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Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about the Jews of the Crimea

The Karaites and the Krymchaks, the master of suggestion Sinani, the revolutionary Krymsky and a propaganda film

The Crimea is unique from the Jewish point of view, as it is the home of the Krymchaks, who follow Talmudic Judaism, and the Karaites who are (probably) not a Jewish, but a Turkic people, who practice a pre-Talmudic religion related to Judaism. Read about the people and events that connect the Crimea and Jewishness in our new chapter.

1. The Khazar Jews

There is an endless number of theories that attempt to determine the true origin of the Karaites and Krymchaks. Whichever one of these hypotheses prevails, we can say one thing for certain: both the first and the second group are connected with Judaism. The encyclopedias state that in the colloquial language of Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks were called zuluflu chufutlar (“Jews with side locks), and Karaites zulufsuz chufutlar (“Jews without side locks”.) In official sources, the division of the Jewish population into Crimean rabbinical Jews, Karaites and Ashkenazi only appeared in the late 19th century.

It’s difficult to say for certain when Jews settled in the Crimea. Archeologists have found Jewish inscriptions on the peninsula dated to the 1st century BCE, and this gives reason to assume that Jews came to this region over 20 centuries ago. In the 13th century, in modern-day Feodosia, the first Jewish community appeared, and in 1309 they built a synagogue (one of the oldest in the former USSR), which was destroyed in bombing in WWII.
As for the size of the community, the first official figures only appeared after the second half of the 18th century. In 1783, 469 Jewish families lived in the Crimea (around 2,500 people), and almost a century later, in 1863, the size of the Jewish population of the Crimea reached around 5,000 people – but even within the Jewish group there were no divisions into smaller groups.

The Karaites insisted that there was nothing connecting them with Jewry by blood – and were able to prove this. As they ceased to consider themselves to be part of the Jewish people, they received greater freedoms that members of traditional Jewish communities. In 1795, they were exempted from the dual tax that was imposed on Jews, and then the pale of settlement was abolished for them. From 1863, they received all the rights that the other free subjects of the empire had.

2. The master of suggestion

Boris Naumovich Sinani (1851-1922) was born in Armyansk (Armaynsky Bazar as it was known then) into a Karaite patriarchal family, where traditions were unusually strong. Despite the enormous authority of his father, Boris did not take the path that the head of the family had chosen for him – and instead of working at their family store, he decided to become a doctor.

Boris Sinani moved to the capital, and in 1877 graduated from the Imperial military medical academy. His student years were not easy – as a progressive young man, Sinani sympathized with the new revolutionary sentiments.

Sinani had serious medical practice in military conditions – during the Russo-Turkish War, Sinani went to the frontline as a military doctor. In 1880 he resigned and went to work as an ordinary village doctor in the Kursk province, but he was dismissed because of his “political unreliability”. Then Sinani moved to the Novgorod province and over time became the head doctor of the Kolmovsky regional psychiatric institution in the Novgorod province, and later the director of the Novgorod psychiatric institution.
Sinani believed in the power of suggestion and tried to treat alcoholism with this method – without using hypnosis. In 1889 he held the first experiments in the empire to cure patients of this serious addiction – and they were quite successful. The new field was accepted by the medical community warily, but favorably. Unusual methods brought him popularity among his patients, some of them famous. Over time Boris Sinani and his children (his wife had passed away) moved to St. Petersburg, and he opened a private practice as a psychiatrist and personal physician.

3. The revolutionary diplomat Krymsky

Adolf Abramovich Ioffe (1883–1927) was born into the family of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Simferopol. Abram Yakovlevich Ioffe was the owner of all the postal and transport vehicles on the peninsula. Naturally, the children of the merchant wanted for nothing and could receive any kind of education. His second son, Adolf Ioffe, chose medicine, but in his turn he himself was chosen by the revolution.

From 1903 to 1904 Adolf studied at the medical faculty of Berlin University, but he already became interested in “destructive” ideas and began to take an active part in revolutionary work. He was very well educated and had the talent of a diplomat – the revolutionaries valued this and appointed him to positions connected with foreign activity. The authorities could not close their eyes to this, and in 1906 Adolf Ioffe was exiled to Siberia. However, he fled and went to Zurich to complete his studies, but now in the law faculty, and then moved to Berlin, and later to Vienna – and finally received a degree in medicine. At the same time, Ioffe continued to travel to Russia illegally.

In 1908 Ioffe (who often figured under the pseudonym of Krymsky) made friends with Lev Trotsky (also a Jew and also from Ukraine), continued his revolutionary work, but in 1912 was caught by the police and exiled to the Tobolsk province to do hard labor. Ioffe once more fled, and in 1913 was exiled again, this time permanently. But nothing is eternal – after the February revolution he was freed.

Then the golden time began for Ioffe as the diplomat of the Soviets. He was one of the people who signed the armistice with Germany and its allies in WWI, and on behalf of the RSFSR he signed peace treaties with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, took part in peace conferences and many other things. Additionally, from 1922 he was the ambassador extraordinary to China and Japan.

Ioffe would most probably have become the victim of Stalin’s repressions, like many of his fellow-thinkers, but fate decided otherwise. In Japan in 1923, Ioffe fell ill with polyneuritis and went to Austria for treatment, where he also worked a great deal. But the illness was stronger – it confined him to his bed, and his active life came to an end. He did not have the money for treatment, and the central committee refused his request for sufficient funds for treatment in Austria. Unable to find a better way out of this situation, Adolf Ioffe shot himself.

4. Crimean Israel

After the revolution, the new regime faced an old question – how to solve the Jewish problem? Additionally, Jews were primarily involved in “bourgeois” activity, and in the new state the policy was to move the population to manual professions and farm work.

In January 1918 the Jewish commissariat was created under the People’s Commissariat for nationalities, which was among other things involved in looking for free lands for the resettlement of the Jews. The Crimea seemed to be the most convenient territory for the Jewish settlement at that time. The director of the Russian department of the American charitable organization Joint, Joseph Rosen, formulated the idea of agricultural colonization of this southern peninsula by Jews, and it was officially formulated by the journalist Abram Bragin and the deputy people’s commissioner for nationalities, Grigory Broido.

For this idea to be made a reality, money was required. The Soviets didn’t have any, but the USA did. In 1924 the American Jewish agronomical corporation Agro-Joint was founded, which had the goal of assisting Jewish colonization – the company promised to allocate $15 million for the project, but in exchange required full support from the Soviet authorities, and an end to persecutions of Zionism, Judaism and Hebrew culture in the USSR. The “Crimean Israel” began to appear on the horizon, an independent Jewish region, but it did not happen. The authorities decided that it was not quite right to help the Jews, to give them the southern land for free and provide them with agricultural equipment and fine animals, while the rest of the citizens had to rely on their own efforts and go to the virgin lands beyond the Urals.

This project led to a growth of anti-Semitism in the USSR, the rates of resettlement were high, but Jews were given the most difficult, badly tended lands, and gradually Agro-Joint began curtailing financing. After the war, the idea to form a Jewish state in the USSR in the Crimea became criminal – and those who supported it paid with their lives.

5. How Mayakovsky agitated for moving to the Crimea

In the late 1920s – before plans to create a Jewish Crimea became seditious – the Soviet government wanted Jews to start to settle in the Crimea en masse, and for any project of this scale, good propaganda was required. The mouthpiece of this campaign was the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who with Lilya Brik and Abram Room made the silent film “Jews on the land”.

In 1927, the Briks and Mayakovsky travelled around the Crimea, and it was then, evidently, that the idea to make the propaganda film arose. Mayakovsky wrote the screenplay (and the “titles”) with Viktor Shklovsky.

The phrases by the characters of the film written by Mayakovsky convey a brief and simple idea to the audience: there (in the cities) life is hungry and cold, but here (in the virgin lands), life hard but there is plenty of food . “The ox once did not understand the Jew, and the Jew did not understand the ox. But now the Jew has understood the bull, and the bull the Jew,” Mayakovsky’s title say. And one of the characters, an old man (also in the titles) adds: “What didn’t I see in the village? I didn’t see bread! But here there will be bread. Because there is water and land!” At the end of the 17-minute film it states: “So far around 100,000 Jews have moved to the land. A great deal more remains to be done.” How far these figures correspond to the truth, no one can say.


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