The Jewish Autonomous Oblast

The other day I was looking at a list of provinces that made up Soviet Russia. I found one called Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Of course I had to investigate.

This passage in Wikipedia offers a succinct introduction: “Soviet authorities established the autonomous oblast in 1934. It was the result of Joseph Stalin’s nationality policy, which allowed for the Jews of the Soviet Union to receive a territory in which to pursue Yiddish cultural heritage within a socialist framework.” The Soviet Union was made up of 15 separate republics. Each of these was supposed to represent a different nation (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, ect.). Jewish people residing in the Soviet Union asserted that they too constituted a nation and should apportioned the same status and autonomy as the other Soviet nation-states. Since many of the Jewish leaders in the Party were secret Trotskyites, Stalin saw political opportunity in this demand for a “Soviet Zion.” He arranged for the formation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast as a way to dislodge Jewish influence from the political landscape and rob prominent Jewish leaders of their constituency. The new Oblast was 5,000 miles from Moscow. It probably took something like two weeks to reach it on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The land itself was covered in morass and impenetrable forest. The only people who lived in the region were Manchurian Chinese who crossed the border routinely and treated the land as though it was theirs. Living in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast would have been hard, dangerous and utterly desolate. Despite propagandistic novels written in Yiddish describing the Oblast as an unspoiled paradise and numerous “back to the land” campaigns focused upon the largely urban Jewish populace, very few Jews ever went to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
At its highest, the Jewish population in JAO was 30,000; that was in 1948 and still only constituted just 30% of the total population. After the formation of Israel that number dropped to just 17,000. Of course, there were millions of Jews living in the Soviet Union. The proportion of them living in the JAO was negligible. So what we know as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is Jewish in name alone. One of the Soviet Union’s many failed attempts at social engineering.

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