project? Perhaps, they are. And if we accept this population as part
of the overall Birobidzhan discourse, then how do we reconcile this
living and breathing population with the notion that Birobidzhan has
failed? Aren’t people—no matter Jews or Gentiles—are perhaps an
irrefutable proof that Birobidzhan succeeded? We must not exclude and
ignore these real inhabitants of the contemporary Jewish Autonomous
Region from the discourse on Birobidzhan, one that belongs to those
who live in Birobidzhan.

 Before Birobidzhan
My project “Before Birobidzhan” is about the non-Jewish past of
the Jewish Autonomous Region. It elevates the microhistorical
narratives of non-Jewish populations who have historically inhabited
Birobidzhan before it was established in the late 1920s by the Soviet
government. This project bridges the “forgotten” non-Jewish
residents of these lands before the creation of Birobidzhan and the
“unnoticed” non-Jewish residents of the present-day Jewish
Autonomous Region.

“Before Birobidzhan” features photographs of communities and
individuals who lived in this area from the 19th century until the
late 1920s. This project highlights local histories that in the
context of the story of Birobidzhan are usually viewed as
“unimportant” or “preliminary” or a point of departure for the
real story, which is the Jewish story of “Stalin’s forgotten
Zion.” What’s really forgotten about the discourse of Birobidzhan
is the local histories “before” this area became a “failed
Jewish Utopia.” This project pays due to the unheard voices of the
local populations pre-Birobidzhan and attempts to present the
Birobidzhan narrative in its totality without compressing this story
into a Jewish story (of failure) only. The territory of the
contemporary Jewish Autonomous Region was never empty. It wasn’t an
uninhabited area as it figures often in the discourse on Birobidzhan.

Where the Jews weren’t

The development of the modern territory of the Jewish Autonomous
Region started back in the 17th century. The Russian Cossacks first
came here from Siberia in the 1640s. In 1650, a Cossack regiment under
the leadership of Yerofey Khabarov made advances in the Amur region,
which lead to a military conflict with the Chinese. Although in 1689,
the Russia-Chinese Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed, the development of
the Amur region was delayed for more than a century and a half.

In 1854, the Governor-General of East Siberia Muraviev-Amurskiy
ordered the creation of Russian settlements on the left bank of the
Amur river. In 1858, he and Yishan, a representative of the Qing
Dynasty, signed the so-called Aigun Treaty, under which the area from
the left bank of the Amur to the sea was left to Russia. Under this
agreement, Russia received 600,000 square km, which includes
territories that are now part of the Chita region, the Sakha Republic,
the Khabarovsk Territory, the Amur Region, the Jewish Autonomous
Region, and the Magadan Region.

In 1858, two thousand Russian soldiers arrived within today’s Jewish
Autonomous Region to cut down forests and clear the areas for Cossack
villages. That year, on the left bank of the Amur, eighteen Cossack
villages were built. The settlers received from the Russian Government
a cash allowance of 15 rubles per family, provision of food, fodder,
and seeds for two years and the assistance of the military in the
construction of houses. The military sent convoys with weapons and
ammunition. To finance the transfer of Cossack families to the Amur,
the state treasury spent 1.5 thousand rubles, which at that time was a
very large sum. The main means of transportation were rafts and the
trip of new settlers took almost a month.

Thousands of pounds of grain were delivered to this region from West
Siberia, from the Urals and central Russia. The seed for the
agricultural development of the Amur lands by Cossacks, flour, salt,
honey, sugar as well as sheep and horses were brought in from the
Transbaikalian steppes. The Siberian and Ural plants supplied
agricultural equipment including plows and harrows. Arriving on the
Amur, 450 families of migrants, and more than 5,500 people began to
develop the wildness. Life went on in the heavy work of building
villages and plowing the land. The first grains of rye, wheat, barley,
and oats fell into the virgin soil.

 “We Live Here”
In the fall of 2017, I spent time in Birobidzhan and spoke with people
who were born or lived most of their lives there, most of whom
weren’t Jewish. This includes spending time with the Editor of the
“Birobidzhaner Shtern” newspaper Elena Sarashevskaya. Elena
confided in me how she was upset by the constant mentions in the press
of Stalin and utopia in reference to Birobidzhan. She felt it was
offensive and insensitive towards the present-day residents of the
city. Elena said: “Again they are talking about Stalin’s forgotten
Zion! Enough already. We live here! What does Stalin have to do with
Birobidzhan today? If we are living in a utopia, does it mean that we
are living in a nonexistent place?”

I heard Elena. Indeed, how should people residing in today’s
Birobizhan feel about their city being called “Utopia” or even
worse “failed Utopia”? Are the residents living in a nonexistent
place? Yes, Birobidzhan is a provincial, Russian city with a strange
connection to Jewish history. But it’s a real place nevertheless. It
does exist. The mostly non-Jewish people who were born, lived, and are
still living in the Jewish Autonomous Region do not live in Stalin’s
forgotten Zion. In fact, they make Birobidzhan real and non-Utopian.
Yes, the contemporary Birobidzhan is not the Jewish secular
territorial project that dreamers hoped for in the 1930s. But so what?

Elena told me a story about her father who was an industrial worker in
Birobidzhan during the Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the factory he worked for closed down. Today, that factory
reminds him every day of his Soviet life every time he sees the ruins
of his factory thru his apartment’s window. This factory was his
life. The post-Soviet shock therapy destroyed it and this small, grey,
but “okay” Soviet town is disintegrating and the people are
fleeing. This is a story of Birobidzhan. This is a real tragedy of
Birobidzhan according to Elena. The untold Birobidzhan story is not a
“sexy” story about Stalin, Jews, and utopia. The real post-Soviet
narrative of Birobidzhan is the post-Soviet collapse of the region’s
economy—a free market failure.

 Past, Present, Birobidzhan
There is no need to mourn the failure of the Birobidzhan project.
Instead, in 2017 we must celebrate its modest but clean streets, at
least no apparent poverty, Chinese restaurants, and non-Jewish
children learning Yiddish. We must accept the present-day Birobidzhan
as an integral part of the larger Birobidzhan narrative and avoid
projecting it onto our twentiethth-century ideological nightmares.

“Before Birobidzhan” is a project of both history and
potentiality. Birobidzhan is where people were, are, and will be,
Jewish or not. If the reality of the Jewish project of Birobidzhan is
known to us—it was unsuccessful, half-dead, a laughing stock—then
the time of “before Birobidzhan” remains a conceptual space holder
of the “what if”. “Before Birobidzhan” remains a time before
the future arrives. The discourse of Birobidzhan is about a tension
between the possibilities of the then and still the possibilities of
the now.

If the “Jews are not there” then who is there? Was/is it still an
empty land? No, it was/is not empty. The story of Birobidzhan started
before the Jews and continues on with or without them.

Yevgeniy Fiks is a Moscow-born New York-based artist, author, and
organizer of art exhibitions.

In geveb [https://ingeveb.org/], אין געוועב, is a
subscription-free digital forum for the publication of peer-reviewed
academic articles, the translation and annotation of Yiddish texts,
the exchange of pedagogical materials, and a blog of Yiddish
cultural life.

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