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Article

Birobidzhan in Khrushchev’s Thaw: the soviet and the western outlook

The present article looks into the little-researched period in the ninedecade long history of the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR), which is still present atavistically in the administrative-territorial structure of contemporary Russia. The region in the Siberian Far East, better known by the name of its main town, Birobidzhan, never turned into what it was supposed to be, namely the centre of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, while being demographically and culturally insignificant, the low-statused JAR played a key and essentially detrimental role in determining the entitlements that the Jews had in the Soviet pecking order. The government consistently used the Birobidzhan-centered model of Jewish life as an instrument for justifying internationally its active assimilationist policy. In the 1950s, rumours – first about the liquidation of Jewish autonomy and then about a planned expulsion of Jews to the JAR – attracted the attention and concern of the foreign press and Jewish organizations. International pressure forced Moscow to modify its Jews-related policy, but changed little in the JAR. The 1959 census revealed 14,269 Jews in the JAR’s population. Compared with 1939, the number of Jews in the region had decreased almost by a fifth. This decline continued in the coming years.