Monday, May 10, 2021

‘Unifying Two Poor Regions Only Doubles Poverty,’ Birobidzhan Residents React to Latest Amalgamation Idea

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 8 – When Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin called for amalgamating Russia’s regions two weeks ago, he specifically urged combining the Jewish Autonomous Oblast with Khabarovsk Kray (

            Now, Valeriya Fedorenko, a journalist from Novaya gazeta, has surveyed opinion in that oblast, summing up reaction  with two statements: “Marat, ir zent falsh,” Yiddish for “Marat, you are wrong,” and “uniting one poor region with another poor region doubles poverty” (

            If the intensity of the negative reaction from officials who would lose their position is not unexpected – see Governor Rostislav Goldsheyn’s at -- that of others was far greater.

            Birobidzhan is poor. Its capital doesn’t even have a civilian airport, and travelling to and from it takes many hours by train or car. But the residents of the oblast resent having someone far away who knows nothing of their situation making decisions for them and believing that they’d be better off as a small part of some other region.

            Efraim Kolpak, the rabbi of one of the region’s two synagogues, says that there are more Jews in his region than the census counts even though the community is small. Unfortunately, he continues, in many parts of Russia, Jews still conceal their ethnic and religious identity; but in Birobidzhan, a much smaller share of them feel compelled to do so.

            Few outside of Russia know about the Jewish communities in other Russian cities, Kolpak adds, but everyone around the world knows about Birobidzhan – and its survival is thus important to the survival of Jewish identity in Russia. And the Jews of Birobidzhan have often made this point. (See

            Valery Gurevich, an economist in the oblast, says that joining the two regions together won’t solve any of their problems and will harm Jewish identity. There are far more Jews even in Birobidzhan than the census shows. As the Odessa saying has it, when the last Jew leaves, he will be told goodbye by a thousand others.

            According to the 1989 census, there were 8800 Jews in Birobidzhan, but 25,000 then left, a figure that means the census is nonsense. That is how it has always been in Russia with regard to the Jews. People say one thing in public and another in private. In Birobidzhan that has been true too but less so than elsewhere.

            Gurevich says that instead of coming up with amalgamation ideas, Moscow should first ask Khabarovsh residents how they would feel about absorbing the “Jewish” oblast. They probably don’t want it any more than the people of Birobidzhan want to be absorbed by that region.

            And Vyacheslav Belyakov, a local political scientist, says that Khusnullin’s proposal is “not very correct” because it ignores how much unifying the two federal subjects would cost and how the money Moscow would spend on that could be far better spent on helping the people in both.

            Moscow officials don’t want to recognize that the larger the territory under a single administration, the worse its governance will be, perhaps because they would then have to focus on the issue of the world’s largest country being governed from a single center, their own urban center.

            “From the center it may seem that the fewer the number of regions, the simpler … But in reality, the good practice of present-day administration comes via decentralization and consists in the development of local self-administration. And amalgamation and centralization leads yet again to worse governance under contemporary conditions.” (stress in the original)

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