. 1923-1941 ()

11/04/2005 | Vaditus

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. 1Hence, 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. 3Seven 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. 4Barring 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. 5As 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. 7By 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 (and other "productive") work allowed lishentsy to regain their civil rights.

Soviet inputs to the resettlement project were substantial. First and foremost, they provided free land, transportation, and tax exemptions for the colonists as well as fuel and other logistical support for Agro-Joint operations. In 1924 and 1925, the regime established two agencies dedicated entirely to the colonization project-- the Komzet and Ozet. Originally chaired by Petr Smidovich, the Komzet (the Commission for the Settlement of Jewish Laborers on the Land under the Council of Soviet Nationalities for the VTsIK) was meant to oversee the resettlement enterprise and its foreign benefactors. Because the total number of Soviet-Jewish farmers never exceeded 9 percent of the Jewish population of the USSR, Komzet carried (until its liquidation in [End Page 851] 1938) greater symbolic than practical importance for most Soviet Jews. 9Nominally active until 1938, Ozet (the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land) was responsible for the popularization of Jewish colonization in the shtetls and among the general population. The character of the leadership and the scale of the membership in this semi-independent committee changed over time. Created by Jewish political and communal luminaries committed to the colonization project, Ozet gradually sovietized and lost most of its original roles. Under this makeshift partnership of Soviet and foreign benefactors, the Jewish colonies survived and thrived under the Soviet system only to succumb to occupation by the Wehrmacht in the autumn of 1941.

An array of sources makes the Agro-Joint episode an extraordinarily informative case study for the evolution of rural authority. If much of the Soviet countryside remained hidden from the outside world in this period, these Jewish colonies became the object of scrutiny for many: Agro-Joint personnel, visitors from America, representatives from other foreign philanthropies in Russia, 10 Communist Party workers, 11officials of the Komzet, state functionaries, workers' delegations organized by Ozet, journalists, and the GPU. Dozens of these visitors, inspectors, and delegations left accounts of the colonies, the neighboring non-Jewish villages, and the roles assumed by the Agro-Joint in the absence of state administration.
The Blind Speaking to the Deaf: Center-Periphery Relations during the NEP

The readiness of the young Soviet state to cooperate with a "bourgeois" philanthropy must be understood in the context of the political and economic chaos of the mid-1920s. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks had redistributed former gentry lands to the peasantry, but the mood and output of the village had not improved. In terms of control, the mir remained a world unto itself in the 1920s; the regime made only intermittent, largely ineffectual attempts to regulate it through a thin network of Sovietorgans-- comprised of village [End Page 852] soviets, party and Komsomol cells, and secret police. 12 Of equal importance in their future relations with the Agro-Joint, the Bolsheviks had thus far failed to modernize rural Russia. Rather, the same distance from government supervision that allowed free trade under the NEP also preserved rural backwardness-- the Soviet state invested little or nothing in agriculture. Instead, the technological gap widened between Russia and the West while relations between Moscow and the village deteriorated. 13

With only tenuous control over the region and economic recovery nowhere in sight, one could expect the party to grant significant authority in this enterprise to its most loyal arm in the Jewish community-- the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party (the Evsektsiia). In practice, however, the conscious marginalization of the Evsektsiia in favor of the Komzet demonstrated the Kremlin's resolve to isolate ideology from the daily supervision of colonization. From the party's perspective, the Jewish Sections not only lacked a functional apparatus but also projected the ideological extremism that could antagonize the valued foreign sponsors. Even more indicative, the Soviets knew that the Evsektsiia drew antagonism from the Jewish street-- its involvement in colonization could only be counterproductive. Therefore, the Komzet, and not the Evsektsiia, was given operative responsibilities. We shall see to what degree the former exercised this authority. Charged solely with observation and reportage on the colonies, the Evsektsiia found even this difficult due to chronic manpower constraints. 14 [End Page 853]

In dealing with the colonies, the central authorities usually acted only when incited or energized from below. The fate of the Hehalutz Zionist pioneer movement and its three small agricultural communes in Crimea illustrates this point. 15At the top, the Kremlin recognized that neither the large disproportion of Jews in the early Soviet leadership nor the promises of future improvements compensated for most Jews' prolonged suffering in the former Pale. Under such conditions, the successful Hehalutz communes amplified the threat that Zionism might become an alternate source of allegiance for Soviet Jews, especially among new colonists in Crimea. For its part, however, the Kremlin did not initiate action against Hehalutz. Instead, this came from the Evsektsiia, which for years had labeled Hehalutz a chauvinistic organization that obstructed the assimilation of Jews into Soviet society. Moreover, Moscow heard from Evsektsiia officials in Crimea that the Hehalutz communes were a natural magnet for the surrounding colonists, "stronger than Komsomol cells." 16 Driven by its internationalist ideology, the Evsektsiia therefore helped unleash the power of the state once it gauged that these "nationalist" communards could not be cowed. 17In response to this campaign, the Kremlin made an opportunistic adjustment to its general policy of Jewish colonization with the decision to liquidate Hehalutz in 1928. 18

Like the destruction of Hehalutz, the choice of Crimea and southern Ukraine as the site for large-scale Jewish colonization shows the force of initiatives from below during the early 1920s. With Hehalutz, the venom came from secondary Jewish communists. In the case of colonization, grass-roots pressure dictated the geographic focus for mass resettlement. Specifically, the [End Page 854] colonization contract signed between the JDC and the Sovnarkom in 1924 simply institutionalized the physical parameters and the pragmatic goals of a spontaneous settlement movement of hundreds of Jewish families from the former Pale that had been in motion since 1922.

The recruitment of candidates for colonization revealed important facets of center-periphery relations. Here, stern reprimands from Komzet (the responsible Soviet commission) did not deter local authorities from the abuse of regulations governing the recruitment and dispatch of new colonists from the shtetls of Belorussia and Ukraine to Crimea. For example, the presidium of the Belo-Tserkov raikom repeatedly sent "cripples" and families without working members to the colonies. 19This exemplified a troubling, but rational, tactic adopted by local authorities throughout the former Pale of Settlement: this government-sponsored campaign offered a superb opportunity to divest their communities of social-welfare cases or of recent, unwanted arrivals, among them, many single mothers. 20
Moscow and the Tatar Communists

Although it was not a premeditated goal of the project, Jewish colonization shaped and reflected the transfer of power from Simferopol and Kiev (Kharkov) to Moscow. This process, however, carried risks for the Soviets; as in other new national autonomous oblasts and republics, the leaders in Crimea and Ukraine guarded the status of their titular ethnic majorities. Therefore, the resettlement of Jews there could ignite local resistance and destabilize Soviet nationality policy in the region.

Moscow's enthusiasm for Jewish colonization around the Black Sea was tied, in great part, to its alienation from the periphery. In theory, the state could offset institutional weakness in the republics by placing ethnic Slavs or sympathetic indigenous leaders in key positions in the regional capitals. In reality, the party usually possessed neither in the 1920s. Instead, the percentage [End Page 855] of indigenous party membership fluctuated with the distance from the center, dropping to single digits in some areas. Crimea fared particularly poorly in this respect: Tatars accounted for only 10 percent of the republic's party membership in 1922. Even after intense rural recruitment campaigns during the NEP, their proportion rose only to 10.7 percent. 21

Given these unpleasant facts, Jewish colonization probably was all the more attractive to the Soviets. It allowed them to balance hostile, "backward" populations on the borderlands with more loyal and "modern" Jews. 22Moscow had a solid statistical basis for this approach. In 1922, Jewish membership in the Communist Party was 250 percent greater than their share in the population. In Belorussia and Ukraine (the primary recruiting grounds for colonization), Jews constituted particularly large proportions of party membership. It behooved the Soviets to redistribute them in areas with a weaker party presence. Although the ratio of Jews in the CPSU later declined, it still compared favorably to other ethnic groups in the periphery, especially to Tatars and Germans in Crimea. 23

As it did with other ethnic minorities throughout the country, the regime created five Jewish autonomous districts (raiony) from March 1927 to March 1935 in response to the large influx of Jewish agricultural settlers in northern Crimea and southern Ukraine. 24 These five districts then subdivided into 126 Jewish village soviets, which contained clear Jewish majorities. 25By 1941, Jews constituted slender demographic majorities or large pluralities in three of their five national districts; they accounted for approximately 30 percent of the [End Page 856] population in the other two. 26In the intervening years, important partitions occurred within and adjacent to the five official Jewish districts: groups of Jewish settlements crystallized into distinct (but informal) blocs, ranging in size from hundreds to thousands of colonists. 27For example, such blocs could be found around the towns of Kolai (today called Azovskoe), Kurman-Kemel'chi (today called Krasnogvardeiskoe), and Biiuk-Onlar (today called Oktiabr'skoe).

These compact Jewish settlement blocs became the paramount, albeit unofficial, political result of colonization for the settlers and the regions they inhabited. No one imposed these blocs from above. Rather, they emerged as the government allocated, and the Agro-Joint developed, new regions from 1924 to 1929.The strength of these compact settlement blocs sprang from the opportunities made available by physical transplantation to an underpopulated, understaffed region and Agro-Joint's training of a Jewish professional and administrative cadre. Within the blocs, colonists remained relatively impervious to Soviet indoctrination and successfully assumed many party and government posts: these included kolkhoz and village soviet chairmanships, jobs in the raion infrastructure, and posts in the local Komzet, Komsomol, and NKVD. 28

The blocs point to the importance of local arrangements over official policy. From all indications, they were considerably sounder than the five formal Jewish autonomous districts, which, according to Benjamin Pinkus, had many shortcomings. 29If Jews constituted only slim demographic majorities in three of the five districts, they heavily outnumbered other ethnic groups in the compact settlement blocs. From 1929 to 1941, one could travel dozens of miles inside such blocs, even if they did not necessarily conform to the borders of the [End Page 857] raiony. 30 Hence these tight clusters of settlements described the parameters and routines of daily life no less than the official districts.

Under normal circumstances, such a large influx of "outsiders" would present challenges to local control. In the case of Crimea, Jewish colonization exacerbated the fragile political arrangements that prevailed between Simferopol and Moscow. Shortly after the Red Army conquered the peninsula during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks co-opted and installed the leading Tatar nationalist party (Milli Firka) as the titular head of the new ASSR. Although this was never more than a marriage of convenience for Moscow, geographic isolation and technical impediments gave these Tatar nationalists considerable latitude to correct perceived injustices perpetrated by the tsars and commissars. 31 The Crimean Tatar ASSR-- now led by the head of Milli Firka, Veli Ibrahimov [Ibragimov]-- thereby exercised significant, albeit incomplete, autonomy and oversaw a renaissance of Tatar culture in the mid-1920s. 32In most respects, the national units in Crimea and southern Ukraine thus conformed to the general structure of the Soviet Union in the 1920s-- the apportionment of some political power to indigenous ethnic groups. 33

Multi-ethnicity in the peninsula appreciably offset the status granted to Ibrahimov's regime (known collectively as Tatar communists). Sizable emigration to the Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War and savage fighting during the Civil War had heavily depleted their presence (particularly in the countryside), reducing the Tatars to one-quarter of Crimea's population in 1921. The remaining Tatars were usually devout Muslims, socially conservative and resistant to Bolshevik ideology. 34Thus, a Muslim Tatar minority presided over a mix of Orthodox Ukrainians and Russians (51 percent of the general population of 720,000), Mennonite Germans and Swiss (6 percent), [End Page 858] Lutheran Estonians, and urban Jews. 35 Few of these groups had a natural affinity for urban, Russian communism.

In any discussion of Crimea, it is important to remember that the peninsula had ignited and survived political storms before and after the revolution. Associated for generations with leisure and aristocratic privilege, it carried a special significance for Russians, though few had partaken of Crimea's rare treats. Notwithstanding the devastation of civil war, contemporaries warmly recalled the peninsula's rich agricultural history; it was, and remained, a valued prize. 36No matter who ruled, Crimea did not lend itself to easy control. One railroad line passed through a land area approximately the size of Belgium; passable roads, radios, newspapers, and telephones were rare, at least until the 1930s. Moreover, low literacy in rural Crimea, like elsewhere in the country, impeded indoctrination. 37Indeed, the peninsula fit the mold of under-government in the Soviet periphery; even among themselves, deeply rooted tensions and prejudices divided southerners from the Tartars of the northern steppes. 38 Furthermore, because many of the non-Tatars who inhabited northern Crimea resented the Tatarization mandated by korenizatsiia, Ibrahimov probably elicited the loyalty of little more than the peninsula's Tatar [End Page 859] population. 39 Consequently, his reach stopped a few kilometers to the north of Simferopol.

In rural Crimea, colonization by non-Tatars preceded the Jewish influx and set important precedents in the countryside. At the invitation of the tsars, German colonists had settled in the peninsula starting in 1804; they prospered, proliferated, and eventually came to dominate the rural landscape. 40Although contributing much to the rural economy, these Germans had few social ties with indigenous Tatars or other national groups. The "otherness" of these Europeans probably sensitized the Tatars in general, and the Tatar communist leaders of the early 1920s in particular, to the potential benefits and dangers of colonization by "outsiders."

From the mid-1920s, the state gradually reasserted its authority over local nationalists throughout the Soviet Union, beginning with the removal of Mirza Sultan-Galiev (Ibrahimov's political patron) from official posts. 41Among all the non-Slavic republics, ethnic and religious differences added to the growing mistrust; Crimea was no exception. At bottom, Soviet leaders saw Crimea as a foreign land and people, bred by class, culture, and religion to be [End Page 860] anti-communist. 42 Tatars, as non-Slavs with a troublesome recent history, were suspect in Moscow, decades before their deportation in 1944. 43
Shopkeepers and Peddlers in the Breach of the Center-Periphery Conflict

The Tatar communists and the first generation of republican leaders in Ukraine never shared Moscow's enthusiasm for Jewish colonization. On the contrary, Jewish settlement contributed to the local leaders' terminal clashes with the center. The establishment of official and informal Jewish territorial blocs seemed to encroach on the ethnic identity of the host national autonomous entities, reduced their available land area, and deepened their worry over dwindling resources. 44Even if the Soviet authorities prioritized Jewish resettlement, the Tatar communists still believed that the lands allotted by the government for colonization should be committed to the resettlement of their brethren purportedly about to return from Romania or for the relief of impoverished mountain Tatars. Making matters worse in the eyes of the Tatar and Ukrainian leaders, the Jewish units came under external administrative and service umbrellas (the foreign philanthropies and Komzet). This heightened wariness in Simferopol and Kiev about the intentions of Moscow and the colonizing organizations.

For local leaders, already uncomfortable with a pattern of decrees from the center, the Jewish colonies were an outright provocation. In their view, the colonists-- even if unwittingly-- served as agents for the expansion of centralized (or "foreign") rule. Tatar communists genuinely believed in the legitimacy of their local autonomy and bridled against this obvious violation of their political space. 45 In response to this perceived threat, the Crimean and Ukrainian [End Page 861]governments tried to eliminate, or at least reduce, the resettlement quotas and land allotments. Bad timing worsened matters for the Tatar communists: Simferopol's attempt to flex its political muscles coincided with the center's campaign against local nationalists (which had just begun with the demotion of Sultan-Galiev). Beginning in late 1924, Ibrahimov and others triggered a forceful response from the center by blatant obstruction of Sovnarkom directives on colonization. 46Contrary to the image presented in contemporary Soviet pamphlets, Tatar resistance to Jewish colonization derived neither from the personal caprice of Veli Ibrahimov nor from a narrow cabal of extremists. 47Rather, Moscow's unilateral orders to allocate land to Jewish colonists had kindled antagonism throughout the Crimean government.

Colonization proved a decisive weapon as the Soviet regime, with help from loyalists in Simferopol, broke the Tatar communist leadership. The Agro-Joint and its colonists had inadvertently given the center a pretext to assert its authority over local, "chauvinistic," leaders. Caught in a conflict larger than the colonization enterprise, and desperate to ensure its rights to government lands, the Agro-Joint informally allied with the Kremlin against the Tatar communists. 48Enthusiasm, a sense of urgency, and fortuitous timing propelled Samuil Efimovich Liubarskii [Samuel Lubarsky] (the future assistant director of Agro-Joint) into a quasi-government function, as Komzet appointed him its plenipotentiary to the Crimean government in 1925. 49 His subsequent report on Tatar communist resistance to Soviet authority proved [End Page 862] disastrous for Ibrahimov. 50He told Komzet of the "lack of concern for state interests in the position of the Crimean Narkomzem," not simply their resistance to colonization. 51The director of the Agro-Joint (Dr. Joseph Rosen) followed Liubarskii's report with an impassioned appeal to Komzet for action. Despite forceful demands, Tatar communist leaders refused to fulfill Komzet's quotas for land allotments for Jewish colonization. 52An ominous sign of what lay ahead came in the autumn of 1925, with a scathing report from the secretary of the obkom (Petropavlovskii), a pivotal Moscow loyalist; he recommended to Stalin that the Tatar "right-nationalist" class enemies, kulaks, bourgeois, and intelligentsia be removed from the obkom. 53

Letters from individual colonies further fueled the anger in Moscow toward Simferopol. Here, the authors emphasized the national ramifications of Tatar communist resistance to directives from Komzet and Sovnarkom on land allocations for Jewish colonization. For example, an open letter from the Pobeda artel to the national Yiddish-language newspaper (Emes) implored the VTsIK to force compliance among the Tatar communists; after all, Jewish colonization had already achieved "colossal global political significance." 54Such appeals alluded to the implications of Jewish colonization manifest in the involvement of foreign philanthropic organizations, the potential of the project to solve the traditional "Jewish question," and in the possible creation of a Soviet-Jewish homeland. These calls reinforced the Kremlin's centrist agenda and primed it for stern action against such seemingly wanton resistance in Simferopol.

Moscow-- wary, and still in the midst of the succession struggle-- moved incrementally from legalistic and administrative finesse to brute force in order to break local resistance to Jewish colonization. Komzet at first outmaneuvered Simferopol's attempt to invoke the Soviet Land Codex in 1925. 55 Two years [End Page 863]later, the regime still tended more to cajole than to coerce the Tatar communists; Moscow's loyalists in Simferopol invoked the socialist duty of the Tatar communists to support Jewish resettlement and went no further than implied threats. 56 Concurrently, an influential proponent of colonization in Moscow (Iurii Larin) vilified the Tatar communist leadership. 57 In a scathing condemnation of Ibrahimov to the VTsIK, Larin invoked the center-periphery issue, not just colonization. 58 Removal of the Tatar communists began shortly thereafter, culminating in the execution of Ibrahimov in May 1928. 59 With the political situation apparently under control, Moscow delayed cultural russification in Crimea until the mid-1930s. 60

Colonization had a lesser but significant impact on the conflict between center and periphery in Ukraine. Armed with greater leverage than Simferopol (and not troubled by the ethnic and religious friction that vexed relations between the Tatar communists and the Kremlin), political maneuvers by the Ukrainian Narkomzem and Central Committee were able to impede colonization. 61 This success can also be attributed, in part, to better concealment of [End Page 864] their resistance from the outside world. 62 Their effectiveness should not be overestimated, however. 63In the end, the Ukrainians slowed but did not halt colonization. Komzet enlisted higher authorities to overcome these and other attempts to deflect colonization from southern Ukraine to Crimea or "the East." 64The outcome of Ukrainian resistance to Moscow's directives on colonization differed fundamentally from the Crimean version in another respect-- its actors (men like Vlas Chubar') survived the episode only to fall victim to purges in the 1930s. 65In sum, the conflict between republican authorities and Moscow over Jewish colonization must be measured mainly within an ongoing tug-of-war between center and periphery, not simply as an outgrowth of official antisemitism. 66 As shall be seen shortly, antisemitism toward Jewish newcomers materialized from below no less than from above.

The arrival of colonists altered the local environment in several ways. Because the lands allotted to the Komzet (and by extension, to the Jewish settlers) did not lack claimants among the indigenous peoples, colonization sparked [End Page 865] quick, grass-roots reactions against the perceived injustice of the government's affirmative action on behalf of the Jewish newcomers. 67Most markedly, immigration (by Jews and, to a lesser extent, other ethnic groups) soaked up much of the government land that had been staples of previous rental arrangements, most often from Germans. 68Fearful of possible eviction from these and other parcels, German colonists frequently lashed out against their new neighbors, sure that they had conspired with a seemingly Jewish-controlled regime in Moscow. 69As "proof" of this discrimination, many embittered local Germans pointed out that the state did not give them equipment equal to that provided by the Agro-Joint to the Jewish newcomers. 70

The abuse heaped on the Jewish colonists by the indigenous population thus represented an attack on the center over the violations of existing land tenure arrangements, added to frustration with the widening gaps between the general rural squalor and the emerging prosperity in Jewish settlements. 71Neighboring peasants asked, "why did these alien people come, why did 'some kind of American' appear?" Quite soon, however, hostility gave way to amazement that Jews were capable of manual labor. 72 Other attacks conformed [End Page 866] to trends of rural hooliganism-- something hardly unique to this period or to the area. 73 If threats to "slaughter all the zhidy" accompanied some assaults on colonists, 74 enmity toward these seeming interlopers-- regardless of their ethnicity-- was still the dominant dynamic.

Informal alliances of colonists, the Agro-Joint, and the central authorities in the second half of the 1920s reduced local resistance and, at the same time, increased the state's penetration in the countryside. Some colonies took small-scale, proactive measures as a first line of defense. Such tacticsincluded the stationing of barking dogs around the perimeter of a colony, fieldwork only at night to avoid confrontations with non-Jewish neighbors, and a formal request for handguns. 75Most colonies, however, appealed to local police and village soviets for protection. If dissatisfied, settlers then petitioned the Crimean obkom or courts. When all else failed, they wrote to the authorities in Moscow, who "intervened where local officials closed their eyes to antisemitism." 76Beyond the deterrent effect of Soviet legal muscle, a conscious policy among the foreign philanthropies probably encouraged local harmony. For its part, the Agro-Joint befriended the neighboring non-Jews by the establishment of cooperative business ventures, the drilling of wells, the distribution of high-quality seeds, and other programs. 77 [End Page 867]

Jewish colonization was just one component of inter-ethnic relations in the region. True, the settlers were especially alien to the southern steppes of Soviet Russia: they usually knew nothing about agriculture, looked odd, and spoke a "foreign" language (Yiddish). But conflicts also erupted among other peoples. Compared to the struggles against the center, Jewish colonists were a minor annoyance for most ethnic minorities. Therefore, when the leaders of the national groups pondered their Jewish neighbors, it was in a broader context of ethnic relations and power equations vis-à-vis the government. 78
Agro-Joint: The Changing Face of Surrogacy, 1924-37

Due to the administrative gridlock common to the NEP, the Agro-Joint played an otherwise unlikely role in the economic and political life of the countryside. For example, land surveys by JDC and Komzet teams from 1923 onward revealed to the center salient points about contemporary Crimea and guided much of the subsequent colonization policy, most markedly the unification of tracts and the importance of establishing a reliable source of potable water. 79The unique position attained by the Agro-Joint allowed it to negotiate as an equal with a weak but ambitious government. In October 1924, its director (Joseph Rosen) wielded sufficient clout with the Soviets to dictate many terms of the first formal contract between the Joint and the Soviet government. This included absolute independence for the dispensation and the management of Agro-Joint's resources and the insistence that Sovnarkom, not just Komzet, ratify the agreement. 80Perhaps most surprising, the Agro-Joint received veto power over the appointment of local Komzet officials. Therefore, Dr. Rosen could contentedly report to the headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee in New York that the Komzet chairmen in Kherson, Crimea, and Moscow were "men of our own selection. The representative in Kherson, Mr. Strachum, is a good personal friend of mine of 25 years." 81Exhibiting considerable political common sense, its relative strengths did not lead the leaders of the JDC in New York to press Moscow on issues where they [End Page 868] seemed to have no leverage, most notably on the official policy toward organized religion.

The agreements signed with the Soviets, together with the implicit value of its American sponsors (the JDC), invested the Agro-Joint with prestige and influence far beyond its material importance. Empowered with this political asset, the directors of the Agro-Joint in Russia then persuaded both their own employees and Soviet counterparts by invoking the "will" of the American benefactors. This found immediate expression in overcoming local resistance to expanded land allotments in late 1924. On learning that "the JDC considered [this] as a practical experiment, on the basis of which the Americans will decide [sic]" the Ukrainian government relented to Komzet's demands; the specter of losing American dollars evidently overpowered their nationalist priorities. 82In the winter of 1927-28, the negotiations for renewal of the 1924 contract illustrated similar power configurations. Sensing turmoil in the Soviet government following the defeat of the Left Opposition, Joint officials in New York pressured Rosen to seek additional concessions for colonization.

Settlers and Agro-Joint agronomists faced comparable challenges in the vacuum of state administrative authority. Each explored its position and maneuvering room while Moscow and the regional capitals dealt in high politics. Reinstatement of voting rights to the former lishentsy, exemptions from tax and military service, and favorable loans encouraged the recruitment of new colonists in the shtetls, but murky legal issues with the state impeded progress on the ground. 83 For instance, confusion over the new legal terms of landownership in the first years of organized settlement slowed introduction of vineyards-- a particularly profitable farm branch. Unsure of their future rights for a crop that demanded a multiyear commitment, settlers delayed planting. 84 Colonists hedged against these types of uncertainties by staking de facto claims [End Page 869] to fields; they intentionally ploughed surplus land to maximize occupancy. 85 A lesser predicament concerned the extension of voting rights to settlers whose families remained in the shtetls of the former Pale. Around the time of a renewed national crackdown against lishentsy in 1928, Komzet began to disenfranchise colonists who received outside income-- usually generated by businesses or property left to relatives and friends in the shtetls. 86Even after Agro-Joint helped mediate these issues, new legal problems between the settlers and local authorities invariably arose and had to be resolved.

Owing to the weakness of the state during the 1920s, Agro-Joint agronomists were, by default, the only authority figures and service providers new colonists saw in the first three years of settlement. In practice, the agronomists managed small administrative fiefdoms; each dealt with housing, credit, farm, supply, cultural, and transportation issues for six to eight new settlements, and then they cleared fields for future tracts. 87 Although some faltered in their duties, 88 the agronomists bestowed far more guidance on the colonies than on any other farming sector in the USSR-- a factor essential to the success of the compact settlement blocs. 89The fate of Jewish colonies outside the Agro-Joint's protective shield showed the risks of rural disorder. In such cases, envious local authorities preyed with ease upon the assets of unaffiliated Jewish collectives. 90 [End Page 870]

In light of the multiple sources of administrative authority in the countryside, fluid alliances formed among the Agro-Joint, Komzet, and settlers. Initially, colonists allied with Komzet (a state organ) against Agro-Joint (then perceived as the preeminent local power) to achieve particular goals. 91Indeed, as the surrogate authority in the colonies, the Agro-Joint (a foreign philanthropy), not the state, bore the brunt of the settlers' complaints. At the same time, its agronomists brokered no-win conflicts between the boards of colonies and obstinate settlers. The Agro-Joint staff also insulated the colonists from the state by absorbing complaints that might otherwise have gone up the government's bureaucratic ladder. Although this may have undermined their credibility with some settlers, the Agro-Joint agronomists thereby sheltered colonists from the probable intervention of the state, had such altercations come to the attention of Komzet. 92Indeed, Agro-Joint agronomists continued to obscure colonists' improprieties, even as the state (via Komzet) became more intrusive in the late 1920s. 93For example, Iakov M. Surdutovich knew of multiple, illegal land rentals but withheld the information until confronted by the chairman of the Crimean Komzet. 94This type of behavior, however, did not preclude cooperative efforts of the Agro-Joint and Komzet to discipline particularly troublesome colonists. 95But overall, the state (represented by Komzet) usually intervened aggressively in the settlers' lives only in the wake of direct appeals (for, among other things, a better cow) or in response to spasmodic pressures from above. 96

As the surrogate authority, the experiences of Agro-Joint paralleled certain trends normally associated with the state. Just as Russian peasants assumed that "if Moscow only knew," it would correct local suffering, Jewish colonists [End Page 871] idolized Agro-Joint's directors. 97 Specifically, colonists often focused their rage on local agronomists but apparently venerated Joseph Rosen and Samuil Liubarskii (the director and assistant director of the Agro-Joint) as benevolent, if distant, figures. 98More important to the majority of colonists, heavy debts made them wary of the Agro-Joint. Because the Agro-Joint was the largest single creditor for most colonists, it often appeared to them more burdensome than the government and became a primary target for their barbs. 99

The transfer of colonies in the Evpatoriia district of Crimea from the supervision of Ozet (the Soviet committee created to support Jewish colonization) in 1929-30 further illustrated how an informal alliance between colonists and the Agro-Joint could override government policy. The 1924 contract between the Sovnarkom and the Agro-Joint had made Ozet responsible for Jewish colonization in the Evpatoriia district. This semi-official party organ, however, had proven utterly inept as a settlement organization. Pushed by appeals from settlers in the district, the Agro-Joint petitioned the central government (through the local offices of Komzet) for the transfer. Initially disinclined, Moscow eventually yielded to the pressure and reassigned authority to the Agro-Joint. 100

Conscious of the center's inadequacy during the early years of settlement, most local officials looked benignly on the Agro-Joint. As a visitor from the Ukrainian Narkomzem confessed: "If the situation of Jewish settlers is not so great, at least this situation is no worse than the rest of Ukraine, where there is neither Soviet authority nor Agro-Joint." 101Whereas pragmatic authorities initially had accepted the Agro-Joint's local power, their discomfort increased in concert with the greater political ambitions that rained down from above. Nevertheless, Agro-Joint was a dominant factor in rural life throughout the [End Page 872] regions of Jewish colonization and funneled information upward well into the 1930s.

The state tolerated Agro-Joint for over a decade because it needed order in the countryside. On the one hand, chronic failure by organizations more closely identified with the regime-- namely, Ozet and the sovietized branch of the Organization for Rehabilitation of Jews through Training (ORT)-- had shown that not everyone could manage the colonization project and bring economic progress to the region. On the other hand, the state had faltered in attempts to manage northern Crimea and southern Ukraine without the Joint. Despite its attempts to gather hard data about the colonies up to 1930, Komzet (hence, the government) knew little beyond what it was told by the Agro-Joint and seldom acted without the latter's cooperation. 102 Gradual supercession of the Agro-Joint in some administrative roles, shakeups of Komzet personnel, 103 and the transfer of equipment to state-operated Machine Tractor Stations (MTS) during total (sploshnoi) collectivization did not wholly remedy the situation; the Crimean obkom still could not obtain reliable information and MTS service often failed, at least into the mid-1930s. 104

The heightened state activism embodied by total collectivization did not result in the summary displacement of surrogate authority. The Agro-Joint could still withhold resources, openly criticize the state's inadequacies among [End Page 873] the settlers and Komzet personnel, 105 participate as a legitimate partner in the local debate about the preferred form of collectivization, haggle with government agencies over the proper distribution of agronomists, and bargain with Moscow on behalf of imprisoned Hehalutz members. 106 This power brought many in the state's regional administration to call for the restriction of the Agro-Joint's local authority and the sovietization-- but not elimination-- of colonization. 107Notwithstanding these pressures, Agro-Joint's logistic support to the settlements in 1936-38 bridged a period of Soviet administrative chaos by alleviating chronic fiascoes in the state supply system and (together with ORT-Farband) through the investment in winter workshops, electrification, irrigation, and high-profit crops. 108
Colonization and the State's Velvet Fist

Educational and cultural activities, or the lack thereof, were a sign of the belated entry of the state into daily rural life. Colonies, mostly with their own [End Page 874] meager resources, set up small, religious primary schools (heders) in lieu of secular institutions during the first years of settlement. 109Therefore, religious interests temporarily gained ground in the void of alternatives. By early 1928, when the construction of secular schools by the Agro-Joint approached demand, the heders closed. 110 Thereafter, four-year primary schools opened in almost every colony, while settlement blocs founded seven-year schools. Simultaneously, the Agro-Joint worked with the government in the late 1920s to establish regional high schools as well as pedagogical and vocational institutions. 111 To keep the colonists happy, the Agro-Joint next initiated a program for stopgap, adult education. 112Yet by most accounts, the combined efforts of the service organizations achieved only episodic successes among the adult population during the 1920s. 113Even so, the voice of the state in education was still a distant echo. The sea change came only in 1937, with the national decree on the russification of all schools.

Showing an awareness (bred from proximity) that Moscow's bark was fiercer than its bite, Agro-Joint officials in Russia proved more assertive on religious issues than their superiors in New York. If the latter exercised caution, Bernhard Kahn (the director of the Joint's Berlin-based office of European operations) and Joseph Rosen confronted or circumvented Soviet institutions on religious matters, confident that the distance between Soviet policy and its application afforded them some maneuvering room, at least until April 1929. From the Agro-Joint office in Moscow, Rosen pressed the reluctant JDC in 1928 to preempt a Soviet campaign to convert synagogues into social halls in the shtetls. 114 But in New York, Cyrus Adler (chairman of the JDC's Cultural Committee and a renowned Judaic scholar) set his colleagues against Rosen's and Kahn's plan to test the goodwill of the People's Commissar of Enlightenment [End Page 875] (Anatolii Vasil'evich Lunacharskii) toward instruction of Hebrew in Russia's cities. 115Whether it was within the Joint's power to alter Stalin's religious policy is immaterial. Rather, it is noteworthy that caution toward the central institutions in Russia usually came from New York, not from Agro-Joint personnel more familiar with the limits of Soviet power.

Closer to the ground, it appears that much of the virulent anti-religious mood dissipated en route from Moscow to the periphery in the latter part of the 1930s. Persecution in the Soviet cities notwithstanding, the authorities monitored but did not halt private piety in the colonies. To be sure, religious freedom existed for no one under Stalin's reign, but among the colonists who sought it, the practice of religion was feasible (albeit with certain adaptations), at least until the organized evacuation of the kolkhozes from Crimea to Central Asia in the autumn of 1941. 116

Moscow's limitations, even after total collectivization, were manifest in other ways. The archives suggest that the state could not set unilateral grain procurement quotas in the Jewish collective farms. Instead, it negotiated these levels with kolkhoz chairmen. Although such discussions were never a dialogue of equals, higher officials had to strike a compromise with local realities and sensitivities. 117In addition, a rare report of overt religious repression (expulsion of the colonist Lazar Kabakov in 1933 or 1934 for agitating against work on the Sabbath) showed that punishments in the countryside might be more moderate than in the cities. Kabakov lived, in fact, to a ripe old age, a respected member of the Voroshilov colony and postwar kolkhoz. 118Overall, as the compact settlement blocs grew outward in the second half of the 1920s, they gained internal continuity, and thereby nurtured cultural coherence despite the government's attempts to atomize national groups in the 1930s.

The state's faint shadow, combined with a modicum of protection provided by the Agro-Joint's umbrella, left open avenues of partial political expression even in turbulent times. Because elements of the popular, anti-state tropes of the mid-1930s had trickled down, the settlers could sense the issues [End Page 876]and distress that gripped Russia's political center despite the physical distance from the controversy. Hence, colonists voiced the same doubts as others about the murder of Kirov. They told the secretary of the Saki raikom that the Leningrad Party boss "was not killed by us-- the lishentsy-- rather by you, the communists." 119 Such statements triggered alarmist reports to higher authorities but did not elicit much reaction. Local officials dutifully filed reports but meted out no blanket punishment; at most, they removed individual "class enemies" from the ranks of Jewish kolkhoz chairmen. 120In effect, it appears that the rank-and-file Jewish colonists enjoyed considerable immunity after such public remarks even if the Agro-Joint's surrogacy had waned.

The growing centralization of power in the second half of the 1930s triggered a reevaluation of the original colonization organizations. Moreover, painful memories of Agro-Joint's surrogacy from 1925 through the early 1930s, together with the regime's growing xenophobia, drove Moscow toward vindictiveness in the last days of the organization's life in 1937-38. 121Next, Komzet came under sharp criticism as a helpless victim or accomplice in the Agro-Joint's surrogacy; the Kremlin swiftly eliminated it in late 1937, purged most of its personnel (who were, according to the purgers, irreparably tainted by contact with foreigners), and reapportioned Komzet's functions. 122 Within weeks, the NKVD swept away much of Agro-Joint's staff in Moscow and some of its employees in the regional offices. 123The purge of Ozet followed shortly thereafter. In their place came the settlement departments of Narkomzem and the NKVD, two unambiguous state agencies. [End Page 877]

If during the 1920s the compact Jewish settlement blocs had coexisted with German or Tatar national entities in Crimea and southern Ukraine, the former survived the 1930s while the non-Jewish autonomies were decimated by dekulakization, the denouement of korenizatsiia, and the purges. 124 Even if the Jewish districts withered as administrative units in 1938 (owing to the withdrawal of the Agro-Joint and the sovietization of the settlement infrastructure under the Narkomzem and NKVD), 125 the settlement blocs maintained a relatively high degree of Jewish cultural life until the autumn of 1941. 126

A number of factors explain the continued cultural and administrative coherence in the Jewish settlement blocs compared to the government's assault on the comparable autonomous units of other national minorities. 127First, the Soviets saw no need to liquidate the formal Jewish districts or compact blocs because Jews could not be accused of conspicuous loyalty to another country. 128Second, and no less important, a Soviet propaganda campaign in the Russian language had already trumpeted the cultural autonomy, modernity, and collectivity in the Jewish colonies. 129In an age of rapidly expanding literacy, such propaganda placed some constraints on Soviet decision making; a reversal of policy bore political costs because the regime had to account for images it manufactured. Finally, as shall be seen, although colonists may not have identified with the Soviet regime, they did not provoke repression. 130 [End Page 878]
State Management of Jewish Kolkhozes, 1937-41

A clear contrast emerged between the xenophobic discourse in the center and the character of direct Soviet management in the colonies after 1937. The state viewed the colonies as, first and foremost, valuable agricultural assets. Therefore, Narkomzem and the NKVD did not overhaul the economic structure of the colonies after the departure of the Agro-Joint. Instead, they acted as supervisory agencies for the Jewish kolkhozes from 1938 until 1941. The archives show that Narkomzem and the NKVD reacted to the needs of newcomers and veterans, lobbied other state agencies on behalf of their new clients, faithfully distributed the funds left from the liquidation of the Agro-Joint, and followed Dr. Rosen's pattern of investment. 131

Intentions aside, the state was an incomplete, imperfect replacement for the foreign service organizations. Although highly edited reports from below boasted otherwise, the state often stumbled as it displaced Agro-Joint's functions. The latter, in fact, still mediated the relationship between the state and the colonists in 1938 and acted as the shadow management of the tractor repair shop in Dzhankoi (the crown jewel of the Agro-Joint's assets) for a few months after ownership passed to Ozet. 132The fate of the repair shop demonstrated that the mere transfer of authority did not professionalize the inheritors. Without the daily oversight of the Agro-Joint staff, the shop quickly sank into debt because its clients-- all funded by the state and evidently conscious of its limitations-- refused to pay the new management for the full costs of services. 133In addition to its other difficulties, the state also could not shoulder the timely supply of construction materials for new families in the Jewish and non-Jewish kolkhozes of Crimea. 134

State supervision of the Jewish colonies exposed challenges facing the central government in the immediate prewar period. Having identified a labor shortage in the Crimean colonies, Narkomzem tried to recruit new settlers but was unable to reach its own modest targets for 1937 and 1938-- a shortage of housing in the kolkhozes and defiant officials in the former Pale undercut its [End Page 879] efforts. 135 Why such resistance? By the late 1930s, industrialization in Russia and Ukraine had absorbed excess labor, thereby eliminating the local incentive to jettison unemployed people-- a key to the recruitment drives in the 1920s. In the same way that Narkomzem and the NKVD could not impose recruitment quotas on local authorities in the late 1930s, they could not reverse the excessive rural flight begun earlier in the decade. 136State management of the Jewish settlements did suggest, however, that these agencies achieved a degree of efficiency that contrasted the norms of incompetence endemic to the central bureaucracy since the October Revolution.

Russification altered the face of local administrations and the language of power but had a negligible effect on the character and ethnic composition of the colonies. While it is true that manpower shortages led to an increase of non-Jewish newcomers after 1936, 137even the most extreme (and unsubstantiated) estimate of "internationalization" suggests that 20 percent of the members of Crimean kolkhozes were non-Jews in 1941. 138 For their part, Narkomzem and the NKVD remained committed to the recruitment of Jewish settlers. 139Furthermore, other than the substitution of Russian for Yiddish as the official language of instruction in the schools and rural administration in 1937, russification had little discernible effect on the Crimean colonies.

An unmistakable distinction emerges here between the fate of suspect institutions and the behavior of the state toward individuals in the countryside. Near the top, the Agro-Joint had stirred anger in the regional capitals. As key Ukrainian leaders told Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov in mid-1938: "All the agreements concluded with the Agro-Joint have been exclusively imposed on us and directed against the interests of the USSR. The unfavorableness of the agreements was intensified even more in the absence of Komzet inspection of the work of Agro-Joint and the granting by Komzet to Agro-Joint of a series [End Page 880] of privileges detrimental to the interests of the USSR." 140Yet the liquidation of the Agro-Joint and the other settlement organizations, together with the arrest and execution of their top officials from late 1937 through early 1938, had no ripple effect in the colonies. 141 On the contrary, as seen above, the regime worked to strengthen colonization. 142Finally, in contrast to economic slowdown elsewhere in the country following the purges, archival and other sources indicate a steady rise in the living standards of the colonies from 1938 to 1941. 143
Confronting the "Good American Uncle" and the Soviet Stepfather

During the seventeen years of organized Jewish colonization, the settlers had to deal first with agronomists sent by a foreign philanthropy and then with the officials of an increasingly intrusive state. How did this transition affect the colonists' maneuvering room? At first glance, Agro-Joint administrators wielded enormous power. After all, familiarity with the colonists, enhanced by control of credit, gave agronomists unmatched local strength. 144Seemingly invested with the authority of the government and the American sponsors, an agronomist could seem indomitable. The archives show, however, that just as Joseph Rosen leveraged Soviet authorities, the colonists manipulated the Agro-Joint by applying pressure on sincere but inexperienced sector agronomists. [End Page 881] Unsure of their authority, burdened with a daunting task, isolated Agro-Joint officials often succumbed to exaggerated pleas or threats. 145

Tactics employed by Jewish colonists against the settlement organizations often mirrored or surpassed those used by non-Jewish peasants against the state. If the opportunity arose, settlers showered visiting dignitaries with direct appeals or catcalls against local agronomists. 146 They also sent occasional letters of complaint to Soviet periodicals, but the efficacy of these was unclear. 147More daring colonists with scores to settle filed class-based accusations against Agro-Joint and Komzet officials. Vigilant GPU representatives unfailingly investigated such charges. 148Such inquiries likely discouraged Agro-Joint and Komzet personnel from future confrontations with their client-colonists. If all else failed, Jewish settlers (like their non-Jewish counterparts) wrote to Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, the All-Union peasant elder. 149Colonists also tried to capitalize on rifts they sensed between Komzet and Agro-Joint. By the late 1920s, Komzet and Agro-Joint adjusted to colonists' defense mechanisms by revoking the land use rights of settlers who did not sow or who openly resisted the instructions of agronomists. 150

Most important for the survival of the enterprise, the colonists evidently understood the boundaries of permissible resistance in the Soviet system. True, the settlers occasionally acted with audacity toward Komzet in the first decade [End Page 882] of colonization. But on the whole, they exercised caution. Hence, they never openly resisted the obkom, raikoms, and village soviets. Whether a result of timidity, gratitude, or grass-roots Realpolitik, this restraint remained consistent, even if fellow Jews often manned the agencies of the state at the village and district level. 151The spread of central power throughout the periphery in the late 1930s necessitated even greater caution; flouting the NKVD or Narkomzem carried consequences far beyond the reproof of the Agro-Joint or Komzet. Even if some political expression was still possible in rural Crimea in the wake of the purges, the colonists became less vocal against figures of authority with the passage of time.

Prudence did not, however, rule out calculated attempts to circumvent the state. The Narkomzem generally recognized the colonists' practices for what they were-- evasion, not resistance. According to the Commissariat's reports, the method of choice was fictitious flight and resettlement as a means of collecting multiple grants and other benefits. Also, when pushed by the state in lean harvest years, the kolkhozes often responded with under-fulfillment of quotas, despite increased observation from above. 152 In both these scenarios, the state responded with administrative penalties, not brute force. 153

Why did the purges pass over the seemingly vulnerable colonists in the late 1930s, now without their "good American uncle"? Above all, a large-scale rural purge needed collaborators. But the colonies lacked an important precondition: severe social stratification that encouraged the denunciation of "class enemies." Second, the regime balanced the ideological venom attached to the "foreign bourgeois" Agro-Joint with pragmatism. Because these hyper-productive units were an asset in a backward country preparing for war, the demonization of the Agro-Joint was not used to trigger a repression of the organization's clients. On another level, the Agro-Joint had "taught" the settlers how to avoid, not confront, the state. This included legal gerrymandering of government regulations for collectivization that at once circumvented trouble [End Page 883] spots and increased productivity. 154 In these ways, it appears that the Jewishcolonies stayed off the center's radar screen-- a crucial survival skill in the Soviet Union that the Tatar communists, the Hehalutz, and many other corporate entities did not learn in time.

Judging from this colonization episode, the Stalinist regime did not-- however much it may have wanted to-- exercise "totalitarian" control over daily life in the countryside of northern Crimea and southern Ukraine during the 1920s and the 1930s. For most of the period, the state could do little more than monitor events. The usual instruments of state penetration-- the Komsomol, the Evsektsiia, MOPR (the International Organization for Support of Revolutionaries), and even the GPU-- showed only limited utility in the Jewish colonies. The regime needed the help of others to supervise and develop the region.

The readiness of the Joint to support Jewish colonization served four functions for the Soviet state. It brought a novel western model of administration to the periphery while it injected, at almost no cost, unique technical expertise in Russia's backward hinterland and brought international prestige to an otherwise ostracized regime. Perhaps most valuable to Moscow, the arrival of Agro-Joint and its clients in Crimea gave the Kremlin an added, if unintended, tool in its preexisting political contest with Milli Firka. In this sense, the measures taken against Tatar communists illustrated the shifting power calculus in the center-periphery conflict and foreshadowed events in other republics.

Moscow's behavior toward the Jewish colonists reflected a dominant feature of its interwar rural policy-- neglect, not repression. If the state was lethal toward anyone perceived as a potential threat in the cities, this article suggests that elsewhere (particularly in the countryside) there could be islands of relative safety and prosperity. The settlers, in fact, experienced a more benign side of Soviet rule than most Jewish communities closer to the center. Whatever the cause, the experience in the colonies-- with the marked exception of the [End Page 884] Hehalutz communes-- suggests that vociferous rhetoric in Moscow did not always translate into ground-level implementation in the periphery.

As dictatorial rule grew in the population centers, the state did not immediately displace the Agro-Joint. Officials in Moscow and Simferopol might complain, but they left its surrogate authority and the coherence of its colonies intact for over a decade. Once the state had accumulated enough political muscle (or at least political nerve), the "bourgeois" Agro-Joint became more a nuisance than an asset. But even when the colonies were most vulnerable-- after the withdrawal of the Agro-Joint in 1937-- they enjoyed banner economic years, and very few lay members suffered from the purges. Thus the repression of the central Agro-Joint officials in 1937-38 did not reflect the entire enterprise, rather the different levels of terror applied in the center and periphery.

In hindsight, Agro-Joint's extraordinary local position from 1924 to 1937 resulted from a simple formula: it was strongest where the state was weakest-- technological progress in the geographic periphery. Whatever its success in this regard, Agro-Joint's local weight never translated to the national stage and should not be exaggerated. Instead, a veritable power vacuum in the periphery from the civil war until the early 1930s meant that Agro-Joint (and perhaps others) did not need to displace the state.

Institute of Contemporary Jewry
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Mount Scopus
Jerusalem 91905 Israel

Jonathan Dekel-Chen is a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Yale University Press on the Jewish agricultural colonization movement in Southern Ukraine and Crimea during the interwar period.

Copyright 2003 Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Research for this article was made possible through the generosity of the Research Scholar Program of the American Councils for International Education (ACTR-ACCELS), a Short-Term Fellowship from the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the John Fischer Scholarship from the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, the Lowenstein-Wiener Fellowship from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center, YIVO's Visiting Research Fellowship at the Max Weinreich Center, and the Sachar Fund for Academic Aid at Brandeis University. The Lady Davis Fellowship Trust supported postdoctoral work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

1. For example, in 1900Moscow had 8,546 poorly trained rural police officers to control 90 million peasants. While the secret police force multiplied rapidly thereafter, its focus remained urban. As early as the 1960s, Western scholarship addressed the chronic deficiency in the public services of the USSR; see Gur Ofer, The Service Sector in Soviet Economic Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Pre

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