The Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Oblast

This Google Map shows the past and present Jewish settlements in Birobidzhan (also transliterated from the Russian as Birobidjan and Birobijan), the so-called Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Russia.

Birobidzhan was named after the Bira and the Bidzhan, the two main local tributaries of the Amur, which forms the southern border of the oblast and divides it from Manchuria in China. The region is very remote and was sparsely populated – before the move to settle Jews here in the late 1920s, there were only some Cossack villages and a small Korean population. Consolidating the border zone was one of the Soviets’ reasons behind encouraging immigration.

Birobidzhan was settled with some optimism and idealism in the late 1920s, although this may have been misplaced – the new settlements were overwhelmingly agricultural enterprises and many of the settlers were lacking in the necessary experience and skills and became urbanised instead. As a result, some of the early agricultural settlements such as Pompeyevka were abandoned over time. The riverside collective farm at Stalinsk (Stalinfeld) was abandoned for a different reason, due to severe flooding by the Amur in 1958.

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast suffered, like the rest of Russia, during the Soviet purges and in 1937-1940 (and later) many local Jews in Birobidzhan were arrested on usually fabricated charges and prosecuted and in some cases executed.

For example, looking at Stalinsk we find the following accused Jewish residents of the collective farm. Spellings of names are mostly a direct transliteration from the Russian (in which language the preference is to render proper nouns phonetically), so may differ from the normal spellings in the Latin alphabet. The Russian use of the otchestvo (patronymic) clearly helps in identifying an individual, so that e.g. Mordukh Abramovich Ekelchik is Mordukh Ekelchik, the son of Abram. The places of birth are given, anachronistically, to show the present-day location, and indicate how diverse the places of origins of these Jewish settlers were.

Mordukh Abramovich Ekelchik. Born in Minsk, Belarus in 1880. Farm produce distributor. Arrested 18 Oct 1937, shot 29 Jan 1938.

Khaim Yakovlevich Kab. Born in London, England in 1905. Tractor driver. Arrested 12 Dec 1938, case dismissed for want of evidence 29 May 1940.

Shimon Iosifovich Shef. Born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine in 1894. Loader on grain farm. Arrested 14 Oct 1937, sentenced to 10 years 31 Dec 1937.

Isaak Tevelevich Sukhoy. Born in Dubăsari, Moldova in 1899. Arrested 12 Mar 1938, sentenced to 6 years 21 Oct 1938.

Lev Yankelevich (or Yakovlevich) Zhak. Born in Ukmergė, Lithuania in 1901. Fire chief on grain farm. Arrested 3 Dec 1938.

And below are some of the Jewish victims from the small settlement of Smidovich:

Moses Fimelevich (or Fishelevich) Berezovsky. Born in Brest, Belarus in 1901. Russian Red Cross oficial. Arrested 20 Nov 1937, sentenced to 10 years 4 Jan 1938.

Moisza Abramovich Bykhovsky. Born in Panevėžys, Lithuania in 1915. Turner.  Arrested 28 Dec 1937, case dismissed 3 Apr 1939.

Henrietta Moiseevna Fiks. Born in Daugavpils, Latvia in 1908. State bank accountant. Arrested 11 Jul 1938, sentenced to 8 years 22 Oct 1938.

Israel Isaakovich Fishbein. Born in Uzda, Belarus in 1907. Secretary. Arrested 26 Oct 1937, case dismissed 13 Nov 1939.

Rakhil Ioselevna (or Moiseevna) Gamarskaya. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1898. Instructor. Arrested 23 Nov 1937, sentenced to 5 years 27 Jul 1938.

Shaya Solomonovich (or Sholomovich) Gilinsky. Born in Poland in 1906. Agronomist. Arrested 7 Jul 1937, sentenced to 10 years 22 Oct 1938.

Khaim Peisakhovich (or Teisanovich) Kaplan. Born in Shchadryn (Shchedrin), Belarus in 1902. Party official. Arrested 3 Feb 1938, case dismissed 21 Mar 1938.

Bluma Isaakovna Meerbaum. Born in Romania in 1908. Jewish elementary school teacher. Arrested 15 Feb 1938, sentenced to 10 years 27 Jul 1938.

Zusman Ioselevich Perevozkin. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1903. Chairman. Arrested 23 Nov 1937, convicted 18 Jul 1938, shot 16 Aug 1938 in Khabarovsk.

Sara Mikhailovna Shtern or Stern. Born in Ostroh, Ukraine in 1896. Party propagandist. Arrested 6 Jul 1938, case dismissed 16 Jan 1939.

Grigory Samoilovich Vasilevsky. Born in Moscow, Russia in 1913. Foreman of the collective farm. Arrested 10 Jan 1949, sentenced to 10 years 24 Dec 1949.

Shaya Srulevich Verkhivker. Born in Voznesensk, Ukraine in 1888. Official. Arrested 21 Oct 1937, sentenced to 15 years 11 Nov 1937.

Ilya Mikhailovich Zimmerman. Born in Chernovin (possibly Chernobyl intended?), Ukraine in 1904. Director. Arrested 31 Mar 1937,  convicted 17 Jul 1937, shot 17 July 1937 in Khabarovsk.

Despite increases in population into the 1940s, over time the Jewish population diminished through out-migration, a phenomenon which inevitably increased when the USSR dissolved and emigration beyond the Soviet Union became a possibility. Today, the only notable known Jewish centres of population are in the capital Birobidzhan and in the nearby village of Valdgeym. However, during the time of the USSR with its aggressively secular ethos, it is likely that there were mixed marriages and assimilation, so that mainly ostensibly Russian individuals in the oblast may have partly Jewish roots.

 

Return to Lithuania, 1921

In eastern Europe, the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution was chaos and population displacement on a previously unknown scale. Imperial Russia unravelled around the edges and new states struggled to assert their independence and pull away. In the former Russian gubernias of Kovno, Vilna and Grodno, moves were afoot to recreate Lithuania.

However, the issue here, as elsewhere in Europe, was that there were competing and mutually incompatible claims to land. It was impossible to satisfy all claims, as the population was not neatly parcelled up into ethnically or nationally homogeneous units. Most regions had diverse populations. In the city today called Vilnius, for example, Poles and Jews formed the majority and in its hinterland many of the pre-War landowners were minor Polish gentry or szlachta; yet the peasantry was Lithuanian. Force decided the issue and treaties ratified it. It was the new Polish state which emerged victorious, securing a Polish Wilno, just as it successfully secured Lwów as a Polish island in a largely Ukrainian sea.

At the start of 1918, as many as one in six Lithuanians were refugees within Russia. An estimated 550,000 were scattered across European Russia, from Minsk and St Petersburg to distant Voronezh and Yekaterinoslav. It took until 1924 to bring home all those who wanted to return and who Moscow and Kaunas would between them allow. Maybe as many as one third of Lithuanian refugees remained abroad and settled, willingly or otherwise, in Soviet Russia or Poland.

From 1921, the return of refugees was closely supervised by the authorities. Refugees were registered and issued with travel permits in Moscow. From Moscow they travelled by train to Rēzekne, Daugavpils and Kalkūni in Latvia, and thence across the Lithuanian border to Obeliai. At Obeliai – the only recognised point of entry into the country, although not the only one in practice – refugees were vetted, re-registered and issued with passes, usually to their place of birth or pre-War residence.

Those who were regarded as suspect were sent back to Moscow. And those refugees who wished to return to their pre-War homes in what had become Polish territory were often stuck in limbo for months on end in the Obeliai transfer camp, with its ever-present risk of humanitarian crisis – typhus, cholera and hunger.

Not all those coming to Lithuania were refugees. So-called optants – Lithuanian colonists long settled in Russia – paid their own way to reach the newly independent country. And from 1918 to 1921, the nascent Lithuanian state, in need of qualified administrative and technical experts, welcomed back not just its Lithuanian but also its Jewish middle classes. In fact, the immigration policy was so liberal before the change of government in 1922 that Jewish doctors, engineers and so on from elsewhere in Russia headed to Lithuania for the opportunities it presented.

For many researching their family history in Lithuania, the period 1915 to 1924 looms like something of a black hole. For a start, the family may not appear in the expected parish registers (assuming, that is, that such records were created and have survived). Over half a million spent several years effectively in exile in Russia and, of course, of these, some married, some had children and some died there. At Obeliai, too, refugees gave birth or died and, doubtless, in some cases married. The Lithuanian state did not recognise Soviet civil registry marriages so, in order to return with spouse and children, natives of Lithuania would have to remarry in a Roman Catholic or Orthodox ceremony: this can result in what appear to be illegitimate children born between the respective dates of the secular and the religious marriage.

The Google Map shows the railway route from Moscow’s Vindavsky Station to the transfer camp at Obeliai.

 

Upper Balkaria

If you zoom in to Verkhnyaya Balkariya using satellite imagery on Google Maps or Bing, you notice, like a palimpsest, the history of past settlement around the modern planned town with its regular and rectilinear grid-like layout. As at the time of writing (January 2018), the Microsoft satellite imagery used by Bing is clearer than Google’s as it was taken in good light. Below are screenshots showing five of the vanished villages and hamlets of Upper Balkaria.

Glashevo:

Glashevo

Kospart:

Kospart

Kyunlyum:

Kyunlyum

Mukush:

Mukush

Sauty:

Sauty

The accompanying Google Map shows the main villages (blue pins) and various hamlets and neighbourhoods (grey pins) of this part of the Cherek river valley in Upper Balkaria. Until Nov-Dec 1942, these were entirely populated by Balkars, a Turkic and Muslim people of the north Caucasus. At that date, these Balkar villages were razed and the population decimated – men, women and children were brutally killed by the Red Army on the orders of the NKVD. As you can see from the images above, the villages were completely destroyed and only a ruined archaeology remains.

In March 1944 the balance of the inhabitants of Upper Balkaria, together with all other Balkarians (37,103 in total, according to NKVD head Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria’s official report), was deported en masse to Central Asia (mostly the Kazakh and Kyrghyz Soviet Socialist Republics). There they remained in exile until a decree of March 1957 permitted the survivors to return to their homeland.

According to the 2010 census, Balkars make up  12.7% of the population of the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (being outnumbered by the indigenous Kabarday, who comprise 57%, but also by ethnic Russians, who make up 22%).

 

The Armenians of Krasnodar krai (the Kuban)

The Google Map shows places of Armenian settlement in the Krasnodar krai, or region, of Russia, also known historically as the Kuban.

The history of Armenian settlement in this region of southern Russia is both old and complex, with multiple layers of immigration. These date from the Middle Ages (with the so-called Cherkesogai or Circassian Armenians), through to C19th Hemşin/Hemshin migrants from Anatolia (both Christian and Muslim converts), to 1915 Genocide survivors and late C20th refugees from Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Georgia and even from Central Asia. For over 500 hundred years, the Krasnodar or Kuban region has been a safe haven for Armenians.

Over 60 cities, towns and villages with a significant Armenian presence are plotted on the map. However, there are many small towns and villages with a modest or minority Armenian population not marked on this map; it does not purport to be fully comprehensive and complete.

Churches are shown (indicated by a cross) only when known to exist and positively identified. This does not mean to say that other settlements do not have places of worship. As mentioned above, a proportion of the Hemshin Armenians are adherents of Islam rather than Christians.

 

Dukhobors in Georgia

The Google Map shows the distribution and location of Dukhobor settlement in Georgia from the early 1840s (when the first settlers arrived) to the present day.

By the 1890s, after 50 years in Georgia, through hard work the Dukhobors had become wealthy by local standards and were among the major private landowners in their areas of occupation. However, they were dispossessed during the Soviet era (although their collective farms were successful, as the Dukhobor mindset was consonant with cooperative working – even if Soviet atheism was anathema to them).

The Dukhobors struggled after the collapse of the Soviet system and contentious issues around land ownership and rights. Their problems were exacerbated by political tensions between newly independent Georgia and Russia, with the Georgians identifying the Dukhobor with the Russian Federation and displaced Georgians being settled in Dukhobor areas.

By 2006, the Dukhobor population in Georgia had fallen beneath 1,000 (probably as low as 700-800), following emigration, mostly to Russia, and a declining birth rate in the elderly population. From 2007, more family groups were applying to relocate to Russia and only the largest village, Gorelovka, seemed to be thriving; it features in several beautifully photographed travelogues and ethnographic studies online.

Russian Old Believers in Estonia

11 communities of Russian Old Believers (starovery) remain within the borders of modern Estonia. Nine of these are situated around the lake known in Estonian as Peipsi järv and to the Russians as Chudskoe: Kallaste, Kasepää, Kolkja (two parishes), Kükita, Mustvee, Piirissaar, Raja and Varnja. These are the Prichudie (“by Chudskoe”) parishes (there are, in addition, smaller settlements without a parish church). The other two communities are in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in the university town of Tartu.

Like the Amish in America, the Old Believers are a throwback to an earlier age, maintaining a life of simplicity and religious observance. Those in Estonia arrived in the late C17th, from cities such as Moscow and Novgorod, following persecution in the Russian heartland. An early monastery was established at Räpina but was destroyed in 1719. Persecution sought out the Old Believers again during the reign of the reactionary autocrat Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) and there was pressure to conform to the Russian Orthodox Church: Old Believers were forbidden to baptise, marry or bury according to their own rites. They were not officially recognised and tolerated until a religious freedom act of 1905.

The Prichudie communities were largely self-contained but had connections with co-religionists in, for example, Pskov and Moscow, and in Rīga and Vilnius. The inter-War independence of Estonia, and the drawing of an international border north to south bisecting Peipsi, made communication with communities in Soviet Russia difficult. The annexation of Estonia into the militantly atheist USSR created greater problems – for example, many Old Believers were deported to Siberia in March 1949, although some were able to return after the Thaw following the death of Stalin in 1953. Yet the Old Believers and their customs survived the turmoil of C20th and remain largely intact today in their fishing and onion-growing villages on the edge of Lake Peipsi in re-independent Estonia.

There is of course, as well as a population in Russia, an Old Believer diaspora abroad, in Canada, USA and Australia, established in the C19th and C20th. However, because of the various doctrinaire schisms within the starovery themselves, it is not clear how these often discrete communities are inter-related in family history terms and how many, if any, of these have direct kinship with the Estonian population. Records in state archives in Tartu and Tallinn appear to be extensive and there would seem to be good prospects for family history research for anyone knowing or believing themselves to have roots in this small but fascinating community.

The Google Map shows both the parishes and the Old Believer settlements without parish status.

 

The original version of this blog appeared on the bluebirdresearch site in 2010.

Setomaa – Seto communities in Estonia

Setomaa is a land that does not exist on maps, inhabited by the Seto, or Setu, a small nation which is both threatened by assimilation and experiencing something of a cultural renaissance.

It is divided by the border between Estonia and Russia.

On the Estonian side, the Seto live in Mikitimäe and Värska parishes in Põlvamaa, and in Meremäe and Misso parishes in Võrumaa. A traditional Seto settlement differs from an archetypal Estonian settlement in being a compact or linear village rather than a looser cluster of scattered dwellings and farmsteads. Also, the Seto are Russian Orthodox, rather than the typical Lutheran religion of Estonia, and worship in a distinctive wooden chapel known as a tsässon.

On the Russian side, the Seto live mainly between the towns of Petseri (Pechory in Russian) and Irboska (Izborsk in Russian), which lie on the western edge of Pskov oblast, part of the Northwestern Federal Okrug of Russia. The Seto are a recognised minority in Russia but this does not prevent assimilation. According to the 2002 census, only 197 Russian citizens declared themselves to be of Seto nationality (there were also some 28,113 Estonians). It is of course likely that some Seto stated that they were Estonian, or indeed Russian, or chose not to declare any nationality.

During Estonia’s first period of independence, from 1920 to 1940, however, before the German and then the Soviet occupation, all of Setomaa was in Estonia, in the then county of Petserimaa with its county town at Petseri. Petseri grew up around its monastery (now known as the Pskovo-Pechersky Dormition Monastery) which, as well as being the major landowner in Setomaa, was the spiritual centre of Russian Orthodoxy among the Seto.

Previously, before WW1, all of Setomaa was in the Pskov gubernia of the Russian Empire. For this reason, the population here did not acquire surnames as the Estonians did during the period from the 1810s to the 1830s. I have read that the Seto did not take surnames until 1921, before then using a simple Russian style combination of forename and otchestvo (patronymic). This date seems late but may well be true. After all, looking further west, not all Swedes had a surname as such until the Släktnamnslagen 1901 made fixed family names compulsory.

There must be a Seto diaspora. Possibly, it will be concentrated in Siberia and elsewhere across Russia, rather than in Australia, North America and Scandinavia. Presumably, Seto would have been among the June 1941 and March 1949 Soviet deportations of Estonians to Siberia and the descendants of those who survived and have not returned to Estonia might now live in the Ural and in the regions of Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and Omsk in Siberia.

The Google Map shows the small communities in Estonia where the Seto reside – most of the mapped place names possess a tsässon, often of very modest dimensions. The two red pins indicate places on the Russian side of the border with known Seto residents; it is of course probable that Seto live silently in other places adjacent to Estonia.

 

A version of this blog was first posted on the bluebirdresearch website in 2010.

Yezidis in Kars Oblast

The Armenians, the Assyrians and the Greeks were not the only nationalities to be largely removed from Asia Minor as Turkey aggressively redefined itself as a single-nation state in the post-Ottoman era. The Yezidis (Yazidis) – Kurds with their own distinctive non-Islamic religion – have also disappeared, either being killed or converted to Islam, assimilating into the Kurdish population, or crossing the border into the Republic of Armenia (in more recent times, many have emigrated to continental Europe, particularly to Germany).

The Google Map shows the location of the former Yezidi villages of the Kars oblast or province of the Russian Empire circa 1910 before it was re-taken by the Turks after the end of WW1. During the Russian era (1878-1918), the distinctiveness of the Yezidi was recognised and these villages constituted their own administrative district or okrug. Many had arrived in the region during the 1880s, having been displaced from further west in Anatolia. The Yezidi population of Kars oblast was approximately 2,386 in 1892.

 

A version of this blog post and its accompanying map were first published by bluebirdresearch in 2011.

Russian settlements in Kars Oblast

The Google Map shows the location of various Russian settlements established in the former Kars oblast, which was part of the pre-WW1 Russian Empire from 1878-1918.

The main pattern of distribution clearly shows the settlers crossing into Kars from Aleksandrapol (modern Gyumri in Armenia) and choosing appropriate locations for agriculture.

Many of the Russian settlers were dissenters (sectarians) such as the Dukhobor and Molokan, although there were also Orthodox Russians and some Russian-German Lutherans.

The great majority of the Dukhobors emigrated to Canada in 1899. Those Russians still resident in Kars oblastmostly withdrew with the Russian military during the 1918-1921 conflicts with the Turks, who reoccupied the territory after the Russian Revolution in 1917 – some Russian sectarians resettled in the Rostov region of Russia, where there are many villages named after the original colonies in the vicinity of Kars.

Russian settlements created in and after 1878 are shown with dark blue pins. The main urban centres with mixed populations including Russians are shown with pale blue pins.

 

This blog and map were first published on the bluebirdresearch website in 2012.

The Azerbaijani Germans of Helenendorf 

In the years leading up to the start of WW1, one could find, eight versts from Elizavetpol, an outpost of the Germanic world – the neat, homely village of Helenendorf (ЕленендорфЪ, or Elenendorf, in Russian). In Russian terms, this was a koloniya, a colony, settled on land within the Empire regarded as vacant. In this case, the village was established by Swabian Germans in 1819 on the general invitation of Alexander I, grandson of Catherine the Great (who had opened up to colonists many parts of Russia’s vulnerable, newly acquired southern frontier regions). The initial settlers came from places such as Balingen, Degerloch, Reutlingen, Stuttgart, Tübingen and Ulm in today’s Baden-Württemberg.

Over the course of the long C19th, this German community thrived, specialising in viticulture. The 1910 official gazetteer for Elizavetpol Guberniya states that, at the most recent count (in 1908), the village had harvested 261,900 puds of grapes and pressed 196,425 vedros of wine (over 2.3m litres). Cognac was produced as well as wine.

To put that into context, in 1910 the village comprised 289 households (charmingly referred to in Russian as smokes, or chimneys – perhaps one would say hearths) with a population of 2,234 (1,106 males and 1,128 females). It had both a Lutheran church (built in the late 1850s) and a smaller prayer house, a secondary-level school attended by 185 boys and 227 girls, nine shops or market stalls, and seven mills. The mills were used for grain, as the villagers cultivated wheat, barley and oats, at least some of which would have been ground locally for flour for domestic use – they were self-sufficient and traded their excess agricultural produce. However, prior to the arrival of electricity, some of the mills may also have been used to power irrigation, as a third of the cultivated land (including most or all of that used for grape vines) was irrigated.

The 1910 gazetteer also records livestock headcounts – 340 horses, 689 cows and 271 calves, 2 oxen and 49 pigs. As pork was of course taboo for the surrounding Azerbaijani Muslim population, one supposes that the pigs were for village consumption only, unless traded with some of the local Armenians and Russians.

Among the surnames to be found in the village upon the eve of WW1 were Aichler, Hartenstein, Kies, Epp, Votteler, Hummel, Vohrer and Klein. However, Helelendorf was a so-called Mutterkolonie or “mother colony”. In other words, over time settlers left Helenendorf to found new settlements elsewhere in the Caucasus, for instance the colonies of Elisabetthal (in Georgia), Georgsfeld and Grünfeld (both in today’s Azerbaijan). However, Nazi Germany’s Drang nach Osten proved the downfall of all the German communities within this part of the Soviet Union; in 1941 a paranoid Stalin deported the communities en masse to Central Asia and Siberia, to ensure they did not become an enemy within. Today, there are no Germans in Helelendorf (today known as Göygöl), although doubtless their DNA lives on in the local Azerbaijani population. The Lutheran church is now a gym.

For the location of Helenendorf, see this Google Map showing the German communities in the Caucasus. This map shows only some of the German agricultural colonies to be found in the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire up to, and sometimes, beyond, WW1. The map makes no claim to be comprehensive (other colonies are not marked) or accurate (in some cases, the precise location of a village is not known).

 

 

This is a revised version of an article and map first published by bluebirdresearch in 2014.