The story of Birobidzhan resonates for Gessen because, born in Moscow in 1967, she grew up in a Soviet Union in which this dream had long been immolated and Jewishness was only a negative signifier — the school she could not attend, the job she could never have, the experience, she says, of ‘non-belonging.’ When her family decided to try and emigrate in the 1970s, she was thrust back into the same thinking about Jewish options that dominated the lives of Dubnow and Bergelson. There was Israel, an ideologically pure choice that appealed to her twelve-year-old self, and the West, which offered the possibility of normalcy, of no longer identifying as different, disappearing, and which appealed to her parents.
What she no longer had, the option that does not exist today, is Birobidzhan. The actual place, the experiment, was a mess. And on a visit in 2009, Gessen found that its Jewish character had long ago been trampled out of existence. Birobidzhan clearly teaches us not to count on dictators for autonomy. What they give, they can take away. It is a lesson that contains in it the rationale for Zionism, and a pretty convincing one.
Gessen doesn’t arrive at this conclusion herself, probably because, like many Jews, she prefers to inhabit a kind of Birobidzhan of the mind — a Jewish identity that resembles nationalism but with an allegiance not to flag or army but to culture and language, not to religion as faith but as the bearer of a long written tradition of thought and disputation and storytelling.
‘Prefers to inhabit a Birobidzhan of the mind,’ Gessen says in the talk in the video below, might be the highest compliment anyone’s ever paid them.
I’ve been (re-)listening to Timothy Snyder’s many recorded lectures on the Bloodlands and Black Earth themes / theses a good deal since posting the longer item here in May, and that’s led me to listening to Gessen as well.
Currently mid-way into the book (in audio format, via Scribd), put out by Schocken in 2016.