Up From the "Ash Heap"?
A Lost Chapter of Interwar Jewish History
by Jonathan Dekel-Chen
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
from: Colombia Journal of Historiography
Few scholars, even specialists on Jewish and Soviet history,
can say much about the Jewish agricultural colonization movement
from the traditional towns (shtetls) of the former Pale
of Settlement to Crimea and Southern Ukraine, which took place
between 1923 and 1941. To the non-expert, the topic may seem
esoteric, even exotic. Judging from the little written about it
in the West, this movement had almost no upside. To date, the
subject has stirred only minor interest among scholars in the
former Soviet Union. Among the younger generation of Israeli
historians, there is a similar silence. Do the facts justify
this historiographical state of affairs?
Whereas path-breaking studies on Jewish colonization in
Birobidzhan and Belorussia during the interwar period emerged in
the 1960s, far less significant work has been done on the more
than 200 Jewish colonies in Crimea and southern Ukraine.
One prominent Israeli scholar dealt with a small group of Jewish
socialists from Palestine that emigrated to Crimea and
established a commune, Via Nova, in the late 1920s.
Although it is a fascinating story with implications for the
history of the Jewish community in Palestine under the British
Mandate, Via Nova is not representative of Jewish settlement in
Crimea. Survivors of the three agricultural communes in Crimea
created by the Hehalutz Zionist movement authored a
number of memoirs in Hebrew after their emigration to Palestine
in the mid-1920s. Although these are fascinating accounts of the
brief settlement experiences of Zionist communards in Crimea,
they are uninformative about the much larger, non-Zionist,
Voluntary resettlement by Jews from the shtetls to
Crimea and southern Ukraine commenced immediately following the
Russian Civil War. Impoverished from years spent in a battle
zone, and recently disenfranchised by the Bolshevik Constitution
of 1918, the Jews of the overcrowded shtetls were near
desperation. As one avenue of response, small groups of them
began to migrate southward in 1922-23. Some of them formed a
handful of so-called "spontaneous" colonies in the Black Sea
littoral while others joined the war-weary "old" Jewish colonies
in southern Ukraine, which had originally been settled in the
early nineteenth century. Given the difficult times, and
considering that they had almost no outside aid, these several
hundred new settlers and Hehalutz communards in Crimea
and southern Ukraine accomplished much and set important
precedents for what followed. Starting in 1923, the colonization
movement underwent meteoric growth, bolstered by foreign
philanthropies, of which the most important by far was the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—a
non-governmental, non-denominational Jewish philanthropy, based
in New York and created during World War I for the relief of
Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe.
Beginning in 1924, the JDC entered a series of contracts with
the Kremlin that institutionalized and expanded the
"spontaneous" colonization: the Soviets provided free land,
transportation, tax exemption and fuel. According to Soviet law,
work on the land, like other so-called "productive labor,"
reinstated civil rights to the hitherto disenfranchised Jewish
settlers. At its peak, the Joint Agricultural Corporation (the
operative arm of the JDC in Soviet Russia, then known as the
Agro-Joint) employed over 1000 workers in offices from Moscow to
Crimea. Driven by contributions in excess of $16 million (over
$200 million at present value), the Agro-Joint constructed and
administered approximately 200 state-of-the-art agricultural
colonies on hundreds of thousands of acres, assisted an
additional forty colonies established before its arrival,
operated several tractor teams, and provided technical guidance,
vocational training, modern implements, and low-interest loans
to the settlers and their non-Jewish neighbors around the Black
Sea. In total, the Agro-Joint had settled or otherwise assisted
approximately 200,000 Jews by the time it signed a liquidation
agreement with the government and departed Soviet Russia in
Quantitative and qualitative measurements show that this was
a remarkable undertaking. Owing to the material aid and
supervision of the Agro-Joint, the colonies achieved extremely
high standards of living compared to the rest of rural Russia.
The agricultural systems introduced by the Agro-Joint became a
focus of interest for the regime and may have served as a model
for total collectivization: the Jewish colonies were the subject
of repeated visits by delegations of Soviet officials interested
in the agricultural techniques and the organizational practices
instituted by the Agro-Joint. In addition, several members of
the Politburo sub-commissions that set the character of
collectivization were already familiar with Jewish colonization.
Because the Soviet government was relatively weak in the
countryside during most of this period, the Agro-Joint operated
as a veritable administrative surrogate from 1924 until at least
the early 1930s.
Such a position also allowed it to bargain with the Soviet
regime on matters not directly related to colonization. For
example, the Agro-Joint negotiated the release of imprisoned
Zionists, many of whom then emigrated to Palestine. It also
negotiated with the regime for the easing of nationwide edicts
against religious activity.
In terms of both the scale of investment and immediate
results, the Agro-Joint project dwarfed the Jewish agricultural
settlement of Palestine at the time. The Jewish National Fund,
for example, owned 250,000 acres of farmland in Palestine in
1948, while the Soviet government had allotted approximately
four times that much for the permanent use of the Jewish
colonies around the Black Sea by the early 1930s. Part of this
land was voluntarily returned to the Soviet government during
the 1930s for lack of results.
These factors contributed to a number of extraordinary
developments. Officially, the Kremlin created five autonomous
Jewish districts (raiony) in the regions of agricultural
colonization. But an equally important feature of the project in
retrospect was the unofficial compact Jewish settlement blocs
that developed in the wake of the physical expansion of the
settlement enterprise. In some cases, these blocs intersected
with the formal Jewish districts; in other cases, they coalesced
around significant pockets of Jewish colonies outside the
official districts. Within the settlement blocs (and despite
large turnovers in the membership rolls of most colonies), Jews
manned almost all the administrative functions and nurtured a
unique cultural and religious life mostly outside the grasp of
the state. All the while, the Stalinist regime applied
increasing and damaging pressure on the rest of Soviet society,
both in the population centers and in the countryside. In
contrast, the Jewish agricultural settlements survived and,
relatively speaking, usually thrived under the Soviet system.
They succumbed only to occupation by the German Wehrmacht
in the autumn of 1941.
The indirect results of the Agro-Joint's colonization network
exceeded the proportionally small numbers of settlers—never more
than 9 percent of all Soviet Jews. A Russian-language propaganda
campaign forged an image of a new Soviet-Jewish agriculturalist
that sharply contrasted with the negative stereotypes of Jews in
tsarist literature. While this new image did not fit the
majority of Soviet Jews, it did change the ways that non-Jews
viewed their Jewish countrymen, and it legitimized a basic
outline of Jewish national identity in an era of growing
assimilatory pressures from above.
Migration to the colonies also helped relieve overcrowding and
related socio-economic problems in the shtetls.
Despite this record of accomplishment, the historiographical
consensus on the Agro-Joint experiment is generally negative.
Among the damaging judgments in the existing scholarship, one
finds the claim that the Jewish colonists suffered from chronic
poverty and severe repression. There is also a common belief
among scholars that the colonies lost their Jewish character
during the national collectivization of agriculture in the
winter of 1929-30.
Historians have also implicitly agreed on the following points:
Stalin evicted the Agro-Joint from the Soviet Union in 1937; the
reign of terror that afflicted the cities in the second half of
the 1930s had a similar effect on the Jewish colonies; the
majority of colonists were murdered shortly after the Nazi
conquest of the region.
According to these arguments, the annihilation of the colonies
during the war—combined with the cynical fabrication of the
"Crimean Plot" (to be discussed below) by the Soviet regime in
Stalin's last years—condemned the whole enterprise to failure.
The validity of these conclusions notwithstanding, the aim of
this essay is to explore why a one-sided historiographical
consensus has materialized from such a complex episode in Jewish
and Soviet history.
Research versus Recall
In the study of closed societies, such as Stalinist Russia,
the reliance on narrow or unrepresentative source bases is
perhaps unavoidable. The inaccessibility of archives in the
former Soviet Union until the early 1990s magnified the problem
for scholars in the West. As a result, even the more recent
general histories in English and Hebrew that refer to the
Agro-Joint episode have cited mainly secondary accounts,
particularly Yehuda Bauer's classic history of the JDC.
Writing in the mid-1970s, Bauer made use of only one archive (in
New York) when exploring this complex event, and he did not
intend or claim to offer a detailed description of the
colonization enterprise. More focused studies of Soviet-Jewish
colonization in English or Hebrew have thus far relied on
memoirs, Soviet-era periodicals and other published materials.
Therefore, a lack of thorough research, combined with the habit
of citing imperfect sources, has led to the replication of
unsound scholarship on the subject from 1942 to date.
Moreover, an over-reliance on survivors' testimonies weakened
the existing scholarship. To be sure, the memoirs of Holocaust
survivors among the colonists and those of Hehalutz
members persecuted by the Soviet regime provide faithful
ground-up views of the horrors that they endured. Such accounts,
however, are far less useful on other issues.
Furthermore, when Soviet sources published Holocaust memoirs,
they often distorted the narrative in order to emphasize what
they called the "fascist crimes" of the German occupiers. For
reasons I will discuss below, government publishers also
minimized any mention of life in the colonies.
When previous authors placed blanket faith in the memoirs of
leaders of the JDC—who were themselves traumatized by the
Holocaust—this also proved problematic. The former President of
the Agro-Joint, James Rosenberg, expressed excessive pessimism
when he stated in 1959 that "the Crimea, which we thought was a
safe place, was overrun by Hitler's hordes. Stalin completed the
gruesome job of mass murder. So this great effort [of the
Agro-Joint] . . . ended in bitter nothingness. Never since 1938
have I heard a single word from any of those Jews."
Because neither Rosenberg nor his contemporaries in the West was
privy to developments in the Soviet countryside from the late
1930s onward, the worst was most often assumed. Rosenberg could
not have known that most of the Agro-Joint's colonists had
evacuated the settlements before the German conquest of Crimea.
Consequently, conventional historiography speaks of nearly total
annihilation, whereas the archives reveal a much more evenhanded
Deciphering the Silence
What caused the historiographic void around this story of
Jewish-Soviet colonization? In fairness, one cannot
overemphasize the most basic of reasons—the Soviet archives were
off-limits to independent scholars. Although it was possible to
produce partial studies without these collections, a full
picture could not be reconstructed using only the materials
available in the West. Additional factors, however, also account
for this half-century of historical amnesia.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that very few people
capable of relating the story survived beyond 1952. Most
significantly, the senior staff of the Agro-Joint and the Soviet
agencies responsible for supervision of the colonies (known by
their Soviet acronyms KOMZET and OZET) perished in the Stalinist
purges of 1937 and 1938. These men and women had by far the
deepest familiarity with the project among Soviet Jews and the
personal skills to document its history.
Compounding this tragedy, in 1948 the regime arrested the
leading Soviet-Jewish cultural elites who had led the Jewish
Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) during the Second World War.
Encouraged by the willingness of the Joint Distribution
Committee to reengage itself in the Soviet Union after the war,
most of the leaders of the JAFC promoted a renewed colonization
movement as a means for the postwar revival of Soviet Jewry. In
a characteristic irony of late Stalinism, the Soviet regime
turned the warm memory and great potential of foreign-supported
Jewish colonization in Crimea and southern Ukraine against the
JAFC. After a number of Soviet leaders suggested that they
submit to Stalin a proposal for a renewed program of Jewish
agricultural settlement, the Committee's members were accused,
in what became known as the "Crimean Plot," of conspiring with
Americans (namely, the JDC) to take over Crimea and secede from
the Soviet Union. Arrested in 1948, all but one of the JAFC
members were shot in August 1952. Even after this and other
deadly inventions of the Stalinist period were exposed in the
late 1950s, the image of Crimea as a potential American-Jewish
bridgehead in the USSR persisted among Soviet leaders long after
Owing to the all-but-official antisemitism that dated from
1948, if not earlier, Soviet Jewish culture went underground,
and barely survived, through most of the next forty years. In
this state of affairs, the study of the Agro-Joint episode by
Soviet Jews was extremely unlikely. When Jewish culture began to
resurface in the second half of the 1980s, in the wake of
glasnost, the enormous tasks of rebuilding functional
communities throughout the country greatly outweighed the
impetus to explore subjects of historical, but not necessarily
current, import. Among non-Jewish Soviet scholars, the
Agro-Joint and its project were considered taboo. Because the
government had systematically discredited the JDC from the late
1940s, the study of the episode became suspect.
But what of the colonists who survived the war? After all, a
majority of these Jews had evacuated the Crimean peninsula
before the arrival of the German army. Those among them who were
not recruited into the Soviet armed forces often spent the war
years in the relative comfort and safety of Central Asia and
many returned to Crimea after the war. Did they not try to
memorialize the accomplishments of their colonies before the
war? At least in part, the rampant anti-JDC atmosphere and the
demonization of supposed "national chauvinism," in Stalin's last
years, deterred most of these former colonists from any such
But there were additional reasons for the silence of the
Agro-Joint's former beneficiaries. The survivors had lost their
collective voice during the Second World War: many male leaders
of the colonization movement were killed while serving in the
Red Army and the Jewish kolkhozes had dispersed throughout
Central Asia following the organized evacuation in the autumn of
1941. Even if some of the Jewish colonists resettled in their
original kolkhozes after 1944, they no longer constituted
coherent communities. Rather, they lived as small pockets of
Jews in non-Jewish surroundings. As a result, the returnees had
little interest or capacity to uphold the memory of the
Agro-Joint, with or without the antisemitic environment rampant
throughout the Soviet Union during High Stalinism.
The very act of the German invasion robbed the colonies of
their symbolic significance. Once non-Jews occupied the
colonists' homes and farms in wartime, these colonies became
just another point in the Soviet countryside, with no obvious
justification for memorialization among the local population. In
a further blow to the perpetuation of historical memory, the
Presidium of the Supreme Soviet reconfigured the political maps
of Crimea and Ukraine in late 1944, thereby eliminating the
official status of the five autonomous Jewish districts. In
1948, the Presidium applied Russian titles to those former
Jewish kolkhozes that still possessed Yiddish or Hebrew
names—hence, "Naidorf" suddenly became "Nikolaevo," and "Herut"
turned into "Dmitrovka."
Hereafter, only those colonists who had returned to the region
after the war had a living memory of communal Jewish life before
Stalin's brutal exile of the Tatar and the other ethnic
minorities of Crimea to Central Asia in 1944 is one of the
critical factors that contributed to the historiographical void
over Jewish colonization. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing
debates about the reasons and effects of these deportations, the
issue occupied the most scholarly and journalistic attention
about the region in the ensuing decades—first from Western
scholars, and, since 1991, from researchers and other
commentators in the former Soviet Union.
American-Jewish politics merged with personal tragedy to dull
the memory of colonization in the New York headquarters of the
JDC. The richest source of information—Dr. Joseph Rosen (the
director of the Agro-Joint)—died prematurely in 1948. He left no
memoir and his surviving records shed light only on specific
issues and periods.
A handful of publications from other senior officials of the JDC
are inadequate for proper scholarly investigation. These were
mainly rosy travelogs written by visitors with a limited view of
the colonization enterprise.
In retrospect, such memoirs had little resonance outside of the
small leadership circle and the major donors of the JDC.
Political developments in the Jewish Diaspora after 1944
discouraged the JDC from reviving the memory of the Agro-Joint.
During and immediately after the Second World War, the leaders
of the JDC (and much of American Jewry as a whole) threw
themselves into the rescue of Holocaust survivors and the
building of the State of Israel. Overall, non-Zionist subjects
left the front page of Jewish historiography and very little
time or interest remained for the now defunct Soviet-Jewish
colonies. Finally, the bogus accusations of espionage leveled by
the Soviets against the JDC surely dampened any desire to reopen
discussions about the Agro-Joint. Furthermore, because the Joint
continued to work behind the scenes on behalf of Soviet Jewry
until the start of Perestroika, it could not afford to
attract unnecessary attention to itself by resurrecting memories
of Jewish colonization.
At first glance, the many dozens of Hehalutz commune
members helped to Palestine by Joseph Rosen in the second half
of the 1920s were another possible source for histories about
the Agro-Joint. Although their memoirs were regularly cited in
the existing historiography, they revealed almost nothing beyond
the travails of the tiny Hehalutz communes.
In fairness to the memoirists, they could not be expected to do
more; having left Soviet Russia shortly after the Agro-Joint
began its work, they had little direct knowledge of Joseph
Rosen's accomplishments. Furthermore, their experience differed
fundamentally from the vast majority of settlers—the regime
treated Hehalutz as an adversary from the mid-1920s,
whereas it celebrated the mainstream colonists.
The Politics of Historical Narrative
Were events in the Soviet Union the lone culprit in the
omission of the Agro-Joint episode from the grand narrative of
recent Jewish history? Did ideology and academic predispositions
outside of Russia perhaps intrude as well? In most attempts to
record past political controversies, the "winning" side usually
enjoys a clear advantage. Whatever the JDC's contemporaneous
value and the true correlation of forces between its colonies
and the building of a Zionist homeland in Palestine between the
world wars, there is no question that the Agro-Joint experiment
"failed" in one undeniable sense—it ended in the autumn of 1941.
From the moment it began the systematic construction and
support of Jewish colonies in Soviet Russia, the Joint drew
zealous supporters and ardent critics. For its opponents, mostly
from the ranks of organized Zionists, this was a zero-sum
rivalry: every dollar collected among American Jews for the
Agro-Joint was a dollar lost for the development of Palestine.
Moreover, Soviet propaganda at first trumpeted the Jewish
agricultural settlement around the Black Sea as a precursor to
the establishment of a Soviet-Jewish republic. Frightened by the
financial and political specter of this project, and the ease
with which the JDC seemed to collect huge sums in America,
Zionist leaders and publicists attacked the very legitimacy of
In addition to these financial and political worries, a deep
mistrust of the Bolshevik regime overshadowed the Zionist view
of colonization in Soviet Russia. Indeed, many American Jews
still had fresh memories of pogroms in Russia and were angered
by the repression of Zionist organizations in Soviet Russia.
Because most Zionist authors found opprobrious any
American-Jewish association with "the Bolshevik," they viewed
the JDC's cooperation with the Bolshevik regime with an a priori
The thinness of the existing scholarship in English and
Hebrew on this subject is also indicative of a traditional focus
on political—particularly Zionist—issues in the study of modern
Jewish history. As a result, most of the Western scholars have
addressed the project only in the context of Soviet nationality
authors deal with colonization episodically or refer only to
narrow features of the movement.
If it is discussed in any depth, the colonization enterprise is
often seen through the prism of its lesser Zionist components,
namely the Hehalutz communes and Via Nova. But when these four
communes are the historiographical lens through which the vast
majority of Jewish colonies in this region are assessed, the
latter must assume an aura of futility. Given the repetitious
nature of the subsequent historiography described above, it is
not surprising that so little is known today about the
The existing studies also tend to extrapolate conclusions
from experiments in Jewish agricultural colonization in
Belorussia and Birobidzhan onto Crimea and southern Ukraine.
Although it occurred during the same period, Jewish colonization
sponsored by the Agro-Joint bore no resemblance to these other
projects. The absence of foreign philanthropies doomed the
Belorussian settlements: without a strong, attractive economic
base, they warranted no special consideration from the Bolshevik
regime. Together with the objective problems of land tenure, the
lack of a foreign benefactor left the Jewish settlements in
Belorussia exposed to the worst aspects of Soviet rural policy.
At the other end of Eurasia, the patron-less Jewish kolkhozes in
Notwithstanding these fundamental differences, scholars have
invoked the well-documented failures in Belorussia and
Birobidzhan in their discussions of the Agro-Joint colonies. For
example, some writers seem to transfer onto Crimea Chone
Shmeruk's valid conclusions about the forced
"internationalization" of Jewish collective farms in Belorussia
during the national campaign of total (sploshnoi)
collectivization in the winter of 1929-30.
Thus, the drastic demographic changes that extinguished the
Jewish character of the colonies in Belorussia are improperly
assigned to the Jewish kolkhozes around the Black Sea; as I have
mentioned, the archival evidence clearly shows that a number of
factors protected the latter's ethnic coherence until 1941.
Other authors make analogous extrapolations from the Jewish
settlements of the Autonomous Jewish Province in Birobidzhan to
those in Crimea and southern Ukraine. To be sure, Yaacov Levavi
and Robert Weinberg correctly identified the chronic problems of
Birobidzhan: agricultural inviability, poor administration,
insignificant foreign investment, the devastating impact of
Stalin's purges on the local Jewish leadership, and the
inability of the Soviet authorities to attract and then attach
substantial numbers of Jewish recruits to the Far East.
But a similar dismissal of the colonies in Crimea and southern
Ukraine by later authors is baseless.
In most respects, the Agro-Joint project blossomed for the exact
same reasons that the settlements in Birobidzhan and Belorussia
failed: the influx of significant foreign aid and instruction;
the establishment of an orderly administration; and an
attractive site for recruits.
Scholars have thus repeatedly fallen into an understandable
trap—their conclusions were frequently based on the narrow
sources available to them. The case of Jewish colonization in
Soviet Russia demonstrates that when incomplete documentation
underpins sweeping conclusions, historiographical accuracy can
suffer. Hence, according to a popular book about the influential
Warburg family, "[in the early 1940s] the State Department
informed the JDC that the Soviets had confiscated its funds and
shot many Jews."
On the surface, this assumption seems reasonable and might even
be valid for some, perhaps a large portion, of Soviet Jewry. Yet
its indiscriminate nature reflects upon all sectors of the
community, including the Agro-Joint colonists. Upon further
inquiry, the above statement becomes suspect because it is based
on one monograph whose author cited a British Foreign Office
record. Again, this seems to be a reliable source of
information. Further reading, however, reveals that the Foreign
Office had merely quoted the hearsay of one of its workers who
was later charged with espionage for the Soviets.
Sourcebase and Accuracy
Until recently, the historian's dilemma over the quality of
documents was greatly magnified in the study of the former
Soviet Union; in this immense empire, conscious distortion of
data as well as bureaucratic ineptitude were endemic to the
system. Scholars must treat contemporaneous official
publications and newspapers with caution and circumspection.
These, like letters to government officials from ordinary
citizens, often reflected what the writer thought the intended
audience or "the boss" wanted to hear. In the case of the
postwar historiography of Jewish colonization, the relevant
Soviet archives were either partially or completely closed to
researchers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Yet even recent
Western studies have made only limited use of Soviet-era
archival collections. More surprisingly, the archival sources
available in the West were lightly cited, if at all, in previous
studies of the Agro-Joint.
For reasons often tied to the financial plight of scholars in
the former Soviet Union, new studies there confine themselves to
very slender sourcebases.
Heretofore, the use of government-generated materials has
artificially inflated the weight of certain well-publicized
individuals or events. For instance, by incorporating only what
was readily available to them, some Western authors
overestimated the practical contributions of the leading
Bolshevik officials who spoke in favor Jewish colonization.
This dependence on published Soviet materials also caused
scholars to misjudge the significance of a short-lived political
debate in Moscow over the transformation of the colonization
movement into a full-fledged Jewish republic in the Black Sea
reality, these were all minor phenomena. But this
misinterpretation of the Bolshevik and "republican" aspects of
the project fed the suspicions of Zionist-oriented authors and
helped to reinforce the negative image of the colonization
enterprise in the ensuing historiography.
There is no one fail-safe formula to assure an accurate
historical account, but misinterpretations can be corrected. As
weathered advisors of graduate students inform their disciples,
footnotes in a secondary source are frequently no less
informative than the text. In hindsight, the faulty
historiography on the Jewish colonization first came to my
attention when I was culling the recycled footnotes of the
existing studies. A second ingredient for scholarly precision is
often contained in local archives, not the well-digested
material that worked its way up the bureaucratic ladder between
the provinces and the administrative center (in this case, from
Crimea to Moscow). Because they hold disaggregated data, local
archival collections in the former Soviet Union reveal a more
authentic picture of conditions on the ground. Comparing the
relevant documents from the dictatorial Soviet Union with those
in "free" New York, one sees in both cases a serious gap between
events in the Soviet countryside and the pictures presented to
the Kremlin and to the headquarters of the Agro-Joint by their
respective field officers. For this reason, whatever the central
Soviet government or the JDC main office published was often
quite detached from reality.
Having tracked the progress of the historiography on Jewish
colonization in Soviet Russia, it appears that the victors in
the political contest surrounding the Agro-Joint in the Diaspora
inherited the right to determine the subsequent historical
narrative. This, of course, should surprise no one. Nonetheless,
this episode should serve as a cautionary lesson for specialists
and other scholars. Judging from this case, it seems that a
phenomenon or movement that winds up on the proverbial "ash
heap" of history is then likely to escape the historian and is
considered, by its nature, unworthy for serious inquiry. After
all, why should one waste valuable time on the "losers" of
political disputes or those on whom history did not smile?
Simply stated, the events surrounding the Agro-Joint are key
to the examination of both the milieu and the nuances of this
period in Jewish and Soviet history. Above all, the colonization
movement reveals previously obscured views on the integration of
Jews into early Soviet society, the nature of survival in the
rural economy, as well as the power relationship between an
increasingly ambitious regime and the ambivalent countryside.
Moreover, a realistic assessment of this episode is important
when confronting periodic attempts to resurrect venomous
accusations of new "Crimean Plots" in the former Soviet Union.
The Agro-Joint episode is also vital to grasping the contours of
political life in the Jewish Diaspora between the world wars. It
not only enlightens us on the depth and complexity of the
conflict between Zionists and other parts of American Jewry, it
reveals more pointed issues, such as the refinement of
fundraising techniques in the Diaspora. In addition, close study
of the JDC's activity on behalf of Jewish colonization sheds
rare light upon the murky workings of unofficial diplomacy
between the governments of the United States and Soviet Union in
the interwar period.
Finally, for democratic Russia there is a need for a
levelheaded, detached understanding of the events and underlying
forces of the Stalinist period; the Agro-Joint episode is one
part of this huge undertaking. Only then can a normal civil
society blossom anywhere in the former Soviet Union. All this,
from the historiographical "ash heap."
* Research for this article was made possible through the
generosity of a John Fischer Scholarship from the Tauber Institute
for the Study of European Jewry, the Lowenstein-Wiener Fellowship
from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center, YIVO's Visiting Research
Fellowship at the Max Weinreich Center, the Sachar Fund for Academic
Aid at Brandeis University, and the Research Scholar Program of the
American Councils for International Education (ACTR-ACCELS). The
Lady Davis Fellowship Trust supported post-doctoral work at the
Hebrew University. The author also wishes to thank Professor
Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his
comments on this paper.
1. See Yaacov Levavi (Babitsky), Ha-hityashvut ha-yehudit
be-Birobizhan [The Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan] (Jerusalem,
1965); Chone Shmeruk, "Ha-kibbutz ha-yehudi veha-hityashvut
ha-haklait be-Belorusyah ha-sovietit, 1918-32" [The Jewish
ingathering and the agricultural settlement in Soviet Belorussia,
1918-32] (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1961); Yehezkiel Keren,
Ha-hityashvut ha-haklait ha-yehudit be-hetzi ha-i Krim [The
Jewish agricultural settlement in the Crimean peninsula] (Jerusalem,
1973). Levavi wrote a number of articles on the colonization in
Crimea, including "Mityashvim haklaim yehudim be-Krim, 1922-41"
[Jewish agricultural settlers in Crimea], Shvut 10 (1984):
55-61; and "Atudat ha-karka le-tsorkhei ha-hityashvut ha-haklait
ha-yehudit be-Krim" [The land reserve for Jewish agricultural
settlement in Crimea], Shvut 9 (1982): 62-8. See also Allan
L. Kagedan, Soviet Zion: The Quest for a Russian Jewish Homeland
(New York, 1994).
2. Anita Shapira,
"Goralah shel ïkvutzat Elkind' be-Rusya" [The fate of the "Elkind"
group in Russia], Shvut 1 (1973): 87-94.
3. See for example Dan
Pines, Hehalutz be-kur ha-mahapechah [Hehalutz in the
crucible of the revolution] (Tel Aviv, 1937); Benjamin Vest and
Miriam Shtarkman, eds., Hehalutz be-Rusya [Hehalutz in
Russia] (Tel-Aviv, 1931); Zvi Livne-Liberman, et al. eds.,
Haklaim yehudim b'aravot Rusya [Jewish farmers on the Russian
plains] (Merhavia, 1965); Yehuda Erez, ed. Halutzim hayinu
be-Rusya [We were halutzim in Russia] (Tel Aviv, 1976).
4. See Jonathan
Dekel-Chen, "Shopkeepers and Peddlers into Soviet Farmers: Jewish
Agricultural Colonization in Crimea and Southern Ukraine, 1924-1941"
(Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2001), see idem Jewish
Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power (New Haven,
forthcoming). Although I do not concur with all of her
argumentation, recent findings by Chizuko Takao, "The Origin of the
MTS in the USSR: A New Perspective," Acta Slavica Iaponica 19
(2002): 117-36, reinforce my conclusions.
5. The weakness of the
regime in the countryside, before and after 1917, has received
extensive scholarly attention. See for example Paul Avrich,
Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 (New York, 1972); R.E. Jones,
Provincial Development in Russia (New Brunswick, NJ, 1984);
Theodore Weeks, Nation and State in Late Imperial Russia
(Dekalb, Ill., 1996); Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants
(Evanston, Ill., 1968); Neil Weissman, "Policing the NEP
Countryside," in Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Russia in the Era of
NEP (Bloomington, 1991), 174-91; Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels
under Stalin (Oxford, 1996). The surrogacy exercised by the
Agro-Joint is discussed in Dekel-Chen, "Farmers, Philanthropists,
and Soviet Authority: Rural Crimea and Southern Ukraine, 1923-1941,"
Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4, no.
4 (Fall 2003): 849-85.
6. For a general
survey, see Dekel-Chen, "Shopkeepers and Peddlers," 202-6, 278-83.
As Yehoshua Gilboa observed in his Hashanim hashahorot: yehadut
be-brit ha-Moatsot, 1939-1953 [The black years: Soviet Jewry]
(Tel Aviv, 1972, 1965), from 1927 onward, some party organs
condemned the idolization of a separate Jewish kolkhoznik among
writers in Yiddish.
7. Archive of the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, collection AR 21/32
(henceforth "JDC") 508, p. 15 (meeting of the Committee of Seven,
June 17, 1924); Archive of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
(henceforth "YIVO"), RG 358/19, p. 9 (Fischer, "To the Soil
Movement," 1925); YIVO, RG 358/121, pp. 2-3 (settlers' contingent,
1925-27); YIVO, RG 358/87, p. 4 (Levintan's report, June 2, 1926);
The State Archive of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous
Republic of Crimea, f. p-1, op. 1, d. 990, l. 40, 46 (Narkomzem
conclusions and proposals, late 1930).
8. For example, Robert
Weinberg, Stalin's Forgotten Zion (Berkeley,1998), 8;
Kagedan, Soviet Zion, 98-9; Keren, 119, 156; Yaacov
Lestschinsky, Ha-yehudim be-Rusya ha-Sovietit me-mahapechat
oktober `ad milhemet-ha-`olam ha-sheniyah [The Jews in Soviet
Russia from the October Revolution until World War II] (Tel Aviv,
1942 or 1943), 170; Zvi Gitelman, "Formirovanie evreiskoi kul'tury i
samosoznania v SSSR: gosudarstvo v kachestvo sotsial'nogo inzhenera"
[The formation of Jewish culture and consciousness in the USSR: the
state in the role of social engineer], in I. Krupnik, ed.,
Istoricheskie syd'by evreev v Rossii i SSSR: nachalo dialog
(Moscow, 1992), 24; Mordechai Altshuler, Ha-evsektsia be-Brit
ha-Moatsot, 1918-1930 [The Evsektsiia in the Soviet Union,
1918-1930] (Tel Aviv, 1980), 355; Henry Feingold, A Time for
Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945 (Baltimore, 1992,
181-82; Ron Chernow, The Warburgs: The Twentieth Century Odyssey
of a Remarkable Jewish Family (New York, 1993), 295.
9. Yaacov Levavi,
"Tsionei derech be-hityashvut ha-haklait ha-yehudit be-Brit
ha-Moatsot" [Signposts of Jewish agricultural settlement in the
Soviet Union], Behinot 1 (1970), 31; American Jewish
Yearbook, vol. 38 (1936), 213; Yehuda Bauer, My Brother's
Keeper: A History of the AJJDC, 1929-1939 (Philadelphia, 1974),
97; Kagedan, 98-101; Ol'ga Barkovets, "Ob osnovnykh etapakh
deiatel'nosti Agro-Dzhoint v SSSR" [The main phases of Agro-Joint
activity in the USSR], Vestnik Evreiskogo Universiteta v Moskve
(henceforth "VEUM"), 1996, no. 2: 140; Israel Gutman, ed.,
Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1990), 797-98,
vol. 4, 1358-1359; Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust
(New York, 1993), 86-7.
10. See Bauer.
Earlier studies include Salo Baron, The Russian Jew Under Tsars
and Soviets (New York, 1976); Lionel Kochan, ed., The Jews in
Soviet Russia since 1917 (Oxford, 1972); and Gilboa. Newer
synthetic histories include Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the
Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge,
1988); and Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of
Russia and the Soviet Union,1881 to the Present (New York, 1988)
11. Akiva Etinger,
Im haklaim yehudim be-tefutsot [With Jewish farmers in the
Diaspora] (Merhavia, Israel,1942). In this first synthetic account
of the Agro-Joint episode, Etinger cited no primary documents, only
books and testimonies of friends who had visited the colonies.
Feingold, 78, 87, repeatedly criticized—with only contemporary
newspapers for support—Agro-Joint's "failures" in the USSR and the
motivations of JDC officials. The most recent reliance on secondary
sources can be found in Matthew Silver, "Mi-dfus pa'il le-dfus
savil: pe'ilut tsiyunit amerikanit be-eretz yisrael be-tekufat
ha-mandat" [From an active to an inactive model: American-Zionist
activity in Palestine during the Mandate] (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, 1999), 226-30. Silver, who is dismissive of
the Agro-Joint, cites only Feingold and Bauer. See also Chernow;
Melvin Urofsky, A Voice that Spoke for Justice:The Life
and Times of Stephen S. Wise (Albany, NY, 1982); Mark A. Raider,
A History of Zionism (New York, 1998), 194-95; Samuel
Halperin, The Political World of American Zionism (Detroit,
1961), 160, 199; Herbert Parzen, "The Enlargement of the Jewish
Agency for Palestine, 1923-29," Jewish Social Studies 39,
nos. 1-2 (1977): 129-58; Priscilla Roberts, "Jewish Bankers, Russia,
and the Soviet Union, 1900-1940: The Case of Kuhn, Loeb and
Company," American Jewish Archives Journal 69, nos. 1-2
12. As revisionist
interpreters of the Stalinist era argued, the victims of a traumatic
event often know little about the motivations at the top of the
political hierarchy. See J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great
Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-38
(Cambridge, 1985); J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning, eds.,
Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 1993).
13. Quoted in
Weinberg, 10, n. 14. Toward the end of his life, Rosenberg became
more circumspect; see his interview in The New York Times
Oral History Program (Hebrew University, Contemporary Jewry Oral
History Collection, Part II—World War II, reel 7, no. 343): 4-5.
14. In the autumn of
1941, approximately 60 percent of the Jewish colonists in Crimea
evacuated in an orderly fashion to Central Asia, with somewhat lower
rates of evacuation from the colonies in southern Ukraine. See
Vladimir Broshevan, Voennaia mobilizatsiia v Krymu, 1941-44
[Military mobilization in Crimea, 1941-44] (Crimea, 1997), 20, 83;
M. Tiaglyi, "O tshchatel'nosti v nauchnom poiske, ili khotel li
Stalin spasti evreev?" [On precision in scientific explorations, or
did Stalin save the Jews?] Khaverim 44, no. 2 (2002): 3-4;
idem, "Kholokost evreiskikh obshchin Kryma v dokumentakh GAARK,"
[The Holocaust of the Jewish community in Crimea in the documents of
The State Archive of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous
Republic of Crimea] (unpublished manuscript). For the conventional
interpretation, see above, n. 9.
15. Without steady
support in the Kremlin for massive resettlement, the Committee
abandoned the plan by the close of 1944. For the JAFC and its end,
see Joshua Rubinstein, Stalin's Secret Pogrom (New Haven,
2001), 1-47; Shimon Redlich, Propaganda and Nationalism in
Wartime Russia: The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR,
1941-48 (Boulder, CO, 1982).
16. Shimon Redlich,
War,Holocaust, and Stalinism (Harwood, 1995), 147.
17. R. Zaichik,
"Dzhoint v Rossii" [The Joint in Russia], VEUM, 1993, no. 3, 218.
18. The process of
renaming Jewish colonies began in the late 1920s. See S.A. Efimov et
al. eds., Administrativno-territorial'nye preobrazovaniia v
Krymu, 1783-1998 gg. (Administrative-territorial transformations
in Crimea) (Simferopol, 1999), 396, 413-35. The renaming of sites
and institutions was a central component of Soviet-style iconoclasm
and political control.
19. See for example
Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Palo Alto, CA, 1978); S.V.
Fatuev, "K probleme natsional'no-gosudarstvennogo stroitel'stva v
Krymskoi ASSR," [On the problem of nation-building in the Crimean
Republic] in Problemy otechestvennoi istorii 3 (Moscow:
Rossiiskaia Akademiia Uprav. Gumanitarnyi Tsentr, 1994): 192-212;
David R. Marples and David F. Duke, "Ukraine, Russia, and the
Question of Crimea," Nationalities Papers 23, no. 2 (1995):
261-89; Vladimir Broshevan, Raskulachivanie v Krymu
[Dekulakization in Crimea] (Simferopol, 1999).
20. These are housed
in the Joseph Rosen Collection at the YIVO Institute, the
"Agro-Joint" collection of the Joint Distribution Committee Archive
in New York, and in several collections of the American Jewish
Archive in Cincinnati, Ohio.
21. David Brown,
The New Exodus (New York, 1927); James N. Rosenberg, On the
Steppes: A Russian Diary (New York, 1927)
22. The JDC delayed
the publication of a final travelog in the late 1930s because it
wanted to avoid publicizing the Agro-Joint's activity at a time when
alarming news had reached the West about the extent of Stalin's
purges. See Evelyn Morrissey, Jewish Workers and Farmers in the
Crimea and Ukraine (New York, 1937); JDC 537 (Morrissey to
Warburg, Baerwald, and Strook, September 1, 1936); (Baerwald to
Morrissey, September 3, 1936); (Strook to Morrissey, October 8,
24. For the regime's
public praise of the non-Zionist Jewish colonists, see Mikhail
Kalinin and Petr Smidovich, O zemel'nom ustroistve
trudiashchikhsia evreev v SSSR [On the land settlement of
laboring Jews in the USSR] (Moscow, 1927); Anatolii Lunacharskii,
Ob antisemitizme [On antisemitism] (Moscow, 1929); Georgii
Reitanovskii, Na kolkhoznoi zemle: evrei-pereselentsy v Krym
[On the kolkhoz land: Jewish settlers in Crimea] (Simferopol, 1933);
B. Ia. Kagan, Stalindorf: piat' let evreiskogo natsional'nogo
raiona na Dnepropetrovshchine [Stalindorf: the Jewish national
district in the Dnepropetrovsk region after five years] (Kiev,
25. For example, JDC
508 (resolution by American Jewish Congress, October 26, 1925); JDC
62a (digest of editorials from Yiddish press, April 17, 1928); JDC
527 (digest of the Yiddish press, April 17, 1928); "The New Book of
Lamentations," Ha-Doar, March 23, 1928; Shlomo ha-Elkoshi
(Zalman Epstein), Mi-sham: emet mi-Rusya ha-sovietit be-nogeah
le-"shealat Krim" [From there: the truth from Soviet Russia in
connection to the "Crimean question"] (Jerusalem, 1926), 9-43, 57;
Baruch Stopniker, Ha-yehudim be-Rusya ve-Ukraina be-tekufah
she-aharei ha-mahapechah [The Jews in Russia and Ukraine in the
period after the revolution] (Tel Aviv, 1926 or 1927), passim; JDC
528, (Brown to Hyman, July 19, 1928); American Jewish Archives
[henceforth, "AJA"], Maurice Hexter Papers, Box 547 (interview by M.
Alperin, 1978-79). As seen from these and later works, most authors
with a Zionist orientation—both contemporary critics of the JDC and
later historians—held an unflinching belief that nothing, no matter
its humanitarian value, should interfere with the development of the
Jewish homeland in Palestine.
26. For such
concerns among contemporary American Jews, see JDC 526 (Rubin to
Adler, September 3, 1925); JDC 526 (Glickman to Hyman, August 6,
1926); AJA, Warburg Papers, Manuscript Collection 457, Box 222/8
(N.I. Stone to Lehman, August 1925). Among later authors, the most
caustic was Zos,a Szajkowski. See also ha-Elkoshi, 22, 49, 67;
Stopniker, 35-36; Lestschinsky, 167-72; Feingold, 179. Zionist
leaders in Palestine and some Labor Zionists in the U.S. expressed
more moderation toward Jewish colonization in Soviet Russia. See
Central Zionist Archives, A24/177 (Menachem Ussishkin to the editor
of Univers-Isràelite, February 24, 1926); Arthur Ruppin,
Ha-hityashvut ha-haklait shel ha-yehudim be-Rusya [The
agricultural settlement of the Jews in Russia] (Tel Aviv, 1928),
38-40; Maier Bryan Fox, “American Zionism in the 1920s” (Ph.D.
diss., George Washington University, 1979), 299-300.
27. See Altshuler;
Ha-evsektsiia; Zvi Gitelman, "The Jewish Sections of the
Communist Party and the Modernization of Soviet Jewry" (Ph.D. Diss.,
Columbia University, 1968) and Jewish Nationality and Soviet
Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU (Princeton, NJ, 1972);
Allan Kagedan, "Jewish Territorial Units and Ukrainian-Jewish
Relations," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 9, no. 112 (1985):
118-32. Mattatiyahu Mintz has written extensively on the background
of Jewish territorialization and agrarianization in the Soviet
Union; see for example his "Neyarot avoda le-tsorech ha-hidayanut
ha-ideologit be-kerev tsameret ha-evsektsiia b'inyan bisus sheelat
ha-mamlachtiyut ha-yehudit ha-sovietit" [Working papers for
ideological discussions in the Evsektsiia leadership connected to
the basic question of Jewish-Soviet statehood], Iyunim b'tekumat
yisrael 10 (2000): 165-79, and "Problems of Agricultural
Resettlement and Territorialization of the Jews in Soviet Russia
during the 1920s," Shvut 17-18 (1995): 124-45; "Hamoshavot
ha-haklaiot ha-yehudiot be-pelach Kherson erev ha-mahapechah
ha-bolshevikit ve-samuch l'achareiha" [The Jewish agricultural
colonies in the Kherson region on the eve of the Bolshevik
Revolution and shortly thereafter], Michael 6 (1980): 110-52.
29. See fn. 15. See
also Zvi Gitelman, A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia
and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present (Bloomington, 2001),
102; Yaacov Levavi, "Haklaim yehudim b'aravot Krim: perek be-toledot
ha-yehadut ha-sovietit, 1918-1948" [Jewish farmers on the Crimean
prairies: a chapter in the history of Soviet Jewry] (unpublished
manuscript, 1984), chapter 5, p. 3. The author thanks Prof.
Mordechai Altshuler of the Hebrew University for granting permission
to consult this manuscript.
34. Although they
cannot reveal the full picture of Jewish colonization, important
collections were available in the United States. To date, only Zos,a
Szajkowski has made significant use of one of them.
35. Ol'ga Barkovets,
"Ob osnovnykh etapakh deiatel'nosti Agro-Dzhoint v SSSR" [The main
phases of Agro-Joint activity in the USSR], VEUM, 1996, no.
2: 134-43; Tatiana Tsarevskaia, "Krymskaia alternativa Birobidzhan i
Palestine" [The Crimean alternative to Birobidzhan and Palestine],
Otechestvennaia istoriia, 1999, no. 2: 121-5; A.D.
Glubochanskii and E. Rivkina, "Via Nova: evreiskie
sel'skokhoziaistvennye poseleniia v stepnom Krymu" [Via Nova: a
Jewish agricultural settlement on the Crimean steppe], Ostrov
Krym, no. 5 (1999): 40-41; A. Naiman. "Evreiskoe zemledelie na
Ukraine v 1930-e gody" [Jewish land settlement in Ukraine in the
1930s], VEUM, 1995, no. 1: 217-21; V. Sotnichenko,
"Evreiskaia sel'skokhoziaistvennaiia kolonizatsiia na Ukraine v
seredine 20-kh godov XX veka" [Jewish agricultural colonization in
Ukraine during the mid-1920s], VEUM, 1997, no. 3: 51-60; E.
Solomonik, ed., Evrei Kryma: ocherki istorii [The Jews of
Crimea: historical sketches] (Simferopol, 1997).
Soviet Zion, 39-46; S. Levenberg, "Soviet Jewry: Some Problems
and Perspectives," in Kochan, ed., 33-34, 67; Gilboa, 160; Eliyahu
Benyamini, Medinot le-yehudim: Uganda, Birobidzhan ve-od 34
tochniot [States for the Jews: Uganda, Birobidzhan, and another
34 plans] (Tel Aviv, 1990), 104) all assigned undue importance to
the role of Mikhail Kalinin (the President of the Soviet Union) in
the colonization. The "All-Union peasant elder," as he was known,
was in fact a powerless figurehead. At most, Kalinin's stature
helped legitimize and popularize colonization among the general
public through widely circulated pamphlets. Similar
misinterpretations surround the role of Simeon Dimanstein, the
assistant to Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities and a chairman of
37. Existing studies
also misjudged the importance of the national conferences of OZET
and Evsektsiia (the Jewish Section of the Soviet Communist Party) in
late 1926. See Pinkus, Jews in the Soviet Union, 72; Kagedan,
Soviet Zion, 88-92. These were not watershed events, since
the Politburo had already rejected the idea of a Jewish republic and
the practitioners of colonization never focused on it. Mattatiyahu
Mintz, "Neyarot," 172, has recently reached similar conclusions.
38. See for example
"Kak Rossiia poteriala Krym" [How Russia lost Crimea], Delovaia
zhizn,' 1998, no. 10: 25-31; "Kto mozhet vernut' dostoinuiu
zhizn' prostym liudiam?" [Who can restore diginity to the lives of
simple folk?], Krymskie izvestia, 20 March 2002.
39. The U.S.
government suspended diplomatic relations with the Soviet government
from the revolution until late 1933. For a discussion of the JDC's
unofficial diplomatic role, see Dekel-Chen, "An Unlikely Triangle:
Philanthropists, Commissars, and American Statesmanship Meet in
Soviet Crimea, 1922-37," Diplomatic History 27, no. 3 (July