Staunton, May 29 – A call by Avigdor Eskin, a conservative Russian-Jewish Israeli commentator to do away with the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan as “a survival of the Soviet past” almost certainly is the opening salvo in a new effort by Vladimir Putin to disband all the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation.
On the one hand, Putin began his earlier campaign by moving to amalgamate the so-called matryoshka republics, those surrounded by predominantly ethnic Russian regions, into the latter; and it would be a logical next step for him to begin a new effort by going after the only “autonomous oblast” before moving on to bigger republics.
And on the other hand, by gaining the support of Eskin who attacks the existence of Birobidzhan not as many Russian nationalists have as an unforgivable concession to Jews but rather as an anti-Semitic act by Stalin, Putin can count on significantly less criticism from the Moscow intelligentsia and the West than would otherwise be the case.
But if as seems likely, the Kremlin leader does move ahead with Eskin’s “recommendation,” it will make it far easier for him to move ahead, because he will pocket the acquiescence of both Russian liberals and the West as a sign that neither will oppose him on other amalgamations, leaving the non-Russians to confront the Kremlin on their own.
Eskin’s broadside comes today in a commentary for Russia’s Regnum news agency (regnum.ru/news/polit/2422373.html). He notes that Birobidzhan was “in a shameful last place” in terms of socio-economic development among the regions of Russia. It is “a sad survival of the Soviet past, a parody on Soviet thinking and how to solve the nationality question.”
There is no way, he insists that it is appropriate to call “this small part of Khabarovsky kray” a “’Jewish oblast,’” given that the Jews now form less than one percent of the population and never formed “more than 20 percent.” And part of these are partially affected by “Don Cossacks and even Chinese.”
The authorities in Birobidzhan act as if everything is fine and even insist on the continuing “’importance’” of the Jewish oblast, Eskin continues. But there is no justification for their positions especially given the sad history of the oblast itself.
“It is worth remembering,” he says, “that the Jewish autonomous oblast was initially an anti-Jewish invention of Soviet ideologues and practitioners like Kalinin and Kaganovich,” who saw it as a way of undermining the flood of Jews into their historical homeland of Israel in British Palestine.
A Jewish autonomous oblast within Russia was intended in their minds to “attract, entice and eclipse” the Jewish return. And Soviet propaganda promoted the notion that some Jews who had gone to Palestine subsequently went to Birobidzhan. Nothing was said, however, about their further repressions, Eskin says.
Moreover, the Israeli commentator continues, “it is significant that in the public consciousness firmly circulates the myth about the Plans to Stalin to resettle all the Jews in Birobidzhan after the completion of the doctors’ plot. “We do not have any weight historical evidence about this, but the myth of Birobidzhan lives on.”
“The existence of the Jewish autonomous oblast may be considered doubly offensive after Israel was reborn 70 years ago and after a significant majority of Jews of the USSR moved there,” Eskin says.
But it is also extremely offensive, the Israeli commentator argues, “for the Russian residents of the oblast who form the overwhelming majority there. Is it not absurd that 99 percent of the people live in a place which bears the name of an ethnic identity of whose who do not form even one percent?”
“One would like to hope that the Russian authorities and the Russian legislators will finda means of doing away with this survival of the Soviet era. One need not rewrite history. One must simply remove the Jewish identification of this overwhelmingly non-Jewish piece of Khabarovsk kray.”
Then, Eskin concludes, “historical justice will be restored.”