05/11/2021, 09.37
RUSSIA
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Attempts to eliminate Siberia’s autonomous Jewish region

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin has proposed to unite it with the Khabarovsk region. It is a small and poor region (220,000 inhabitants), but Jews have taken refuge in this area since the tsar’s pogroms to escape persecution.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Russian vice-premier Marat Khusnullin has proposed to "eliminate the autonomous Jewish region" of eastern Siberia. Yesterday, May 10, he suggested merging it with the Khabarovsk region. The inhabitants responded to the proposal in Yiddish: Marat, ir zent falsh (“Marat, you are wrong”). The statements of the vice-premier have sparked outrage, but the population is determined to defend their autonomy which has lasted for 87 years, when the region was established by the Soviet government.

Khusnullin maintains “there is no need for 85 regions, and this district / region doesn't seem worthy of interest to me. It must be immediately annexed to the Khabarovsk region, whether its governor, or perhaps that of Kurgan [other eastern region], takes care of it. Why should people in Kurgan be worse off than those of Tyumen, who are less than 200 km from them? Those have the income from oil, and the others don't, but maybe they live in a different country? I think the principle of territorial division is wrong, "he added, questioning the entire federal conception of the country.

The autonomous Jewish region, with the capital Birobidjan, is located in the far east of Siberia, between the regions of Amur (on the border with China) and that of Khabarovsk, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. After the collapse of the communist regime in the 1990s, it remained the only federal subject to have retained the title of "autonomous region", which previously applied to various territories, especially in the Asian part of the Soviet empire.

It is a small and poor region: in Birobidjan there are 156,500 inhabitants (a small town for the Russian size) out of 220,231 people in total, with a GDP among the lowest in the country. It was created on May 7, 1934, even though the Jews had moved to this area earlier.

In 1928 the "Soviet Committee for the Territorial Settlement of Jewish Workers" at the Council of Nationalities (a structure with a strong Stalinist imprint) had assigned the free territories of the extreme eastern strip of the Amur River to the Jews. The capital was founded between the two tributaries Bira and Bidjan - hence its name - and the Jews tried to protect themselves from the persecutions, which in Russia had already begun in Tsarist times.

The Second World War had brought new suffering to Russian Jews, in the context of the struggle against "bourgeois privileges" that applied to ethnic nationalisms, and to Jews first of all. At the beginning of the 1930s, the famous Jewish theatre "Kaganovič", the heart of Jewish culture in the country (with performances in Yiddish and Russian), whose participants later became the founders of Israel’s Jewish National Theater in Jerusalem, was closed.

In 1949-1951, the so-called "Birobidjan affair" took place, in which almost all of the Jewish intelligentsia who had fled to Siberia were arrested on charges of espionage for the United States.

After Stalin's death, many Jews were freed from the concentration camps and were able to take refuge in Birobidjan, where there was no airport or railways, remaining very isolated from the rest of the country.

The inhabitants who have kept their peace even in the thirty years of post-Soviet Russia, are now dismayed by the words of Khusnullin. They are expecting a pronouncement from President Putin, or at least from Prime Minister Mišustin, to reject this deputy’s words.

According to the vice-governor of the region, Rostislav Goldstein, "the issues of mergers or divisions between regions must remain in the hands of the inhabitants themselves, who decide without being influenced by the free opinions of the first Khusnullin who passes", as reported by Novaya Gaeta.

The rumours of a possible suppression of the Jews region have circulated frequently for at least a decade, but the Siberian Jews are determined to defend their little "promised land" in the Far East even today.

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