Two men plowing a field with oxen near Dubossary, USSR (now Dubăsari, Moldova), 1920s–1930s. (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Photo Archives)

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From their earliest days, a small proportion of East European Jews engaged in agriculture. Jews began to penetrate the region’s agricultural economy in the late sixteenth century. In particular, many Jews leased the great latifundia of Ukraine, paying noble landowners large sums that the lessees recouped by running the estates. In this way, some Jews became involved in agricultural management. From at least the sixteenth century, also, Jewish merchants and drovers in southeastern Poland were prominent in the cattle trade. They purchased oxen and other cattle, often in Moldavia, and drove them to major trade fairs chiefly in western German lands.

Cattle market, Orla, Poland, 1920s–1930s. Photograph by D. Duksin. (YIVO)

Jews were also deeply involved in marketing agricultural produce, either as merchants or as leaseholders of taverns where grain was sold to peasants in the form of alcohol. Some Jews also played a key role in grain export. From the mid-seventeenth century Jews increasingly shifted this activity toward the mass production of vodka. Few Jews made their living directly from actual farming, largely because Jews were legally forbidden to own land. Many Jewish arendarzy (leaseholders) received a plot of land for personal use as one of the conditions of their lease. Thus, a significant number of Jews did engage in minor forms of agriculture, though usually as secondary occupations. While complaints arose as early as the eighteenth century that sales of vodka to peasants led to alcoholism in the villages (for which Jews were blamed), Jews’ contributions to the agricultural economy were significant, and noble estate owners effectively blocked attempts to reform this situation.

The proportion of farmers in the European population declined in general in the modern age, but added factors kept most Jews away from agriculture. Traditional Jewish communities discouraged farming, fearing vulnerability and citing a lack of access to religious institutions and schools. Moreover, farming held a stigma of boorishness for many Jews. The most significant factor, however, was discriminatory legislation that restricted Jews’ access to land. Authorities in the Russian Empire tried to isolate Jews from the peasants because the former were considered a destabilizing force that might come to dominate the countryside. Toward the end of the 1800s, the belief that Jews were agents of revolution reinforced these policies.

Jewish colonists laying the cornerstone for a new school, Krivoi Rog, USSR (now Kryvyy Rih, Ukr.), 1927. (YIVO)

The first major restrictions in the agricultural sphere in the Russian Empire came with the Jewish Statute of 1804. This legislation ordered Jews to leave rural areas and forbade them to rent land in the interior of Russia. The statute did, however, allow Jews to acquire land as colonists in New (southern) Russia and certain other provinces. Laws on Jewish land settlement in the Pale eased somewhat during the 1840s, but from 1859 until 1891, a series of edicts forbade Jews to rent or purchase farmland anywhere in the empire. Russian Jews had to bribe or otherwise manipulate laws in order to farm.

Nevertheless, deteriorating economic conditions in the second half of the nineteenth century forced many East European Jews into small-scale vegetable or dairy farming in or around their towns. Some regions saw a significant development of agricultural life. For example, in the Belorussian areas at the turn of the twentieth century, some 36,000 Jews in more than 250 villages worked almost 6,000 farm units varying in size from 5 to 30 acres. Nonetheless, the inferior quality of the land meant that farming remained only a part-time occupation for most.

A cattle dealer with a calf, Sędziszów, Poland, 1935. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organization in America, produced by member Sidney Herbst during a visit to his hometown.) (YIVO)

A similar phenomenon existed in Poland, where despite steady urbanization, approximately 30,000 Jews farmed land in the central districts by the middle of the nineteenth century. A reform in 1823 had encouraged agricultural settlement by allowing Polish Jews to rent land in perpetuity and exempting them from taxation for a number of years. A few wealthy Jews rented large estates, some of which later became the basis for Jewish farming colonies. Reforms in the Polish constitution led to another wave of Jewish settlement in the 1840s. By the 1890s, Jews cultivated 40,500 acres in the Russian parts of Poland alone. Significant numbers of Jews also farmed the Austrian parts of Poland (Galicia), although agriculture was usually a secondary vocation. In independent Poland, 4.3 percent of Jews (160,000 people) were engaged in agriculture in 1921. With growing hostility from the local population and government, Jewish agricultural activity declined in subsequent years, except in Galicia.

Different types of agricultural life developed elsewhere. For example, as many as 60,000 Jews, most of them shepherds who might also have maintained orchards and beehives, farmed in the Carpathian regions of Transylvania (divided between Romania and Czechoslovakia) before World War II. Foreign philanthropic organizations supported these farms during the interwar period, mainly through low-interest loans.

Jewish agricultural settlements in southern Ukraine and Crimea, 1920s–1930s. (Based on Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941 [New Haven, 2005], by permission of the Cartographic Laboratory, Geography Department, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem [Tamar Soffer])

In the territories of greater Romania, Jews settled farmlands in Bessarabia and Bucovina as well as in Transylvania. Annexed to Russia from the Ottoman Empire in 1812, Bessarabia’s first Jewish agricultural villages developed after the constitution of 1835 allowed Jews to settle on sparsely populated government land and promised exemption from military service. Economic conditions in these colonies gradually improved over the next decades as individual Jews were allowed to purchase state lands. By the early 1850s, Bessarabia was home to 17 colonies, with approximately 10,500 people. The 1881–1882 and Kishinev pogroms (1903) apparently had little effect on these villages. Jews had become a significant part of the region’s agricultural life by 1914, with major roles in its tobacco, wine, fruit, and dairy sectors. The Jewish Colonization Association (known as the ICA from its name in Yiddish) began to support the Bessarabian colonies in the 1890s. After the region was annexed to independent Romania, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) also contributed aid. Wartime damage and urbanization progressively reduced the farming population after 1914. Although weakened, the colonies and farms survived Romanian rule and the brief Soviet annexation in 1940–1941, providing jobs for as many as 13 percent of Bessarabia’s Jewish population. These farming communities vanished, however, during World War II. In Bucovina, very little of the minor agricultural activity among Jews survived even World War I.

East European Jews involved in agriculture were mainly part-time farmers or were only peripherally connected to agriculture. For this reason, it is difficult to determine overall numbers with any accuracy. Yet Jewish agricultural workers may have totaled 500,000 persons by the year 1900. While always minor in the context of East European agriculture, Jewish farmers had greater local weight because they often specialized in specific crops (as in Bessarabia) or introduced new techniques (as in the USSR).

Russian Government Initiatives

Starting in 1806, government programs promoted Jewish agricultural colonization in the Russian Empire. Two factors drove official enthusiasm. First, physiocratic theories from the West about integrating Jews through agriculture had begun to circulate among Russia’s elites. Second, the tsars sought to populate New Russia with non-Muslims. For these and other reasons, the regime of Tsar Alexander I (1801–1825) endorsed Jewish agricultural colonization.

Evreiskii krestyanin (Jewish Farmer), a journal published by OZET (Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land), a Soviet agency founded in 1925 to promote Jewish colonization (Moscow, 1925). (YIVO)

After Jews were evicted from rural areas of the Pale (beginning in 1806–1807), organized resettlement followed in accordance with the Statute of 1804. The government arranged for the colonization of 80,000 acres in the Kherson and Ekaterinoslav provinces of New Russia. The project was inadequately prepared, and many more than the original 1,950 colonists tried but failed to settle there. The eight colonies created by 1809 were impoverished due to drought and insufficient support. With the apparent failure of its program, the government ceased recruitment in 1810. Still, conditions gradually improved as the state added aid and settlers adapted to new surroundings.

Famine in the western provinces of the Pale brought a second wave of colonists in 1821–1822. The constitution of 1835 institutionalized colonization and exempted settlers from military service. A sudden and cruel diversion of thousands of Jews recruited for agricultural regions in Siberia gave the colonies of New Russia an unexpected demographic boost in that year. State support for the project ended in 1865 because of an increased nationwide emphasis on industrialization. At the time, approximately 33,000 people lived in the colonies.

Two developments sparked a fourth wave of settlement. First, the May Laws (1882) and subsequent antisemitic decrees triggered acute socioeconomic pressures and an outward “push” from the shtetls. Second, Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association began to support colonies (and individual farms in Belorussia) in the 1890s. This brought rapid improvement to living standards and thereby created a new “pull.”

Altogether, more than 150,000 Jews farmed land in the Russian Empire in 1900. In that year, the 22 Jewish colonies in the Kherson area had achieved standards of living equal to or better than those of their non-Jewish neighbors. By 1913, some 42,000 Jews inhabited 38 colonies in New Russia. Until at least 1917, most Jews living there continued traditional observances, and Yiddish was their daily language. The farms operated as family units, with only limited cooperative structures. It appears that other than for business purposes, the colonists remained detached from their non-Jewish surroundings.

The Impact of Ideology

Members of the Kadimah group of He-Ḥaluts, Kwiatuszki Wielkie, Lithuania (now in Poland), ca. 1920. The Hebrew inscription reads, “Work Is Our Life.” (The Institute for Labour Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon, Tel Aviv)

Following the positive evaluation of productivization and agrarianization in the discourse of the Western Haskalah as well as the tsarist regime’s deliberations on Jewish integration, East European maskilim discussed agricultural settlement as a remedy for the plight of Russia’s Jews. They hoped agrarianization would ameliorate poverty in the Pale, restore moral fiber by directing Jews to a productive form of work, and reduce vulnerability to antisemitism.

Pogroms sparked by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 intensified interest in the potential benefits of agrarianization: some continued to seek it in New Russia, while the ‘Am ‘Olam movement looked to America and Ḥibat Tsiyon and BILU directed followers to Palestine. In parallel, the pogroms and the legacy of the Russian Narodniki movement (which idealized peasants and agrarian life) pushed many Jews—most notably Khayim Zhitlovski—toward agrarian socialism, a concept embodied in the late nineteenth-century Russian Empire by the Sotsial-Revoliutsionnaia (Socialist Revolutionary) party. Restrictions imposed by the May Laws on traditional Jewish professions and on access to higher education made agriculture all the more attractive.

Beginning in 1916, and with increased vigor after the Balfour Declaration (1917), Zionist youth organizations (led by He-Ḥaluts and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir) created training farms throughout Eastern Europe to prepare members to work on agricultural colonies in Palestine. By the time Soviet and other East European states disbanded these farms in the 1930s (e.g., Romania in 1938), thousands of young pioneers had received training.

Soviet-Era Colonization

Prospects for Russia’s Jews remained bleak even after the Pale was abolished in mid-1917. Often disenfranchised as former “exploiters” by the Bolshevik constitution of 1918 and still recovering from years in a war zone, most Soviet Jews were caught in the impoverished and battered towns of the former Pale of Jewish Settlement. Immigration to nearly all Western countries closed in the mid-1920s, so Soviet Jews were indeed trapped.

At the Royter Poyer (Red Farmer) collective: the family of stable man I. Tsygan on the way to a May First demonstration, Fastov, USSR (now Fastiv, Ukr.), 1930. (YIVO)

Agricultural colonization emerged as a solution for this crisis because farmers (and other “productive” laborers) regained their civil rights under Soviet law. A small, unplanned movement of Jews to vacant lands in Belorussia and Ukraine began immediately after the Russian Civil War. Proposals for mass resettlement in the countryside as a basis for local autonomy circulated among Russia’s Jews for decades and fitted Soviet nationality policy in the mid-1920s. In 1924, some Jewish leaders called for government-sponsored agricultural colonization around the Black Sea. Later that year, three foreign philanthropies—the Joint Agricultural Corporation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Agro-Joint), the Jewish Colonization Association, and the Organization for Rehabilitation of Jews through Training (ORT Farband)—entered a series of contracts with the Kremlin to allow Jews from the former Pale to settle in northern Crimea and southern Ukraine. Early plans proposed to resettle as many as 500,000 Jews.

The Soviet government hoped that Jewish colonization would relieve the Jews’ socioeconomic crisis and transfer agricultural expertise to the USSR. The Soviets provided 1 million acres of free land, gave important logistical support for the colonies, and established two bodies in 1924 and 1925 to administer and support the project: KOMZET (Komitet po Zemel’nomu Ustroistvu Trudiashchikhsia Evreev pri Prezidiume Soveta Natsional’nostei Tsentral’nyi Ispolitel’nyi Komitet SSSR; Committee for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land under the Council of Soviet Nationalities for the Central Executive Committee of the USSR) and OZET (Obshchestvo po Zemel’nomu Ustroistvu Trudiashchikhsia Evreev; Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land). The regime also supported smaller colonization experiments for Jews in Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan.

Foreign philanthropies outfitted new settlers with modern equipment, housing, and low-interest loans. These funders also resumed support of the surviving nineteenth-century colonies in southern Ukraine. Upward of 200,000 Jewish farmers were resettled or assisted in more than 200 settlements, most of which were built by foreign philanthropies. These organizations had left the USSR by 1937, but their colonies continued and usually prospered until the Nazi armies overran them in the autumn of 1941. Another foreign organization, Idishe Kolonizatsie Organizatsie (IKOR), contributed limited aid to settlements in Crimea and Birobidzhan; and the American Committee for the Settlement of Birobidzhan (Ambijan) devoted itself exclusively to the development of the latter.

Although neighboring populations initially received colonists with skepticism and hostility, relations gradually warmed. The resistance of local authorities in Crimea and southern Ukraine subsided when the Kremlin replaced the first generation of regional leaders. In keeping with its policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization), the regime created five nominally autonomous Jewish districts (Kalinindorf, Novo Zlatopol, Stalindorf, Fraidorf, and Larindorf) and 126 selsovets (village councils) around the Black Sea.

Shifrah Kotchina, deputy from Birobidzhan to the Supreme Soviet, and her "brigade" at work in a field at the Waldheim colony, Birobidzhan, ca. 1935. (YIVO)

In 1928, the Soviet regime declared Birobidzhan, in the far east of the Soviet Union on the northern bank of the Amur River, a Jewish National Region (krai), and in 1934 its status was raised to that of a Jewish Autonomous Province (oblast). Originally planned to hold 300,000 people, among them 150,000 Jews, geographic isolation and possibly the emphasis on the use of Yiddish made the region unattractive for Soviet Jews. Jews who did come to Birobidzhan often preferred its urban centers. At most, several thousand Jews lived in its 25 Jewish kolkhozes (collective farms). Jews never achieved even a large plurality in the oblast. Hence, Birobidzhan failed both as an ostensible center of Jewish autonomy and as an agricultural experiment. However, the mere specter of a Soviet Jewish territorial entity (in Crimea or Birobidzhan), funded from abroad and endorsed by major Soviet figures, ignited severe criticism from Zionists worldwide. They presented Soviet Jewish colonization as a waste of resources that could have been invested in constructing the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionists also perceived correctly that these initiatives had been formulated at least partly as an antidote to Zionist ideology among Soviet Jews.

Otherwise catastrophic Soviet policies had uneven effects on the Jewish colonies. For example, the collectivization of agriculture caused Jews to flee colonies (reconstituted as kolkhozes) in Belorussia, which had reached 58,500 members on 170,000 acres in 1929. Likewise, the purges of the late 1930s devastated the Jewish leadership of Birobidzhan. But these and other Soviet policies had fewer negative consequences in other regions of Jewish colonization. In total, nearly 9 percent of all Soviet Jews were settled on the land during the interwar period. Except for a brief reawakening of interest in Birobidzhan (when the total Jewish population of the oblast peaked at 30,000), Jewish agricultural life in the USSR dwindled after the Holocaust.

Agricultural resettlement (whether unplanned or government-sponsored) appealed to East European Jews mainly as a refuge from socioeconomic crises. Although ideas of agrarianization and autonomy certainly had resonance at times, the popularity of “going to the land” usually declined when opportunities for employment or education improved in the population centers.

Suggested Reading

Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi, Evreiskaia zemledel’cheskaia kolonizatsiia v staroi Rossii: Politika, ideologiia, khoziaistvo, byt (Moscow, 1928); Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924–1941 (New Haven, 2005); Yehudah Erez, comp. and ed., Ḥalutsim hayinu be-Rusyah (Tel Aviv, 1976); Allan L. Kagedan, Soviet Zion: The Quest for a Russian Jewish Homeland (New York, 1994); Jacob Lvavi (Ya‘akov Levavi [Babitski]), Ha-Hityashvut ha-yehudit be-Birobig´an (Jerusalem, 1965); Moshe Ussoskin, Struggle for Survival: A History of Jewish Credit Co-operatives in Bessarabia, Old-Rumania, Bukovina, and Transylvania (Jerusalem, 1975); Robert Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland (Berkeley, 1998).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 120, Territorial Photographic Collection, , 1860s-1970s; RG 236, Jewish Colonization Association (Paris), Records, 1898-1913 (finding aid); RG 318, Baron Maurice De Hirsch and Wilhelm Loewenthal, Papers, 1855-1900; RG 358, Joseph A. Rosen, Papers, 1921-1938 (finding aid); RG 734, Abraham Jenofsky, Papers, 1931-1976.