Birobidzhan was and actually still is nominally one of the two Jewish states in the world, the other one obviously being Israel. But Birobidzhan was formed earlier. It was part of a Soviet experiment. The Soviet Union initially conceived itself as a sort of anti-imperial empire in which every nation had the right to self-determination and to some sort of autonomy. And the Jews, who had before the revolution lived in the Pale of Settlement and had very limited civil rights, were supposed to be emancipated to be like other nations and therefore had to get an autonomy of their own. And so from the Soviet point of view, it was an attempt to make Jews like other ethnic groups living in the Soviet Union.
And so they were granted a piece of land on the Soviet-Chinese border, an impossible piece of land to inhabit and to cultivate. But tens of thousands of Jews moved there at certain times before World War II and then after World War II. And for a few years, very briefly, the official language of this region was Yiddish. So it’s probably the only Yiddish-speaking state that has ever existed.
GROSS: One of the people whose story you tell in your book is David Bergelson, who was a writer. He wrote in Yiddish, and he supported the idea early on of this Jewish autonomous region. He saw it as a place where literature like his would find an enduring audience and where there would be other fellow Yiddish writers. He wrote a manifesto in support. He wrote two manifestos, I think, in support of…
GESSEN: Yes, yes, yes…
GROSS: …Birobidzhan. And I don’t know how long he actually lived there himself.
GESSEN: He didn’t actually live there. He pretended to live there. He had a house there. He didn’t spend very much time there. I don’t think it was a very nice place to be, although he was very well-received there. Bergelson is a fascinating character. For students of Yiddish literature, he’s a major figure. Most other people obviously have never heard of him.
But he was a real survivor, and he survived, as Jews often do, by knowing when to run and where to run to. He managed to survive the Bolshevik Revolution, leave the Soviet Union, move to Germany. He knew enough to escape Germany as early as 1933 and to return to the Soviet Union. And his price of admission back to the Soviet Union was of course, first of all, repenting for all the imagined things that he had done wrong but also promoting Birobidzhan. That was the role to which he was sort of called back to the Soviet Union.
So he was – he was the great pioneer, the great promoter of Birobidzhan, and he wrote articles for the Yiddish-language press outside the Soviet Union to entice Jews to move to Birobidzhan. At least a thousand families from the United States and from Latin America Jewish families went to Birobidzhan to settle it obviously in part because of Bergelson’s articles.
GROSS: So in a way, he’s kind of performing an act of Soviet propaganda, enticing Jews to move to this remote region that he himself doesn’t live in. He is ultimately rewarded for this by Stalin by being executed on his 68th birthday on August 12, 1952. So I don’t know if he saw that coming.
GESSEN: Yes. I think he saw that coming. I think that he was extremely smart in avoiding that for as long as possible. He stayed out…
GROSS: In avoiding execution.
GESSEN: Avoiding execution took a lot of art and smarts to avoid execution. I mean, to, you know, for a Jew and a writer and an emigrate to survive in the Soviet Union to his 68th birthday, that’s quite a feat. And he wisely stayed out of Birobidzhan as soon as the purges began there in the 1930s. He had a very good sense of when he should keep a low profile and then when he should sort of come out waving the flag of whatever he needed to be waving the flag of. But his art or his luck ran out by the time he was 68, and he was part of Stalin’s last execution.
GROSS: … Let’s get back to our conversation about Birobidzhan.
What’s life like now in Birobidzhan?
GESSEN: It’s a Russian city on the Chinese border. Most of its trade is with China. It’s very much oriented toward China, increasingly oriented economically and culturally toward China much more than Moscow. Moscow’s inaccessible and very, very far away. Nominally it’s still the Jewish autonomous region, so its Jewish identity pops up in really bizarre ways.
I spent several days looking for Jewish food in Birobidzhan. So first, someone told me that I should go to this Chinese restaurant and ask for the Jewish menu, so I went to the – (laughter) – I went to the Chinese restaurant, asked for the Jewish menu, they said, well, we’ve discontinued it because there was no demand. And then I went to another restaurant and it’s menu contain the Birobidzhaner schnitzel. So I ordered the Birobidzhaner schnitzel, which turned out to be pork. And…
GESSEN: So they try because – because there’s some Jewish tourism. Obviously, it’s a very hard place to get to. But every so often somebody comes to Birobidzhan looking for something Jewish. So they try to accommodate.
GROSS: So you write that your sense of yourself as Jewish was just, like, negative. It was only – it was defined solely by the things you weren’t allowed to do and defined by the fact that you got beaten up all the time when you were in school. When you moved to America and over the years that you live there and now that you live there again, did your sense of being Jewish change at all?
GESSEN: I think it’s always changing, and I think that part of becoming a real grown-up for me has involved coming to terms with the fact that my sense of being Jewish is always changing. – but as a very young person, I went through the same experience again that many – many other Russian Jews went through, which is that I – we landed in the United States, and we were greeted by American Jews who had formed this incredible movement.
It was really – it was really remarkable what American Jews had in fact been able to do for Soviet Jews to secure their right to immigrate. And the premise of that movement, the movement of Soviet Jewry in the United States, was that Soviet Jews weren’t allowed to practice their Judaism. And they had to be given the right to emigrate either to Israel or to the United States, where they were free to be Jews.
Now, as far as we were concerned, we wanted a place where we were free not to be Jews because being Jewish was all about not being allowed to do things and not being like other people in bad ways. We had no Jewish culture that we grew up with. We had no language. We had no literature. We had no religious tradition. So all it was was what you weren’t. And there was – there were many disappointed activists of this movement for Soviet Jewry in the United States who tried to mentor Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union only to discover that the Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union wanted to forget about being Jewish as soon as possible.
Gessen, author of Where Are The Jews Aren’t: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, is lesbian (not a gratuitous observation; it reckons in her personal story), so I braced myself when Terry Gross turned to contemporary American politics. It was more temperate an even-handed than I expected.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is called “Where The Jews Aren’t: The Sad And Absurd Story Of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.” She grew up in the Soviet Union … She wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.
So there’s been a lot of discussion during this campaign about Trump’s connections to Putin. He has spoken highly of Putin. His former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, had worked with Viktor Yanukovych, who was the Putin-supported strongman of the Ukraine. You’ve written that you don’t think that Trump is a Putin creation, but you’re very worried about Donald Trump. What are some of your concerns?
GESSEN: I’ve actually just – I’m finishing this book – the book about Birobidzhan has just come out, but obviously that means that I’ve spent the last year working on an entirely different book. And the book that I’ve been working on is a book about totalitarianism and totalitarian societies and how that plays out in contemporary Russia. But that also has meant that I’ve been – I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading what great thinkers, great European thinkers, had to say about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. And the things that they describe have a lot of relevance to what is happening today in the United States.
But one basic premise that a lot of great European thinkers were trying to get across in the 1940s and ’50s was that modern industrialized society creates the preconditions for a fascist populist movement. Trump is leading a populist movement that has the potential to become a fascist movement. And he has all the earmarks of a fascist movement. It’s the nativist idea, the – this idea of the great nation, its obsession with a non-existent greatness of the past. These are all hallmarks of a fascist movement.
GROSS: Do you consider demonizing specific populations as a characteristic of fascism?
GESSEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the sort of othering certain populations, appealing to this sense of being under siege and being targeted, being endangered by other people, including people who weren’t even perceived as other until the leaders started talking about them as other. That is also classic.
GROSS: When you hear about mass deportations, what do you think about? And I ask you that because you just wrote a book about, you know, autonomous regions that are part, like, opportunity to move and in part kind of deportation. And there were so many mass deportations in the Soviet Union.
GESSEN: It gives me the chills. I think that, again, this is like a whole other beast. Donald Trump, who claims at this point an imaginary right, but still claims this right to decide the fate of entire people who, the moment he sort of claims that right, stop being perceived as human. That – we saw a lot of that in the 20th century. And for the most part, we didn’t see it in democratic countries, on the part of democratic leaders.
GROSS: Russia is implicated in the WikiLeaks documents that printed things from a DNC hack, Democratic National Committee hack. And there’s this assumption that Russia is perhaps trying to sway the election toward Donald Trump. Also offered as evidence of that by some people is that it seems to be Russians who hacked two State Board of Elections – their websites. So I’m wondering what your take on that is. Do you think that Russians are behind those hacks and that that means Russians are trying to manipulate the election?
GESSEN: I think that manipulating the election is an inaccurate and too strong a term. I think Russians are trying to disrupt the democratic process, not just in the United States but all over the western world. And that’s been a very important Russian strategy. It’s not a coordinated strategy, and that’s why I would stay away from the word manipulate. Russia has several agencies that are engaged in cyberwarfare. Russia has made cyberwarfare and cyber disruption a major part of its relationship with the outside world since at least the mid-2000s.
One of the biggest things that Russia did in 2007 was basically shut down the Estonian government for three or four days by using an army of hacks. And so we know that Russians do this. We know that Russians – I mean, the – it seems that the hacks into the DNC have been traced back to Russian intelligence agencies as definitively as anything like that can be traced back. But note that those hacks were carried out by two different intelligence agencies that apparently weren’t aware of each other, which points to how not a concerted effort it is.
And also this happened last spring, so before Donald Trump was the Republican nominee and before actually most people took it serious – took the prospect of his becoming a nominee very seriously. So, again, this points to Russia as a disruptive force, which is dangerous and scary and effective as a disruption but not to Russia as the force that stands behind Donald Trump.
GROSS: Anything you want to add about the current election that you feel like you are seeing from a different angle than others?
GESSEN: Well, I think maybe the thing that we didn’t talk about – and I don’t know if this is – I’m sure I’m not the only person to have this brilliant idea – but, you know, we talked about what happens if Trump gets elected. But I think we haven’t talked about what happens if Trump doesn’t get elected.
GROSS: Want to answer the question you just asked?
GESSEN: Sure. So I think that, yeah, this is something that I’ve seen a little bit of talk about but, to my mind, not enough. According to the polls in the best case scenario, Hillary Clinton wins the election definitively with Trump getting a mere 40 percent of the vote. That’s 40 percent of American voters who have gone to the polls to vote for Donald Trump. That’s 40 percent of American voters who feel completely shut out of the democratic process in this country, feel completely alienated from the society in which they are living.
And I think we have to think about what a scary prospect that is, that huge number of people who feel not only alienated but if Donald Trump loses – which I hope he does – who feel also defeated. I think that the damage to the fabric of society that this election will have done is not going to be mended once Hillary Clinton hopefully wins the presidency. The damage is going to be staring us in the face, and we really have to – again, that’s another argument for why it’s so important to look at what has led to the rise of Donald Trump in this country rather than to look at his potential ties to Putin.
Although I heard this by podcast rather than broadcast, it illustrates NPR’s ability to make the listener a little smarter instead of a little stupider — a constant counter-entropic battle in this stultifying age and election season.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)