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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.4 (2003) 849-885

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Farmers, Philanthropists, and Soviet Authority
Rural Crimea and Southern Ukraine, 1923-41

Jonathan Dekel-Chen

The organized colonization of Jews from the former Pale of Settlement between the world wars in Crimea and southern Ukraine provides an extraordinary, and unexplored, window onto center-periphery relations in the early Soviet Union. If Lenin and his heirs manufactured a monolithic image in and around the major cities, their voice became progressively fainter as one traveled further afield. In the new Jewish colonies scattered over the steppes of southern Russia, it was often hardly more than a whisper. As other authors have suggested, the Soviet state inherited from the Romanovs neither the resources nor an effective model to administer the vast, multi-ethnic empire effectively. 1 Hence, the new Soviet state lacked the requisite tools for systematic control in the periphery during the first two decades of rule. 2 [End Page 849]

Tensions involving ethnic minorities did not mark the end of the troubles that plagued the young Bolshevik state. Despite the policy of indigenization (korenizatsiia) and the creation of nominally autonomous territories, many of the national minority groups were not satisfied with mere cultural autonomy; some longed for independence. 3 Seven years of nearly continuous warfare had devastated large parts of European Russia, alienated much of the population, and left Moscow without the means to administer the empire effectively. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks were international outcasts, beset by lingering fears of renewed foreign intervention. How could they establish order in the countryside without the active support of the peasantry?

This paper employs archival material to explore when and how Moscow applied its power in the periphery. Specifically, it addresses the impact of the organized agricultural colonization of Jews from the impoverished former Pale on the exercise of central political power in the northern half of the Crimean peninsula, and to a lesser degree, in southern Ukraine from 1923 to 1941. 4 Barring the last four years of this period, a nongovernmental, nondenominational American-Jewish philanthropy (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [Joint or JDC]) funded this resettlement of Jews in the Black Sea littoral. To execute this work, the JDC created a local administrative network. 5 As shall be seen, the arrival of an effective, coherent, foreign philanthropy shaped not only the lives of its client-colonists but the character of Soviet rural authority. [End Page 850]

Starting in 1924, the JDC's settlement agency-- the Joint Agricultural Corporation (Agro-Joint)-- entered into a series of contracts with the Kremlin that institutionalized and expanded colonization beyond a small, but important, spontaneous movement of Jews from their traditional towns in the former Pale (shtetls) to vacant lands in the south during the previous two years. 6 These contracts gave the Agro-Joint authority to resettle Jews from the former Pale in most of northern Crimea as well as the Kherson and the Krivoi Rog regions of southern Ukraine. At its peak, the Agro-Joint employed over 1,000 workers in offices from Moscow to Crimea. Driven by contributions in excess of $16 million (nearly $200 million at present values), the Agro-Joint constructed approximately 200 state-of-the-art colonies on hundreds of thousands of acres, assisted another 40 colonies established before its arrival, operated several tractor teams, and provided technical guidance, modern implements, and low-interest loans to the settlers. 7 By the turn of the decade, these colonies reached and usually surpassed the productive levels of their non-Jewish neighbors. As models of modern agriculture, they also became the focus of interest for the regime. In total, the Agro-Joint had resettled or assisted approximately 200,000 Jewish farmers by the time it signed a liquidation agreement with the government and left Soviet Russia in 1937. 8 From 1923 until at least the last years of the decade, Jewish recruits were "pulled" to the land by their status as lishentsy, or people disenfranchised as former "exploiters" by the 1918 Bolshevik Constitution; agricultural...