Stalin tried to establish a socialist Jewish utopia in Russia’s Far East. I had read about this extraordinary project -many years prior to this trip, but had no idea though that it was close to Khabarovsk. How did I learn that the Jewish Autonomous Region of Oblast started right across the bridge
I had hired a local guide, Natalia and her friend Evgenii to show me around Khabarovsk for a day and this is how the idea was born to travel to the capital of the JAR, Birobidzhan, together. Why? Evgenii’s great-grandfather, Boris Millner, was among the first settlers to arrive there from the Ukraine in 1928, also Evgenii’s mother was born there. There are various theories for Stalin’s experiment: to boost thepopulation of the Soviet Far East and to use the Jews as a buffer between Russia and China as well as to appease Zionist movements within the USSR.
It did not become a second Israel. Most settlers left because of the harsh conditions, many left for Israel after the collapse of the USSR, like Evengii’s grandparents. His parents also did not stay in Birobidzhan and moved to Khabarovsk. Today only about 7% of the population are Jews. But there are Jews who are returning, like the new rabbi, with 27 years the youngest in Russia I was told, if not world wide :)) Most obvious signs of this Jewish community are Jewish schools, a synagogue, a little museum and a kosher restaurant where we had – what else – gefilte fish.
When entering the town by road or train large signs in Hebrew still welcome travelers and a gigantic menorah adorns the square in front of the train station.
Above all, it is a lovely, quiet Siberian town set on a river. Flower beds, fountains and trees line the pedestrian zone in the picturesque center.
Since I was there on a Friday Natalie suggested to check out what was happening at the municipal office where couple get married. And it was super busy, beaming couples were leaving the building cheered by families and friends. Others had their photos taking in the small park. I ran into quite a few weddings on this trip, and it seems weddings are rather small affairs in Russia. Hardly ever was a party larger than twenty people.
Like in most Russian town the memorials remembering the lives lost in World War II are sobering. Even in this small town like Birobidzhan the number of names inscribed in the black marble are mind-blowing.
Driving from Khabarovsk to Birobidzhan takes about three hours. Most of the time the road runs parallel to the transib and if I ever do this trip again I would take the train and stay overnight in Birobidzhan. It is definitely worth a longer stay.
Like everywhere in Siberia birch trees are never far. Once in while we passed through villages were women sold their dadscha’s produce along the road.