Jewish Autonomous Oblast

By Wikipedia Contributors

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO) (Russian: Евре́йская автоно́мная о́бласть, Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast; Yiddish: ייִדישע אװטאָנאָמע געגנט‎, yidishe avtonome Gegnt[13]) is a federal subject of Russia in the Russian Far East, bordering Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast in Russia and Heilongjiang province in China. Its administrative center is the town of Birobidzhan.

At its height in the late 1940s, the Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000, around 25% of the entire population.[14] As of the 2010 Census, JAO's population was 176,558 people,[8] or 0.1% of the total population of Russia. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.[15] Article 65 of the Constitution of Russia provides that the JAO is Russia's only autonomous oblast. It is one of two official Jewish territories in the world, the other being Israel.

By 2010, according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, there were only 1,628 Jews remaining in the JAO (less than 1% of the population), while ethnic Russians made up 92.7% of the JAO population.[16]


Before the establishment of the JAO

Acquisition of the Amur Region by Russia

In 1858 the northern bank of the Amur River, including the territory of today's Jewish Autonomous Oblast, became incorporated into the Russian Empire pursuant to the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860).

Military colonization

In December 1858 the Russian government authorized the formation of the Amur Cossack Host to protect the south-east boundary of Siberia and communications on the Amur and Ussuri rivers.[17] This military colonization included settlers from Transbaikalia. Between 1858 and 1882 many settlements consisting of wooden houses were founded.[18] It is estimated that as many as 40,000 men from the Russian military moved into the region.[18]

Expeditions of scientists, including geographers, ethnographers, naturalists, and botanists such as Mikhail Ivanovich Venyukov (1832–1901), Leopold von Schrenck, Karl Maximovich, Gustav Radde (1831–1903), and Vladimir Leontyevich Komarov promoted research in the area.[17]

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway

In 1898 construction began on the regional section of the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Chita and Vladivostok. The project produced a large influx of new settlers and the foundation of new settlements. Between 1908 and 1912 stations opened at Volochayevka, Obluchye, Bira, Birakan, Londoko, In, and Tikhonkaya. The railway construction finished in October 1916 with the opening of the 2,590-metre (8,500 ft) Khabarovsk Bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk.

During this time, before the 1917 revolutions, most local inhabitants were farmers.[17] The only industrial enterprise was the Tungussky timber mill, although gold was mined in the Sutara River, and there were some small railway workshops.[17]

Russian Civil War

In 1922, during the Russian Civil War, the territory of the future Jewish Autonomous Oblast became the scene of the Battle of Volochayevka.[19]

Jewish settlement in the region

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast with the administrative center of Birobidzhan underlined

Soviet policies with respect to minorities and Jews

Although Judaism as a religion ran counter to the Bolshevik party's policy of atheism, Vladimir Lenin wanted to appease minority groups to gain their support and provide examples of tolerance.[20] Joseph Stalin, who took over from Lenin in 1924, initially continued this policy: secular Jews were heavily represented in the top layers of the Soviet civil service, including the USSR′s security and intelligence apparatus, until the late 1930s.[citation needed]

With the goal of getting Jews back to work to be more productive members of society, the government established Komzet, the committee for the agricultural settlement of Jews.[21] The Soviet government entertained the idea of resettling all Jews in the USSR in a designated territory where they would be able to pursue a lifestyle that was “socialist in content and national in form”. The Soviets also wanted to offer an alternative to Zionism, the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. Socialist Zionists such as Ber Borochov were gaining followers at that time and Zionism was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews.[17] The location that was initially considered in the early 1920s was Crimea, which already had a significant Jewish population[17] Two Jewish districts (raiony) were formed in Crimea and three in south Ukraine.[21][22] However, an alternative scheme, perceived as more advantageous, was put into practice.[17]

Establishment of the JAO

Sign on the JAO government headquarters.

Eventually, Birobidzhan, in what is now the JAO, was chosen by the Soviet leadership as the site for the Jewish region.[23] The choice of this area was a surprise to Komzet; the area had been chosen for military and economic reasons.[20] This area was often infiltrated by China, while Japan also wanted Russia to lose the provinces of the Soviet Far East. At the time, there were only about 30,000 inhabitants in the area, mostly descendants of Trans-Baikal Cossacks resettled there by tsarist authorities, Koreans, Kazakhs, and the Tungusic peoples.[24] The Soviet government wanted to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. General Pavel Sudoplatov writes about the government′s rationale behind picking the area in the Far East: ″The establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Birobidzhan in 1928 was ordered by Stalin only as an effort to strengthen the Far Eastern border region with an outpost, not as a favour to the Jews. The area was constantly penetrated by Chinese and White Russian terrorist groups, and the idea was to shield the territory by establishing a settlement whose inhabitants would be hostile to White Russian émigrés, especially the Cossacks. The status of this region was defined shrewdly as an autonomous district, not an autonomous republic, which meant that no local legislature, high court, or government post of ministerial rank was permitted. It was an autonomous area, but a bare frontier, not a political center.″[25]

On 28 March 1928, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee of the USSR passed the decree "On the attaching for Komzet of free territory near the Amur River in the Far East for settlement of the working Jews."[26] The decree meant "a possibility of establishment of a Jewish administrative territorial unit on the territory of the called region".[17][26]

The new territory was initially called the Birobidzhan Jewish National Raion.[20]

Birobidzhan had a harsh geography and climate: it was mountainous, covered with virgin forests of oak, pine and cedar, and also swamplands, and any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch. To make colonization more enticing, the Soviet government allowed private land-ownership. This led to many non-Jews settling in the oblast to get a free farm.[27]

In the spring of 1928, 654 Jews arrived to settle in the area; however, by October 1928, 49.7% of them had left because of the severe conditions.[20] In the summer of 1928, there were torrential rains that flooded the crops and an outbreak of anthrax that killed the cattle.[28]

On 7 May 1934, the Presidium of the General Executive Committee accepted the decree on its transformation into the Jewish Autonomous Region within the Russian Federation.[17] In 1938, with formation of the Khabarovsk Territory, the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) was included in its structure.[26]

Attempts to encourage settlement in the JAO

By the 1930s, a massive campaign developed to induce more Jewish settlers to move there. The campaign partly incorporated the standard Soviet promotional tools of the era and included posters and Yiddish-language novels describing a socialist utopia there.[17] In one instance, leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belarus.[17] In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness told the story of a Jewish family that made a new life for itself in Birobidzhan.[17]

Growth of Jewish communities in the early 1930s

Statue of settlers on the railway station in Birobidzhan.

Early Jewish settlements included Valdgeym, dating from 1928, which included the first collective farm established in the oblast.[29] Amurzet, which was the center of Jewish settlement south of Birobidzhan from 1929 to 1939,[30] and Smidovich.

By 1930, there were three Jewish schools in nine settlements. By 1932, the State Planning Committee ratified the first estimated figures of the economic plan of the Birobidjan region as a separate economic unit.[31][by whom?]

The Organization for Jewish Colonisation in the Soviet Union, a Jewish Communist organization in North America, successfully encouraged the immigration of some US residents, such as the family of spy George Koval, which arrived in 1932.[17][32] Some 1,200 non-Soviet Jews chose to settle in Birobidzhan.[17][23]

As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. The settlers established a Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern; a theatre troupe was created; and streets being built in the new city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz.[33]

Stalin's anti-Jewish purges and World War II

In 1936, two years after the JAO was founded, Stalin targeted Jews living in the JAO in purges.[34] The Jewish population of JAO reached a pre-war peak of 20,000 in 1937.[35] According to the 1939 population census, 17,695 Jews lived in the region (16% of the total population).[26][36]

After the war ended in 1945, there was renewed interest in the idea of Birobidzhan as a potential home for Jewish refugees. The Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000 Jews in 1948, around 25% of the entire population of the JAO.[37][38] However, in 1948, Stalin's anti-Jewish purges made living in the JAO unappealing.[38] Jews were no longer able to get jobs or attend graduate school.[34] Stalin died in 1953.

Cold war

The census of 1959 found that the Jewish population of the JAO had declined by approximately 50%, down to 14,269 persons.[36]

A synagogue was opened at the end of World War II, but it closed in the mid 1960s after a fire left it severely damaged.[39]

In 1980, a Yiddish school was opened in Valdgeym.[40]

According to the 1989 Soviet Census, there were 8,887 Jews living in the JAO, or 4% of the total JAO population of 214,085.[20]

Post-breakup of the Soviet Union

A giant menorah dominating the main square in Birobidzhan

In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast moved from the jurisdiction of Khabarovsk Krai to the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. However, by that time, most of the Jews had emigrated from the Soviet Union and the remaining Jews constituted fewer than 2% of the local population.[33]

In early 1996, 872 people, or 20% of the Jewish population at that time, emigrated to Tel Aviv via chartered flights.[38]

According to an article published in 2000, Birobidzhan has several state-run schools that teach Yiddish, a Yiddish school for religious instruction and a kindergarten. The five- to seven-year-olds spend two lessons a week learning to speak Yiddish, as well as being taught Jewish songs, dance, and traditions.[41]

As of 2002, 2,357 Jews were living in the JAO.[36]

In 2002, L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!, a documentary on Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region and its settlement, was released by The Cinema Guild. In addition to being a history of the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the film features scenes of contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.[42]

A 2004 article stated that the number of Jews in the region "was now growing".[43]

As of 2005, Amurzet had a small active Jewish community.[44]

A 2006 article in The Washington Times stated that Yiddish is taught in the schools, a Yiddish radio station is in operation, and the Birobidzhaner Shtern newspaper includes a section in Yiddish.[45]

An April 2007 article in The Jerusalem Post claimed that, at the time, approximately 4,000 Jews remained in the JAO. The article cited Mordechai Scheiner, the Chief Rabbi of the JAO from 2002 to 2011, who said that, at the time the article was published, Jewish culture was enjoying a religious and cultural resurgence.[46]

By 2010, according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, there were only approximately 1,600 people of Jewish descent remaining in the JAO (1% of the total population), while ethnic Russians made up 93% of the JAO population.[47]

According to an article published in 2010, Yiddish is the language of instruction in only one of Birobidzhan's 14 public schools. Two schools, representing a quarter of the city's students, offer compulsory Yiddish classes for children aged 6 to 10.[48][49]

As of 2012, the Birobidzhaner Shtern continues to publish 2 or 3 pages per week in Yiddish and one local elementary school still teaches Yiddish.[48]

According to a 2012 article, "only a very small minority, mostly seniors, speak Yiddish", a new Chabad-sponsored synagogue opened at 14a Sholom-Aleichem Street, and Sholem Aleichem Amur State University offers a Yiddish course.[39]

According to a 2015 article, kosher meat arrives by train from Moscow every few weeks, a Sunday school functions, and there is also a minyan on Friday night and Shabbat.[50]

2013 proposals to merge the JAO with adjoining regions

In 2013, there were proposals to merge the JAO with Khabarovsk Krai or with Amur Oblast.[17] The proposals were rejected by the residents,[51] as well as the Jewish community of Russia, and led to protests.[17] There are also questions as to whether a merger would be allowed pursuant to the Constitution of Russia and whether a merger would require a national referendum.[17] Citizens of the JAO almost all oppose such a merger,[17] yet citizens of neighboring oblasts generally support the idea.



The territory has a monsoonal/anti-cyclonic climate, with warm, wet, humid summers due to the influence of the East Asian monsoon, and cold, dry, windy conditions prevailing in the winter months courtesy of the Siberian high-pressure system.

Administrative divisions


The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is part of the Far Eastern Economic Region; it has well-developed industry and agriculture and a dense transportation network. Its status as a free economic zone increases the opportunities for economic development. The oblast's rich mineral and building and finishing material resources are in great demand on the Russian market. Nonferrous metallurgy, engineering, metalworking, and the building material, forest, woodworking, light, and food industries are the most highly developed industrial sectors.[52]

Agriculture is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast's main economic sector owing to fertile soils and a moist climate.


The region's well-developed transportation network consists of 530 km of railways, including the Trans-Siberian Railway; 600 km of waterways along the Amur and Tunguska rivers; and 1900 km of roads, including 1600 km of paved roads. The most important road is the Khabarovsk-Birobidzhan-Obluchye-Amur Region highway with ferry service across the Amur. The Birobidzhan Yuzhniy Airfield, in the center of the region, connects Birobidzhan with Khabarovsk and outlying district centers.

Amur Bridge Project

The Amur Bridge is a 19.9 km long, $355 million, bridge under construction that will link Nizhneleninskoye in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast with Tongjiang in the Heilongjiang Province of China.[53] The bridge is expected to open in October 2019 and is expected to transport more than 3 million metric tons of cargo and 1.5 million passengers per year.[54]

Current demographics

Proportion of Jews in the general population of the Jewish Autonomous Region by year

Population: 176,558 (2010 Census);[8] 190,915 (2002 Census);[55] 215,937 (1989 Census).[56]

The 2010 Census reported the largest group to be the 160,185 ethnic Russians (93%), followed by 4,871 ethnic Ukrainians (3%), and 1,628 ethnic Jews (1%).[8] Additionally, 3,832 people were registered from administrative databases, and could not declare an ethnicity. It is estimated that the proportion of ethnicities in this group is the same as that of the declared group.[57]

Vital statistics for 2012
  • Births: 2 445 (14.0 per 1000)
  • Deaths: 2 636 (15.1 per 1000)[58]

Total fertility rate:[59]
2009 – 1.67 | 2010 – 1.67 | 2011 – 1.79 | 2012 – 1.84 | 2013 – 1.86 | 2014 – 1.95 | 2015 – 2.02 | 2016 – 1.96(e)

Languages spoken

Although it is taught in three schools in the region, there are almost no Yiddish speakers remaining.[60]


Religion in Jewish Autonomous Oblast as of 2012 (Sreda Arena Atlas)[15][61]
Russian Orthodoxy
Other Orthodox
Other Christians
Spiritual but not religious
Atheism and irreligion
Other and undeclared

According to a 2012 survey[15] 23% of the population of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast adhere to Russian Orthodoxy, 6% are Orthodox Christians of other church jurisdictions or Orthodox believers who aren't members of any church, and 9% are unaffiliated or generic Christians. Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population. In addition, 35% of the population identify as "spiritual but not religious", 22% profess atheism, and 5% follow other religions or declined to answer the question.[15]


JAO and its history have been portrayed in the award-winning documentary film, L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!.[62] The film tells the story of Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and its partial settlement by thousands of Russian- and Yiddish-speaking Jews and was released in 2002. As well as relating the history of the creation of the proposed Jewish homeland, the film features scenes of life in contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.

See also



  1. ^ Президент Российской Федерации. Указ №849 от 13 мая 2000 г. «О полномочном представителе Президента Российской Федерации в федеральном округе». Вступил в силу 13 мая 2000 г. Опубликован: "Собрание законодательства РФ", №20, ст. 2112, 15 мая 2000 г. (President of the Russian Federation. Decree #849 of May 13, 2000 On the Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in a Federal District. Effective as of May 13, 2000.).
  2. ^ Госстандарт Российской Федерации. №ОК 024-95 27 декабря 1995 г. «Общероссийский классификатор экономических регионов. 2. Экономические районы», в ред. Изменения №5/2001 ОКЭР. (Gosstandart of the Russian Federation. #OK 024-95 December 27, 1995 Russian Classification of Economic Regions. 2. Economic Regions, as amended by the Amendment #5/2001 OKER. ).
  3. ^ Charter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Article 4
  4. ^ Official website of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Alexander Borisovich Levintal, Governor of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (in Russian)
  5. ^ Charter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Article 22
  6. ^ Charter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Article 15
  7. ^ Федеральная служба государственной статистики (Federal State Statistics Service) (2004-05-21). "Территория, число районов, населённых пунктов и сельских администраций по субъектам Российской Федерации (Territory, Number of Districts, Inhabited Localities, and Rural Administration by Federal Subjects of the Russian Federation)". Всероссийская перепись населения 2002 года (All-Russia Population Census of 2002) (in Russian). Federal State Statistics Service. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  8. ^ a b c d Russian Federal State Statistics Service (2011). "Всероссийская перепись населения 2010 года. Том 1" [2010 All-Russian Population Census, vol. 1]. Всероссийская перепись населения 2010 года (2010 All-Russia Population Census) (in Russian). Federal State Statistics Service. Retrieved June 29, 2012.
  9. ^ The density value was calculated by dividing the population reported by the 2010 Census by the area shown in the "Area" field. Please note that this value may not be accurate as the area specified in the infobox is not necessarily reported for the same year as the population.
  10. ^ Masha Gessen (October 20, 2016). "Birobidzhan: Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region is not so Jewish – public's humanity". Russian Writer News.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Правительство Российской Федерации. Федеральный закон №107-ФЗ от 3 июня 2011 г. «Об исчислении времени», в ред. Федерального закона №271-ФЗ от 03 июля 2016 г. «О внесении изменений в Федеральный закон "Об исчислении времени"». Вступил в силу по истечении шестидесяти дней после дня официального опубликования (6 августа 2011 г.). Опубликован: "Российская газета", №120, 6 июня 2011 г. (Government of the Russian Federation. Federal Law #107-FZ of June 31, 2011 On Calculating Time, as amended by the Federal Law #271-FZ of July 03, 2016 On Amending Federal Law "On Calculating Time". Effective as of after sixty days following the day of the official publication.).
  12. ^ Official throughout the Russian Federation according to Article 68.1 of the Constitution of Russia.
  13. ^ In standard Yiddish: ייִדישע אױטאָנאָמע געגנט, Yidishe Oytonome Gegnt
  14. ^ David Holley (August 7, 2005). "In Russia's Far East, a Jewish Revival". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ a b c d "Arena: Atlas of Religions and Nationalities in Russia". Sreda, 2012.
  16. ^ "Информационные материалы об окончательных итогах Всероссийской переписи населения 2010 года". Retrieved 2013-04-19.
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  18. ^ a b Ravenstein, Ernst Georg (1861). The Russians on the Amur: its discovery, conquest, and colonization, with a description of the country, its inhabitants, productions, and commercial capabilities ... Trübner and co. p. 156.
  19. ^ Anniversary of the Battle of Volochayevka
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  21. ^ a b KOMZET
  22. ^ Yaacov Ro'i (2004). Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Frank Cass & Co. p. 193.
  23. ^ a b Arthur Rosen (February 2004). "Birobidzhan – the Almost Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region".
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  25. ^ Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatolii Sudoplatov, with Jerrold L. Schecter and Leona P. Schecter, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness – A Soviet Spymaster, Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, p. 289.
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  28. ^ Masha Gessen (2016). Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.
  29. ^ "Stalin's forgotten Zion: the harsh realities of Birobidzhan". Swarthmore.
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  32. ^ Michael Walsh (May 2009). "George Koval: Atomic Spy Unmasked". Smithsonian.
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  35. ^ A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony 1581–1990
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  46. ^ Haviv Rettig Gur (April 17, 2007). "Yiddish returns to Birobidzhan". The Jerusalem Post.
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  59. ^ The Demographic Yearbook of Russia
  60. ^ Gal Beckerman (August 31, 2016). "A Promised Land in the U.S.S.R." The New Republic.
  61. ^ 2012 Arena Atlas Religion Maps. "Ogonek", № 34 (5243), 27/08/2012. Retrieved 21/04/2017. Archived.
  62. ^ Kehr, Dave (January 31, 2003). "Film Review; When Soviet Jews Sought Paradise in Siberian Swamps and Snow". The New York Times.


  • №40-ОЗ 8 октября 1997 г. «Устав Еврейской автономной области», в ред. Закона №819-ОЗ от 25 ноября 2015 г. «О внесении изменений в статью 19 Устава Еврейской автономной области». Вступил в силу со дня официального опубликования. Опубликован: "Биробиджанская звезда", №125 (15577), 4 ноября 1997 г. (#40-OZ October 8, 1997 Charter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, as amended by the Law #819-OZ of November 25, 2015 On Amending Article 19 of the Charter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Effective as of the official publication date.).

Further reading

  • American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidjan, Birobidjan: The Jewish Autonomous Territory in the USSR. New York: American Committee for the Settlement of Jews in Birobidjan, 1936.
  • Melech Epstein, The Jew and Communism: The Story of Early Communist Victories and Ultimate Defeats in the Jewish Community, USA, 1919–1941. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1959.
  • Henry Frankel, The Jews in the Soviet Union and Birobidjan. New York: American Birobidjan Committee, 1946.
  • Masha Gessen, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, 2016.
  • Ber Boris Kotlerman and Shmuel Yavin, Bauhaus in Birobidzhan. Tel Aviv: Bauhaus Center, 2009.
  • Nora Levin, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: Paradox of Survival: Volume 1. New York: New York University Press, 1988.
  • James N. Rosenberg, How the Back-to-the-Soil Movement Began: Two Years of Blazing the New Jewish "Covered Wagon" Trail Across the Russian Prairies. Philadelphia: United Jewish Campaign, 1925.
  • Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Henry Felix Srebrnik, Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924–1951. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010.
  • Robert Weinberg, Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: An Illustrated History, 1928–1996. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.

External links