Throughout history, communism and religion have been an uneasy mixture. For the most part, communist leaders of the last century have either ignored or attacked organized religion ever since Marx laid down his infamous mantra (religion being the opiate of the masses).
However, Josef Stalin made a bizarre attempt at reconciling the two disparate forces of religion and communism in 1930 when he created the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (a constituent entity with its own governor and locally elected legislature) or, as he called it, his “alternative Palestine” for Jews in the Soviet Union. It is the only autonomous Jewish state outside of Israel.
Despite the fact that this community was created some 5,000 miles from Moscow on the Russian border with China, Jews from the Eastern European satellite states of the Soviet Union applied for visas to move to the area and the movement even gained some steam internationally. Some Jewish foreign migration from Europe and even the United States occurred during the early period of the settlement, mostly prompted by propaganda encouraging Jews to come take part in secular Yiddish culture. The population hovered between 20 and 30,000 people between 1937 and 1948.
What Stalin wanted was a Jewish homeland without Judaism, and he outlawed Hebrew and Jewish religious practices there. Over the next twenty years, these laws, along with Stalin’s growing paranoia and purges of Jews, led the community into disaster and disarray.
Mostly ethnic Russians populate the JAO today, and Jews remain a barely visible minority at only about 1.2 percent of the population. The entire population is only about 3,000. A synagogue built with money from the Russian government exists in Birobidzhan, oddly blurring the lines between church and state. Despite the fate of the colony, along with Stalin’s impure intentions, Birobidzhan still exists as a fascinating early modern attempt at a Jewish autonomous settlement.there is a Yiddish school and a Yiddish radio station. Present day residents hold weekly Shabbat ceremonies, and gather frequently to sing Yiddish songs and eat Jewish cuisine.
Know Before You Go
Birobidzhan is accessible by the Trans-Siberian Railroad line, 5 days and 13 hours by train from Moscow along the border with Heilongjiang in Northeastern China.