Staunton, March 5 – Two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin named Aleksandr Levintal to head the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East, an action that Konstantin Kalachev says has reopened talk about the future of a region rich in natural resources but which “in fact is cut off from the rest of Russia” and has “long ago lost its specific national character.”
On Slon.ru, the Russian analyst suggests that one can only understand what may happen next in Birobidzhan if one examines how it came into existence and what any change might mean for Moscow’s international reputation and control given the current economic crisis and international tensions (slon.ru/posts/48976).
As early as 1921, the Soviet leadership began discussing where they might create a Jewish region to promote agricultural settlement of Jews from other parts of the country. Initially, most of those involved in these discussions favored northern Crimea, the Azov steppes or the Altay.
But by the end of the 1920s, Kalachev notes, “the intra-party struggled had ended with the complete triumph of Stalin, and his opponents, a large part of whom were Jews, lost influence.” As a result, Moscow ruled out Crimea which was deemed important for other reasons, and Stalin began to consider setting up something for the Jews in the Far East.
In 1928, the Soviet government ordered that arrangements be made for Jewish “toilers” to be sent to the Far East so that they could work “the free lands in the Pri-Amurye.” Few Jews were there already, and few were attracted by this. In that year, there were only 34,000 people in what became the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and almost none was Jewish.
Over the next five years, 22,000 people moved into the area, but Jews did not form a majority of them. Nonetheless, in 1934, Moscow decreed the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast directly subordinate to the center, and four years later, the oblast was included within the newly-formed Khabarovsk kray.
Administratively, that is how things remained until 1991, Kalachev continues. At that time, the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet decided to separate the Jewish Autonomous Oblast from Khabarovsk kray and make it an independent subject of the Russian Federation. And so it continues to this day.
But despite its name and Moscow’s decision to appoint Jews to head it, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is not Jewish. According to the 2010 census, only about one percent of the residents of the oblast are Jews, and their numbers are in decline both as a result of departures and assimilation. Chinese is “more useful” than Yiddish or Hebrew,” Kalachev says.
In January, Yevgeny Primakov described the Jewish Autonomous Oblast as “a political anachronism” because of the fact that its “titular” nation formed such a small part of the population and suggested it should be liquidated by amalgamating it with the larger and more populous Khabarovsk kray.
But others objected. Aleksand Kynyev, a Russian analyst, said that there was no need to do anything because “the JAO isn’t bothering anyone” and because “the symbolism of liquidating the ‘Jewish’ autonomy would be received negatively and would not improve the current image of the country.”
Others agreed, but the question of whether it is “an anachronism” remains open. “As ‘a Jewish reservation,’ it is an anachronism,” Kalachev says. But changing its status would require a referendum and real effort by the local governor and a new propaganda campaign to explain this to Jews elsewhere. Neither Moscow nor he appear ready to do that.
As far as the role of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in promoting the image of Russia is concerned, he continues, all anyone has to do now is to send someone with a camera to the region and he will return with pictures of a depressed region to which almost no one wants to go and everyone there wants to leave. That would do more harm than disbanding the oblast.
But however that may be, Kalachev argues, the autonomy is likely to continue to exist but for an entirely different reason: China. More than 60 Chinese firms “with 100 percent Chinese capital” are there, Chinese farmers are working about a quarter of the land, and more than a quarter of all living space has been built with Chinese money.
The oblast’s leaders and Moscow as well want to continue to develop those links, expanding them in the areas of iron ore mining and linking the two places with new rail bridges. And both appear to have concluded that it will be easier for a Moscow-appointed official to do that if he is responsible only for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
But while that may make sense administratively, Kalachev says, there is likely to be further “Chinese ‘colonization’” of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Any economic expansion will require them, and “the Chinese and not the Jews will define the economic future and ethnic face of this oblast.”
Indeed, it concludes, in the not terribly distant future, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast “could become most Chinese part of the territory of Russia.”