Russian vice-premier Marat Khusnullin proposed on Monday to eliminate the autonomous Jewish region of far-eastern Siberia, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), with its capital Birobidzhan, and merge it with the Khabarovsk region. The statements of the vice-premier sparked outrage, according to Asia News, and the locals responded with a statement in Yiddish (the official language): “Marat, ir zent falsh (Marat, you are wrong).”
Back in 2013, there were proposals to merge the region with the district of Khabarovsk or with Amur. Those proposals led to protests and were rejected by the residents, as well as the Jewish community of Russia. There was a question as to whether the proposed merger would be legal under the Russian Constitution without a national referendum.
Article 65 of the Constitution of Russia provides that the JAO is Russia’s only autonomous oblast (district). It is one of two official Jewish jurisdictions in the world, the other being Israel.
In 1924, the unemployment rate among Jews exceeded 30%, partially as a result of pogroms but also because of the policies of the Soviet Union, which prohibited crafts shops and small businesses. To get Jews to be more productive members of society, the government established Komzet, the committee for the agricultural settlement of Jews. The plan was to resettle all the Jews in the USSR in a designated territory where they would be able to pursue a lifestyle that was “socialist in content and national in form.” The Soviets also wished to offer an alternative to Zionism, which was a rival ideology to Marxism among left-wing Jews. The location that was initially considered in the early 1920s was Crimea, which already had a large Jewish population, but it was too close to the center – the Jews needed to move far away.
After the end of WW2, in 1945, there was renewed interest in the idea of Birobidzhan as a potential home for Jewish refugees. The Jewish population in the region peaked at around 46,000–50,000 Jews in 1948, about 25% of the population. The census of 1959 found that the Jewish population of the JAO had declined by approximately 50%, down to 14,269. A synagogue was opened at the end of World War II, but it closed in the mid-1960s after a fire left it severely damaged. In 1980, a Yiddish school was opened in the district.
According to the 1989 Soviet Census, only 8,887 Jews were living in the JAO, some 4% of the total population. As of 2002, only 2,357 Jews were living there.
Khusnullin argued that “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 [another 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.
Novaya Gaeta quoted the vice-governor of the region, Rostislav Goldstein, who stated that “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 by.”