Within hours of the Bolsheviks' storming of the Winter Palace, the new Soviet government faced problems. One of the foremost in their thoughts was the seemingly eternal 'nationalities question,' the issue of how to integrate the multitude of ethno-national groups contained within the old Russian Empire into a new, unified Soviet state without exacerbating new tensions or creating new ones.
Their solutions were varied and wide-ranging, from the ill-fated Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (SFSR) to a wealth of programs designed to encourage national minorities to celebrate their culture within a socialist context. However, whilst the preservation of the Caucasus' many mountain languages was an issue its own right, a resolution catering for the USSR's large Jewish population remained at large.
In 1928, the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Soviet Far East was given the provisional go-ahead, and six years later became a reality. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast or JAO, 14,000 square miles of swampland and bordering China along with Khabarovsk Krai, was granted official status in 1934, and the accompanying propaganda campaign was a relative success. Jewish organisations across the world raised money and support for Jews wishing to move to the first Jewish state on the Earth. Birobidzhan, the JAO's capital, was to be its focal point.
At the end of May 2012, just days before the start of their new campaign, FC Birobidzhan – the JAO's highest level footballing representatives in the Far Eastern section of the Russian Third Division – announced their intention to turn professional in time for the 2013/14 season. With the region's only professional sporting outfit the second division bandy club Nadezhda, the regional government intends to improve the JAO's sporting prestige and general well-being by entering Birobidzhan into the Second Division, the lowest of three professional tiers in the Russian game.
To become competitive in the Second Division, even in the relatively weak group played in their region, Birobidzhan would need to make some notable improvements. In 2009, the club finished 5th in their eight team league, with a record of five wins and three draws from their 14 games a promising season. In the years that followed, they endured nothing short of disaster – in 2010, with one less team in the competition, Birobidzhan picked up just two points all season. The following season, with the league back up to eight sides, they reached double figures, but second from bottom was all they could achieve.
In its role the centre of a region, the city of Birobidzhan grew rapidly in the first few years of its existence. As the 1930s drew to a close, the JAO's population reached six figures, around 30,000 of which was accounted for by Birobidzhan itself. However, despite propaganda campaigns and initial large-scale migration from the western areas of the USSR, particularly modern-day Ukraine, no more than around 20% of the area's population were Jewish – Communist Party activists along with specialist city-builders joined the migratory hordes, as did those seeking a new life in neighbouring regions.
Indeed, the reasons for the JAO's foundation has been the subject of much debate over the years. Whilst there are plenty who believe that Birobidzhan and its surroundings were a genuine attempt to accommodate the Jews within the Soviet Union, there are as many if not more lining up to decry the Soviet government for their decision. Many feel that the Jewish Autonomous Region was developed as a buffer against Chinese and Japanese military actions – the Manchurian crisis very much in the mind of those in power – whilst others view it as a method of removing Jews from the centre of Soviet society, luring them away with the promise of a rural paradise in a previously uninhabited part of the country. With no historical, cultural or religious links, the suggestion that Birobidzhan could act as a Soviet Zion were always wide of the mark.
Whether that was ever the plan at all is highly unlikely. As the current situation in Birobidzhan can attest to, it was never the plan of the Soviet authorities to foster a Jewish religious homeland, rather a way of secularising and socialising Jewish identity. Yiddish, rather the religious Hebrew, was given official language status – a situation unique to the JAO – but, as elsewhere in the USSR, religious practices were frowned upon.
The term 'frowned upon' in Soviet terms is something of an understatement, and even the far-flung Jewish Autonomous Oblast was not immune to the horrific purges conducted by Stalin and his apparatus in 1936-38. At a time when the region's Jewish identity was developing strongly, the devastating elimination of those within and outside the Communist Party saw the young region suffer hugely. Leading members of the Jewish intelligentsia, religious leaders and local governors all suffered at the heads of Stalin's secret police, and in a short period much of the JAO's religious identity was destroyed, an event which it has never truly recovered from.
FC Birobidzhan's 2012 season would also begin in a devastating fashion. With the call to professionalism and Second Division football still fresh in the ears of the hardy souls attending the Druzhba stadium on a regular basis, the new season promised much – a new, reinvigorated Birobidzhan reaching the heights of the 2007 season, which saw them finish 3rd, rather than taking their usual place at the wrong end of the Third Division table.
Their first game took place at home to Belogorsk on 9th June, and hopes were understandably high, if not tempered with caution – the visitors had taken the previous season's runners-up spot. Nevertheless, Belogorsk were the type of side that Birobidzhan needed to be beating if they had any chance of competing in the professional leagues, and so they arrived with plenty of expectation.
It took just 15 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, Dmitri Sukhoverkhov with the error which allowed Anton Gusev to net for the visitors. Birobidzhan fought back to create a few chances of their own, but it remained 1-0 until half time. Seven minutes after the restart, Stanislav Kharitonov added a second on the counter, and with 25 minutes remaining the same man doubled his own tally. Even that would not be the end of Birobidzhan's suffering, Mudun Murtaev completing the rout in the 74th minute after a second half which saw the hosts struggle to escape their own half.
To see the defeat as entirely unexpected would be wrong given the previously-established gulf between the two teams, but the match did expose a number of flaws which would plague Birobidzhan throughout the season, most notably the ageing nature of the side and the completely toothless nature of the attack. As if to highlight the latter point, Birobidzhan would net just 13 times in their 12 game season, and in a league which saw an average of over four goals per game. The 37 goals conceded by Birobidzhan gives a clearer indicator of which team many of them were scored against.
Clearly a team in flux, buoyed by the promise of professionalism and yet crushed by their own obvious failing, Birobidzhan embarked on an eight match losing streakwhich included an 8-2 thrashing at the hands of champions LuTEK-Energia Luchegorsk. Only in their ninth match did they manage a win, crushing the equally pointless development squad of Yakutia 5-0. They followed it up with a draw at home to SKA-Energia Khabarovsk's youth side, but they would be the only four points of the season. Still, the Yakutia team would finish worse off, achieving their only three points of a miserable campaign with a final day win over none other than Birobidzhan. For the JAO side, second from bottom gave them too much credit for their miserable performances.
Whether Birobidzhan do return for the 2013 campaign as a professional Second Division side remains to be seen – even if they do, it is unlikely that they will stay there for long without substantial investment from the regional government and location of further sponsorship. Drawing players from the locality is clearly not enough to sustain a team at amateur level, let alone in the Russian third tier.
Yet despite the lack of Jewish influence on the football team – there is no reference to the religion in the club badge or yellow and black striped kit – Birobidzhan find themselves strangely representative of a region struggling to forge an identity for itself. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast suffered immensely during the purges, and with Israel coming into existence there proved little need for a rural Soviet equivalent. Far more left Birobidzhan and the villages than arrived, and today it is estimated that less than 2% of the regional population is Jewish. In many ways, the area itself seems obsolete.
However, whilst Jewish origins are in short supply, Jewish identity is not. Something of a revival has taken place in Birobidzhan – the world's tallest menorah greets arrivals to the train station, Yiddish language television, music and theatre is increasingly popular, and the language itself is taught widely in the area. The Jewish label may be increasingly secular – although the small religious community is also growing through children's schools – it is still retained with pride as a badge of cultural identity.
If they are to become professional, it is a badge which FC Birobidzhan would do well to adopt, almost guaranteeing them greater crowds in the process. More importantly however, they too need to define a role in their own, footballing world. As it stands, they represent their region on a different level – a team limited by its own restrictions, yet with aspirations of something greater. Like the city of Birobidzhan and the whole of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, only those within the football club can make the changes. If it is revival they seek, they need only to look around.
Further reading from Rob can be found at More Than Arshavin.
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