Birodbizhan was created in 1932 by Stalin, who decided to pre-empt the Zionists and make the Jews a homeland right in the USSR. One of the stated reasons was to decrease the amount of anti-Semitism in the rest of the Soviet Union, and it’s an odd way to protect a set-upon people by dumping them in the middle of Siberia. Still, it got a lot of support not just from Soviet but international Jewry, many of whom at the time were Communist and felt this was a way to escape persecution and build the new Soviet land. Stalin’s other goal, to settle the place before China or Japan did, became clearer when they arrived in a giant swamp. Many left, and Stalin made it easier for the 30,000 who didn’t by taking away their passports in 1939. In 1991 most went to Israel. Today, there are a couple thousand Jews left – but it seemed like an interesting-enough place to spend a couple of days.
If I was a Soviet man:
We arrived Friday late afternoon and walked down a wide boulevard with tall, spindly trees and crumbling blocks of flats lining each side. The hotel presented a different vista: it was set on a broad, pedestrianized mall, surrounded by new buildings with reflective glass in the windows. People were strolling, kids were driving motorized plastic cars, there was an ice-cream vendor – it was pleasant and unexplainably tidy. We encountered brief problems at the hotel, when the concierge asked for our registrations and we tried to explain that we didn’t have any (have I mentioned this? Until 2011, when travelling in Russia you had to register at a police station anywhere you stayed more than three business days. The rule is now seven business days, which means M. and I didn’t have to register, as we were always on the go.) Not having a shared language made this impossible; finally the security guard handed me a cell phone and an English-speaking woman told me politely that I had to register. I thanked her and explained the new rules. She just as politely said “That is interesting, so you feel you do not have to register, OK then,” explained this to the security guard, who explained it to the concierge – I wanted to call out “purple monkey dishwasher” but thought better of it. The problem went away.
Fake Hebrew writing in the pectopah (restaurant, but I can’t help calling it that):