The Jewish Autonomous Republic was founded in 1928 as the Jewish National District. It was the result of Vladimir Lenin's nationality policy, by which each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework. In that sense, it was also a response to two supposed threats to the Soviet state: Judaism, which ran counter to official state atheism, and Zionism, which countered Soviet views of nationalism. The idea was to create a new Soviet Zion, where a proletarian Jewish culture could be developed. Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, would be the national language, and a new socialist literature and arts would replace religion as the primary expression of culture.
With hindsight, it can be said that the experiment was doomed from the start. Another important goal of the Birobidzhan project was to increase settlement in the remote Soviet Far East, especially along the vulnerable border with China. In 1928, there was virtually no settlement in the area, while Jews had deep roots in the western half of the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia proper. The geography and climate were harsh, and any new settlers would have to build their lives from scratch. Some have even claimed that Stalin was also motivated by anti-Semitism in selecting Birobidzhan: he wanted to keep the Jews as far away from the centers of power of possible. To his credit, however, it must be said that the Ukrainians and Crimeans were reluctant to have a Jewish national home carved out of their territory, even though most Soviet Jews lived there, and there were very few alternative territories without rival national claims to them.
Despite the hardships, a trickle of Jewish settlers arrived. By the 1930s the Jewish National District was promoted to the status of an Autonomous Region and a massive propaganda campaign was underway to induce more Jewish settlers to move there. Some of these incorporated the standard Soviet propaganda tools of the era, and included posters and Yiddish-language novels describing a socialist utopia there. Other methods bordered on the bizarre. In one instance, leaflets promoting Birobidzhan were dropped from an airplane over a Jewish neighborhood in Belorussia. In another instance, a government-produced Yiddish film called Seekers of Happiness told the story of a Jewish family that fled the Depression in the United States to make a new life for itself in Birobidzhan.
As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. A Yiddish newspaper, Der Birobidzhaner Shtern, was established, a theater troupe was created, and streets in the new city that was built were named after prominent Yiddish authors, such as Sholom Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz. At the same time, some efforts were also made to Russify Yiddish culture: the most notable of these was a failed attempt to replace the Hebrew alphabet used for writing Yiddish with a Cyrillic one.
The Birobidzhan experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges. Jewish leaders were arrested and executed, and Yiddish schools were shut down. Shortly after this, World War II brought concerted efforts to bring Jews East to an abrupt end. There was a slight revival in the Birobidzhan idea after the war as a potential home for Jewish refugees. During that time, the Jewish population of the region peaked at almost one-third of the total. Efforts in this direction ended, however, with the Doctors Plot, the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, and Stalin's second wave of purges shortly before his death. Once again, the Jewish leadership was arrested and efforts were made to stamp out Yiddish culture—even the Judaica collection in the local library was burned. In the ensuing years the idea of creating an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union was all but forgotten, and Birobidzhan once again became a remote backwater on the Sino-Soviet border.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and new liberal immigration policies, most of the remaining Jewish population left for Germany and Israel. In 1991, the Jewish Autonomous Region was elevated to the status of an Autonomous Republic, but by that time most of the Jews had left, so that Jews now constitute less than two percent of the local population. Nevertheless, Yiddish is once again taught in the schools, the Birobidzhaner Shtern publishes a Yiddish edition, and a Yiddish radio station still operates.
A documentary film, L'CHAYIM, COMRADE STALIN! on Stalin's creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region and its settlement by a few Jews was released in 2003. In addition to history of the creation of the proposed Jewish homeland the film features scenes of contemporary Birobidzhan and interviews with Jewish residents.