Artists reimagine Stalin’s communist utopia for Soviet Jews

Exhibition shows works of US, European and South Korean artists, inspired by Russia’s ‘Jewish Autonomous Republic’ in Birobidzhan

A car is parked at a ramp leading up to the window of a Soviet-era apartment in Birobidzhan, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (AP/Iuliia Subbotovska)
A car is parked at a ramp leading up to the window of a Soviet-era apartment in Birobidzhan, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (AP/Iuliia Subbotovska)

MOSCOW — Austrian artist Leopold Kessler has built a car ramp, strong enough to hold a jeep, leading up to the window of a Soviet-era apartment in Russia’s remote ‘Jewish Autonomous Republic’ of Birobidzhan, envisioned by Stalin as a homeland for Communist Jews.

Kessler says his work reflects the gap between rich and poor in modern Russia.

In Moscow, elevators bring luxury cars to the penthouse doors of oligarchs, so why not do the same for the folks in Birobidzhan?

This photo taken Thursday, September 7, 2017 shows a view of Birobidzhan, Russia. (AP/Iuliia Subbotovska)

The work is one of many produced during a trip to Birobidzhan by US, European and South Korean artists, who have each responded to the area’s unique combination of Soviet Jewish heritage, Chinese influence and modern Russian reality. Their show opened this week.

For Nina Nyukhalova, who allowed her balcony to be used for Kessler’s car ramp, it was something completely different.

“When it appeared yesterday I was scared,” she remembered, laughing. “It’s the first time anything like this has happened here.”

Closer to Beijing than to Moscow, Birobidzhan was founded in 1931 and designated by authorities as a new homeland for Soviet Jews. But Stalinist purges, disease and an unforgiving terrain took their toll on the tens of thousands of people who made the journey there, and many left again.

Visitors and artists chat at an exhibition in Birobidzhan, Russia, on Wednesday, September 6, 2017. (AP/Iuliia Subbotovska)

Today, the number of practicing Jews in the city of Birobidzhan has dwindled to about 3,000 people out of a population of about 75,000. But they guard their identity with passion and pride. A giant menorah stands in front of the railway station and all street signs are in Yiddish as well as Cyrillic.

Bringing artists to Birobidzhan means they can tell the city’s story to a wider audience, says curator Simon Mraz, cultural attache at the Austrian embassy in Moscow. “Russia is a treasure box of cultural heritage that is untold to the wider international public,” Mraz told the AP.

The giant menorah is seen in front of the railway station in Birobidzhan, Russia, on Thursday, September 7, 2017. (AP/Iuliia Subbotovska)

Mraz has staged art shows across Russia, on sites including a nuclear icebreaker in Murmansk and a Soviet space observatory in the North Caucasus.

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