The highlight of the specials on the menu at Fanza, a restaurant in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region is wild boar. Hardly kosher but it’s very popular with the locals, most of whom aren’t Jewish.
The civic sculptures of Stars of David and Hebrew writing on the walls of the local government mask the fact that there are hardly any Jews left in the homeland Stalin established for Russia’s Jewish population in 1928, in a remote corner of Siberia near the border with China. Of a current population of 185,000 only 4,300 identify themselves on census papers as Jewish. Albina Sergeva, an organiser at the local Jewish Community Centre, says there are 5,000 practising Jews at the town’s synagogue.
“We set up this centre in 1997 when the economic situation here was really bad. Around 10,000 Jews left in the 1990s for a better life in Israel or Germany,” she explains.
In the early 1930s, when the town of Birobidzhan was established, the entire population of the Oblast region, an area the size of Belgium along the China-Russia border, was only 32,000, leaving it open to infiltration by Chinese settlers or colonisation by the Japanese who later took over Manchuria across the border with China, according to Zvi Gitelman in his history on Jews in the Soviet Union.
The Jewish population reached a zenith of around 50,000 in the early 1940s but was decimated by the Second World War.
Now the area’s biggest hope for attracting back those who have fled its harsh winters and unforgiving forests is Chinese investment.
“If you have economic success and development then people will come back to the Far East of Russia to settle here, attracted by the region’s social and economic opportunities,” said Shergin Sergey Grigorievich, an engineer who moved here from the Urals in central Russia to manage an iron processing plant.
Hungry for Russia’s natural resources, Chinese banks have lent money for an iron ore mine, cement plants, wood processing plants and soya bean processors around Birobidzhan providing jobs for graduates from the local universities.
One such graduate is Tanya Ivanova, a 22-year-old who now works as a translator at the K&S iron ore mine. Her parents emigrated to Israel in 1997 but returned after a year after finding that it was not the promised land.
“They thought that life would be easier there but it was even harder than here. It’s very difficult to make something of yourself in Israel if you aren’t highly skilled.”
Her family returned to run a small café in town while she studied Chinese.
“China is our neighbour and there are a lot of opportunities for people who speak Chinese,” she says.
Asked if she speaks Hebrew, she shakes her head. She has forgotten and is now looking East for her future.