At the Young Pioneer Magazine, we like to take travel geekiness to a whole new level when it comes to off-the-beaten-track destinations and political anomalies. One place which absolutely typifies both of these is the Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is located in the Russian Far East, with Birobidzhan being its capital. It is Russia’s only autonomous oblast, and one of only two officially Jewish territories (the other, obviously, being the completely non-controversial state of Israel).
Birobidzhan: the hows and whys
So how and why was a Soviet Zion created in the middle of Siberia? Official Soviet policy was to give all nationalities and ethnicities in the USSR their own ‘homeland’. Stalin, being genuine nice guy, man of the people and philosemite (like his mate Trotsky), felt that the Jews deserved their own homeland.
Some skeptics have speculated that the reason Uncle Joe decided to make said region in the arse-end of Siberia was to get the Jews as far away from him as possible. If you believe this, you are probably an imperialist.
At its height, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast had a Jewish population of 25%, all speaking the working-class Yiddish rather than the bourgeois Hebrew of Israel.
Nowadays Jews make up just 1% of the population of the Oblast, although they do print the only Yiddish-language newspaper in the world.
Currently, it does not exactly look like the Jewish Autonomous Oblast will be replacing Israel as the Jewish motherland, although in fairness to Russia they have made great strides in helping to protect the unique culture of what was, in effect, the first Jewish homeland in thousands of years.
It’s an interesting place to visit if Jewish history is your thing. Probably best not to forget your coat and hat, though; it’s in the arse-end of Siberia, after all.