The dying “Mini-Israel” in the Far East of Russia

Jewish Region in Russia

While hitchhiking and couch-surfing my way from Siberia to the Far East of Russia, I stumbled upon a bizarre settlement.

It is the historically interesting Russian Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO).

Igor at Jewish autonomous region monumen
In addition to my new “hat,” I got circumcised at the border crossing – “When in Rome….”

A Brief History

In 1912, on a huge trans-Siberian railway, one small and undiscovered settlement – Tikhonskaya Station – grew up.  It was located directly between the Far Eastern city “giants” – Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk, and nestled up to the Chinese border.

Jewish autonomous region map

The Russian Revolution thundered across the country, communists came to power, and the Tikhonka Station slowly but surely expanded.  By 1928 there were already more than 600 people living there, and there was a school and a post office.

In May 1928, the Soviet Government decided to settle the communist Jews in the vast but empty territories of the Far East. What was the benefit?

First, at that time in the world there was no Jewish state, Jews did not even have their own autonomy in any corner of the world, and therefore the decision to form the Jewish Autonomous Region was beneficial to the government. Thus, the Soviet Union demonstrated to the whole world its good intentions, counting on financial assistance from Jews from all over the world.

The territory where the JAO is located was also chosen for strategic purposes.  In those years there was a danger of Japan’s invasion of the Far East, and the vacant vast lands would not be difficult to seize.  It was decided to settle this region, strengthening the eastern borders.

Over the first 5 years, more than 19,000 Jewish settlers from all over the world arrived at Tikhonkaya station.

They arrived to find empty, undeveloped land, and a harsh climate.  Being clever people and seeing what they were offered, they did not hesitate to turn around and leave back. (Of the 19,000 Jews who arrived, more than 11,000 went back).

In 1931, Tikhonka station received the modern name – Birobidzhan (Bira – river flowing in the city). In the meantime, the Jews continued to come, little by little, and not with such enthusiasm which the government expected. By the end of the 1930s, about 20% of the city’s population was Jewish.

Then, the Great Patriotic War (WWII) thundered.  After it, the state of Israel was formed and most of the remaining Jews in the JAO rushed there in search of a better life.  With the present Jewish state formed, the USSR project failed miserably.

At the moment, only a small diaspora of Jews lives in the city, which numbers slightly more than 1500 people.

Some Photos…

Jewish autonomous region
Arriving to the region by car – looks creepy as everything here
Russian Jewish Autonomous Oblast station
Arriving to the Birobidzhan first thing you’ll see – Jewish seven-candleholder. Around 99% of the population does not even know what it is and what it takes.
Soviet buildings
“Israel” made by the Soviet Union
Yiddish signs and newspaper
Street signs and newspaper in Yiddish…in Russia!?
monument to jewish settlers
Monument to the first Jewish settlers – most of whom promptly turned around and left when they saw that the land was empty, undeveloped, and of poor climate.
EAO park
Best place is this town – a park nearby the Bira river.

The flag…

Jewish autonomous region flag
Since most of the Jews have left this region, they could keep their flag and become the “LGBT Autonomous Region.”

Why would anyone visit here?

Coming soon, there probably will not be this region.  It is one of the poorest places in Russia and the Russian government may abolish the region and make it part of another region in the Russian Federation.

Average salary here is 15,000 ₽ ($240) per month.  Students attending the University in Birobidzhan get a 25,000 ₽ ($400) per month stipend every month, and it is the only reason for young people to stay here.

JAO university in Russia
Sholem Aleichem Amur State University

It is a unique situation.  A student likely gets paid more that his parents (probably even together)!

Of course, simply desiring to see weird and off path places is always reason enough to see anything!

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Igor Sobolev
Igor was born in one of the dirtiest and most northern towns in the world - Norilsk, Russia. Living there made him hungry for traveling and seeing the true world - how it works and who lives there. "Best way of traveling - Hitchhiking!"

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