Birobidzhan is an autonomous area (oblast) of 36,000 square kilometers and 220,000 residents in the Russian Far East. 85% of the population is Russian, 6.5% Ukrainian and 5.4% Jewish (this number includes all that have Jewish ancestry). The capital (population 80,000) is also named Birobidzhan.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviet government attempted to integrate the 2.5 million Jews living in the Soviet Union to the new socialist nation. (That means they were supposed to become dirt-poor farmers, just like the rest of the populace.)

"A large part of the Jewish population must be transformed into an economically stable, agriculturally compact group which should number at least hundreds of thousands." -Mikhail Kalinin, president of the USSR, 1926

Thus, a sparsely populated area in the Russian Far East, bordering China, was designated the official territory for Jewish colonization in 1928. The area was mostly marsh, with hot and rainy summers and cold winters. At the time, the area was populated by 27,000 Russians, Cossacks, Koreans and Ukrainians.

The reasons the central government chose this remote area were three-fold: to transfer Jews far away from the areas populated by them in the Southwestern USSR, where local populaces resisted Jewish settlement; to buffer the Soviet Union from Chinese and Japanese expansionism and to tap the natural resources of the area, which included fish, timber and minerals.

The government started relocating thousands of Jews to the area using the recently completed Trans-Siberian Railway. Most disembarked at Tikhonka, a small village in the center of the area. The village grew rapidly and was renamed Birobidzhan.

Early on, the living conditions in the area were poor. The migrants often lived in holes, like hobbits, until barracks were erected.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin eagerly spread propaganda concerning their efforts. They saw Birobidzhan as an alternative to Palestine. (It seems that much of the late 20th century's warfare would have been avoided if Israel was located somewhere in Siberia..)

Various means were employed to gather funds for the relocation effort. However, things did not go as planned or portrayed in public, the government failing to provide the settlers with decent housing, food, medical care or working conditions. Also, the land given to the colonists was often unsuitable for tilling.

"The colonization of Birobidzhan was begun and executed without preparation, planning and study." - Victor Fink, an American who traveled to the area in 1929

The Birobidzhan region was designated the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. The city of Birobidzhan is the capital. Thus the first region of modern times with Jewish autonomy was created. By 1939 the area had a population of 109,000. Only 18,000 of them were Jews, many having fled the area's poor living conditions. The city of Birobidzhan had a population of 30,000. Also, by this time, less than one quarter of the Jews living in the area worked in agriculture. Instead, they worked in the retail and service sectors.

The government remained strictly opposed to teaching Jewish religion. Therefore, Yiddish, instead of Hebrew, was taught in schools and used in newspapers and government functions in the area. The project was well known among world Jewry, and received funds from abroad.

Stalin's purges between 1936 and 1938 affected even this remote region, although no reliable information is available. Thousands may have been sent to labor camps or executed. Also, Yiddish schools were closed and migration ceased.

After the Second World War, migration continued. By 1948, when the state of Israel was established, 30,000 Jews lived in Birobidzhan. Soviet control on the area became less stern. Yiddish again became a compulsory subject in schools, Jewish cultural life was resuscitated and a synagogue was opened in 1947.

Stalin struck back, however, in 1948, imprisoning prominent Jews and burning 30,000 Yiddish books in the public library. This effectively terminated the effort of making Birobidzhan a Jewish region. Jewish culture fell into a lapse until the mid-1980s. Currently, there are only a few thousand Jews in the area, most having left for Israel and other places.

Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland (