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Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941

Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941

by Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen

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This is the first history of the Jewish agricultural colonies that were established in Crimea and Southern Ukraine in 1924 and that, fewer than 20 years later, ended in tragedy. Jonathan Dekel-Chen opens an extraordinary window on Soviet rural life during these turbulent years, and he documents the remarkable relations that developed among the American-Jewish sponsors


This is the first history of the Jewish agricultural colonies that were established in Crimea and Southern Ukraine in 1924 and that, fewer than 20 years later, ended in tragedy. Jonathan Dekel-Chen opens an extraordinary window on Soviet rural life during these turbulent years, and he documents the remarkable relations that developed among the American-Jewish sponsors of the ambitious project, the Soviet authorities, and the colonists themselves.
Drawing on extensive and largely untouched archives and a wealth of previously unpublished oral histories, the book revises what has been understood about these agricultural settlements. Dekel-Chen offers new conclusions about integration and separation among Soviet Jews, the contours of international relations, and the balance of political forces within the Jewish world during this volatile period.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Dekel-Chen draws upon a massive source base to reconstruct the history of Jewish agricultural colonization in the Crimea—the sheer breadth of his research is staggering. This is a first-rate piece of scholarship and writing, with important implications for Russian, Jewish, and American historiography.”—Gregory Freeze, Brandeis University
Gregory Freeze
“Dekel-Chen draws upon a massive source base to reconstruct the history of Jewish agricultural colonization in the Crimea—the sheer breadth of his research is staggering. This is a first-rate piece of scholarship and writing, with important implications for Russian, Jewish, and American historiography.”—Gregory Freeze, Brandeis University

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Yale University Press
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Farming the Red Land

Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941
By Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10331-1

Chapter One

From Shtetl to Colony, 1917-1924

Destitute and desperate, Russia's Jews (and the Soviet regime itself) needed help in 1921. For most Jews, however, experience with the Russian state and the previous seven years of turmoil had taught caution toward political change and deep suspicion toward the central authority. In any case, the unstable, penniless Soviet state was in no position to revitalize Russian Jewry. To achieve significant improvement for themselves, the Jews of the shtetls needed some other patron. The entry of the JDC into the Black Sea littoral-with no mandate for operations in Russia-was motivated by a philanthropic urge to assist fellow Jews. But at the same time, the hobbled Soviet regime had left the gate open for the Joint and other philanthropic organizations.

The Joint's representative, Joseph Rosen, talented as he was, could not single-handedly launch a colonization enterprise of this magnitude. His role was preceded, in fact, by a series of calamitous events in Russia and a passionate debate throughout the Jewish world over where and how to achieve its own rebirth. Such a background, joinedwith the nearly unbearable life in the shtetl, and international conditions that blocked all obvious escape routes for Jews at risk, placed this newest experiment in Jewish colonization at a historical intersection.


The Bolsheviks' willingness to enter a long-term commitment with foreign capitalists on behalf of Jewish colonization has to be understood in the light of the grim state of affairs in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Russia's new rulers knew that their country was in ruins and lacked a responsive infrastructure. At the end of the civil war in 1921, national agricultural output stood at 54 percent of its 1913 level; the prospects in industry and foreign trade were even bleaker because the meager industrial base begun during the last decades of the Romanov monarchy stood abandoned or wrecked, and moreover, the Western nations had cut diplomatic relations. Tight control over economic policy during the civil war (called "war communism") had efficiently confiscated output but did not reenergize the national economy. A famine during 1920-1921 had added to the suffering, and popular unrest spread throughout the country. Given its international isolation, Russia's hopes for foreign investment also eroded and fears grew of a renewed capitalist military intervention.

Soviet Russia's rural economy showed few encouraging signs in the early 1920s. On the positive side, the state had kept its revolutionary promise to the peasants for a redistribution of land, by far the most explosive issue from 1905 to 1917. This policy helped to restart production but did not increase productivity and sales of grain. Instead, both the poor and newfound "middle" peasants continued the traditional practice of consuming rather than marketing output. The war years had been particularly destructive; massive urban depopulation coincided with widespread abandonment of farmland in the battle zones. Their aggressive vision of economic modernization aside, the Bolsheviks presided over an agrarian nation accustomed to subsistence farming-Russia's peasants could hardly feed themselves, let alone finance the reconstruction of industry.

Even as the Bolsheviks consolidated a one-party dictatorship at the center, the village and the geographic periphery remained a world unto itself. Although Lenin had established a modicum of authority in the periphery during the civil war, in practice, Moscow's grip over the village government (mir) and peasant culture was more myth than reality in the early 1920s. Soviet authority was bound to generate conflict with village life in other ways as well. If in the cities, the radical Bolshevik policy on marriage and the family caused considerable instability with the widespread dissolution of traditional household units, in the more conservative villages and periphery, it was received with even less understanding. Moreover, because the Bolsheviks suspected the worst of religious villagers and their priests, the Soviet antireligious activists (bezbozhniki) targeted the villages in their campaign to do away with Orthodox Christianity. Yet, for the most part, these activities proved counterproductive for the Soviets during the 1920s-they actually served to mobilize the rural clergy and antagonize large segments of the peasantry instead of excising religion from the countryside. Therefore, until they devised a way to effectively rule the peasantry and extract its produce to finance industrialization, Lenin and his colleagues had to proceed cautiously.

Recovery and Change

Faced with economic stagnation and social chaos, Russia's leaders opened themselves to innovative, if ideologically questionable, solutions. On the economic front, the party responded in the early 1920s by invoking the New Economic Policy (NEP). This series of short-term tactics sought a stable basis for the development of state industry and a modus vivendi with peasants, seemingly on the verge of revolt. The policy, however, failed to deliver steady supplies of grain and produced seemingly "dangerous" outcomes; among them, severe socioeconomic stratification caused by the newly permissible free rural market economy, and its personification-the NEPman.

These were not the only causes for concern. The same distance from government supervision that allowed free trade also resulted in rural neglect: the Soviet state invested little or nothing in agriculture. Instead, the technological gap widened between Russia and the West. Simultaneously, the NEP fostered reurbanization while liberalized social laws and youth flight dissolved families and led to the parcelization of villages-key ingredients to small household tracts and low agricultural output. The mixed messages from Moscow about private ownership also discouraged membership in rural cooperative associations. These factors helped to perpetuate the Bolsheviks' disrespect for the peasants, especially for small farming units. This tension would also make the regime more receptive to alternative models of rural development.

The desire to jolt the economy into motion put the Soviets in a dilemma: Russia's future depended on trade with the West, but they needed ideologically acceptable terms and limits for cooperation with capitalists. Fortunately for the economic planners in the Kremlin, Western manufacturers of agricultural machines still competed for contracts in Russia, notwithstanding the Bolsheviks' nationalization of foreign assets and an absence of diplomatic ties between their nations. These foreigners eyed the Russian and Ukrainian steppes-still cultivated mostly by draught animals-as testing grounds for new machines.

The outward signs of crisis in Soviet agriculture and industry partly obscured systemic shortcomings. To begin with, the tsars had bequeathed a sparse scientific establishment. Added to that, the first generation of Soviet professional and intellectual elites (many of them vulnerable to repression as former bourgeois "specialists" in tsarist industry and administration) had to exercise caution in the adaptation of Western methods lest they provoke attacks by radical ideologues. Under these conditions, the Soviet economy desperately needed an injection of foreign expertise and machinery, without which stagnation might become permanent. As the Soviet authorities discovered, however, this was easier said than done. Early attempts to attract private businesses did not always succeed, and most agricultural experts from American companies could not adapt their skills to the primitive and chaotic conditions in the Russian countryside. Therefore, Soviet Russia needed new paths of cooperation with Westerners to help propel the nation forward.


Dealing with the myriad ethnic groups in the Soviet Union presented no less a problem for the regime than attracting Western business. Despite their ideological aversion to national particularism, the Bolsheviks performed a political U-turn and formed Jewish Sections of the communist party (Evsektsiia) in 1918, comparable to sections created for other ethnic minorities. Lenin hoped that this tactical retreat would mollify the ethnic minorities in the geographic periphery during a period of tenuous Soviet authority. The Evsektsiia embodied much of the personnel and most of the policies and disputes that had occupied Jewish political life before 1917, including debates over the advisability (and location) of a distinct national territory for Jews as well as the importance of a unique Jewish culture. As part of its political program, the Evsektsiia encouraged secular Yiddish culture to combat the study of Hebrew-a key part of religious observance and Zionism. For these and other reasons, the communist party enjoyed a brief honeymoon among Soviet Jews in the four years following the revolution: twenty thousand new members joined its ranks, and disproportionately large numbers of Jews served in the Red Army and Cheka (political police).

Early party and Soviet congresses seemed to deepen the political compromise with the ethnic minorities of the empire. These gatherings invoked indigenization (korenizatsiia) as the official nationality policy that granted cultural and limited local political autonomy; they also formed eighteen Peoples' Commissariats for Nationality Affairs (Narkomnats) to protect the interests of minorities. On the surface, korenizatsiia promoted the development of native political elites, languages, and cultures. In reality, however, the regime intended these measures to implant Bolshevism among non-Russian citizens through gradual indoctrination of overarching Soviet themes via local party and government institutions in the native languages. In this way, integration and fusion of the nation's minorities would be achieved through education, the professions, and even intermarriage. Thus, as Stalin envisioned, schools and popular culture would expose Soviet citizens to socialist messages wrapped in local-and in the Jews' case, Yiddish-form. A centralized state could accordingly be constructed while nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments were defused.

Jewish colonization grew just as the Soviet regime acted to placate the nationalistic ambitions of the country's minorities. The 1924 constitution created a federation of nominally autonomous national territories, and it awarded autonomous republics (the Soviet Socialist Republics [SSRs]), regions, and national territories (called Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics [ASSRs]) to ethnic groups ranging from Ukrainians to Kalmyks. From Moscow's perspective, the creation of such autonomous units demonstrated that socialism had "solved" the national issue. Engineered while Lenin was still alive, the implementation of this policy continued after his death in early 1924 and expanded further during the first years of Stalin's rule. Nevertheless, not all the national minorities in Soviet Russia, particularly the Poles and Finns, wanted just cultural autonomy; they longed for independence.

Moscow's Distant Voice in Crimea

The choice of Crimea had great importance for the Jewish colonization enterprise and the country as a whole. This peninsula occupied a special place in the Russian consciousness, igniting and surviving political storms both before and after the revolution. Associated for generations with leisure and aristocratic privilege, few actually had the chance to enjoy Crimea's rare treats. Moreover, Crimea had a rich agricultural history before 1914; its wheat had garnered praise, even in American markets. Russia's civil war, however, had decimated the peninsula. Rural depopulation near 40 percent led some officials to estimate that farming could return to prewar levels only after twenty to forty years. In 1923-1924, the visionaries of organized Jewish colonization would see depopulation as a momentary opportunity in a most attractive land. There was still much to covet in Crimea despite the damage of war: a warm climate, fertile soil, strategic location, and (yet to be discovered) fresh water resources.

Although battered, the peninsula was not a political vacuum. Above all, the Tatar natives of Crimea had a political consciousness and voice. Crimean Tatar nationalism did not wait for the revolution; rather, it emerged with force in the years before 1917. Inspired by the successful revolt of the Young Turks against the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople during the first years of the century, Tatar activists had popularized the idea of a national homeland among Crimea's peasants and linked that longing to demands for land reform (also a key component of the Bolshevik platform). Amid the chaos of revolution, the Crimean nationalists declared an independent state in November 1917. After the Red Army conquered the peninsula in 1920, it co-opted the leading Tatar nationalist party (Milli Firka) and installed its members as the government of a new ASSR in October 1921. The co-opted leaders of Milli Firka were henceforth called "Tatar communists." The Crimean Autonomous Republic-now led by the former head of Milli Firka, Veli Ibrahimov-exercised significant, albeit incomplete, autonomy and oversaw a renaissance of Tatar culture.

While the Tatars were seemingly preeminent, an ethnic mosaic in the peninsula appreciably offset the titular political status the Soviets granted to the Tatars. Sizable emigration to the Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War (1853-1856) and savage fighting during the Russian civil war had greatly depleted their presence (particularly in the countryside), reducing the Tatars to one-quarter of Crimea's population in 1921. Thus, Ukrainians and Russians constituted 51 percent of the general population of 720,000 and Germans 6 percent, together with an assortment of other ethnic groups. The rural Tatars who had not fled were overwhelmingly devout Muslims, socially conservative, often illiterate, and consequently resistant to Bolshevik ideology. A Jewish community in Crimea had existed for centuries, composed mostly of urban merchants and shopkeepers. Similar to the overall depopulation in Crimea, the war years reduced the number of Jews from sixty thousand to thirty thousand, making them approximately 7 percent of the peninsula's population in 1921.

The ethnic puzzle in the region arose, in part, from a history of organized settlement by non-Tatars for more than a century before Joseph Rosen proposed Jewish colonization there to the JDC. At the invitation of Tsar Alexander I, German (and some Swiss) colonists had settled near Simferopol in 1804; they quickly prospered, proliferated, and integrated into the national economy. The Germans first learned from, and then surpassed, the indigenous Tatar farmers. Specifically, they introduced some high-yield agriculture to the peninsula and absorbed lands vacated by Tatars after the Crimean War. Although contributing much to the rural economy, the German colonies had few social ties with indigenous Tatars or other national groups. The presence of these Europeans probably sensitized the Tatars in general, and the Tatar communist leaders of the early 1920s in particular, to the potential benefits and dangers of colonization by "outsiders."


Excerpted from Farming the Red Land by Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen is a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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