It is well known among historians of the Soviet Union that, early in his reign, Joseph Stalin rejected Marx and Lenin's strongly internationalist variety of socialism, in favor of the more limited project of building real socialism within one state, while at the same time promoting the distinct national identities of all the ethnic groups within that state. Stalin wrote as early as 1913: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” He bemoaned the fact that “among the Jews there is no large and stable stratum connected with the land, which would naturally rivet the nation together.”
When he came to power, Stalin sought to do something for the Jews that would, for the first time in modern history, rivet the nation together. Some Jews weren't sure they liked the sound of that, but sensed that it was probably better than anything they could expect if they were to remain the neighbors of Cossacks and Belorussians. So they packed their bags and headed for the Far East to start a new life in the newly established capital of Jewish culture, the city of Birobidzhan.
There was just one small obstacle: a local population, correctly referred to as the 'Amuryak', but called by the Russians 'Birobidzhanis' ever since the rails for the Chita-Vladivostok train were first laid across the region. From the very first encounters in the 17th-century, no one knew what to make of them: they were not quite Asian, but not really anything else either. They were hairy like Ainu Men, but extremely small. A surveying team sent by Peter the Great in 1713 included a certain Nehemiah Butts, member of the Royal Society of London, who wrote to Johann Gabriel Sparwenfeld, the Swedish lexicographer and early pioneer of Slavic studies: “This Region is quite overrun by Conies, Tit-mice, and all the rudest Sortes of bird. As to the people, they are but half the Size of one Englishman, and twice, nay thrice as hirsute. The little men flee when they see such a Giant as I approaching towards them, whence I have not yet been able to ascertain, whether they are wanting of Language, or whether yet they have it, but daren't use it.”
“There is an indigenous population in the area around Birobidzhan,” Academician Mokroshchekov reports. “They are very small and hairy.”
“How small?”, Stalin perks up.
“The smallest of all Soviet peoples.”
“They have a very deep religious tradition, and a few holy sites to which they seem hopelessly attached. One of these is right where we're building the Jewish Autonomous Socialist House of Culture. It's a comical religion these Birobidzhanis have. They don't pray, or chant or make sacrifices or take communion or anything.”
“Well, they perform ablutions. For hours and hours. They go to this site and pull water out of a well, and proceed in ritual fashion to scrub every bodily crevice, between every finger and toe, under their nails, in their ears, everywhere. They scrub under their beards, and deep in their scalps. They do this all with their right hand, since the left hand is reserved, so our ethnologists report, for eating. The whole process can last up to eight hours. When they finish, they shout to their fellow Birobidzhanis who are still busy scrubbing themselves: 'Lo, I am clean in the eyes of Deng-Uk,' whom we believe to be their God.”
“And that's it?”
“That appears to be it, Ios' 'Ssarionich.”
“That's not a religion! That's bathtime! Tvoyu mat'! Let's build 'em some showers a few miles out of town, a nice big barrack with rows of showerheads. Soap, towels, everything. They'll love it. And get moving on the House of Culture. What's a nation if it's not riveted together by its own House of Culture?”
“That's a good question,” Ios' 'Ssarionich.”
In time the settlers came to be known as 'Yeaois', a neonym formed as a demonym from the Russian acronym for 'Jewish Autonomous Region': Yevreiskaia Avtonomnaia Oblast'. Over the course of the 1930s, Yeaoia, or Yeaoistan, as the Central Asians preferred to call it, came to be hailed as a great success. Jewish settlers from all around the world arrived there to make a new life, from impoverished Algerian Sephardim to prosperous American businessmen. Soon, many of the movers and shakers of Hollywood began to relocate there as well, after Stalin came good on a promise to build them a movie studio that would make MGM look like “a mere toy model.” Eddie Cantor was the first to go, followed by Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zuckor in quick succession. Birobidzhan became known for its lavish musical features, with splendidly choreographed dance routines, in which the dancing girls accomplished feats that involved not so much moving about in rhythmic motions as coming together in enormous, geometric, even architectural patterns. Who can forget the 1938 feature, Our House!, in which 100 beaming young ladies stood on each other's shoulders, wearing costumes that somehow bore a likeness to the outer facade of the House of Culture? “Busby Berkeley Banished to Bakersfield after Birobidzhan Blowout!”, read the headline in Variety following the Hollywood premiere.
Jews from all over the world continued to emigrate to Yeaoia, but conflict with the indigenous Birobidzhanis simmered under the surface of this thriving new society, and on occasion it bubbled over. In 1956 the Yeaoi housing minister ordered a Birobidzhan district inhabited by indigenous people evacuated, so that the film studio could be expanded.
“Where do you expect us to go?”, the Birobidzhani leaders asked.
“We've built some new housing facilities out by the showers,” they were told.
Before evacuating their family homes, a number of residents, said to belong to an underground organization conspiring to drive out the Yeaois, placed time-release stink bombs under the floor paneling.
The world changed, and Yeaoia changed with it, not least in 1971, with the sudden and severe economic collapse of the once prosperous countries of West Africa, when the region's two great nuclear powers, Senegal and Gambia, unleashed total war on one another. (The Gambian minister of defense had argued that a first strike against Senegal would not result in retaliation, since Gambia is nothing but a long, thin, river-shaped country, 10 kilometers wide at its widest point and entirely contained within Senegal. “It would be like bombing their own interior,” he reasoned.) The fallout spread across the continent, and the nations of the world all came together to extend a helping hand to the surviving victims. Yeaoia, for its part, airlifted hundreds of thousands of Nigerian Igbo Jews to Birobidzhan, in what came to be known as 'Operation Rivet'. Many of the Igbos, it was rumored, were just ordinary Nigerians who'd changed their names, slapped on yarmulkes, and caught the first plane out of that nuclear wasteland to start a new life in a booming and vibrant society, which since 1959 had enjoyed nominal independence from its Soviet parent.
The clearest sign of Yeaoia's arrival as a full-fledged member of the global community in those years was likely Yaphet Kotto's visit to Birobidzhan in 1976. Who of a certain age does not remember the moment he stepped off the plane to meet a teeming crowd of fellow Igbo Jews, shoulder to shoulder with other Yeaois –a veritable Yeaoi rainbow of patriotism and optimism– and to receive a key to the city from the mayor?
“Hello, Birobidzhan!” he shouted from a podium on the red carpet rolled up to the private Tupolev jet that had brought him from Moscow, as the sycophantic mayor stood next to him, beaming.
“This is the first time I've been to Yeaoia, personally, but it sure feels like a homecoming!”
The crowd roared.
“Now I know many of you have enjoyed watching me play the villain in movies like Live and Let Die, but trust me, I'm a good guy. I guess you could say I'm 'nothing but a man'.” –Scattered cheers rose from the crowd.– “That's why it pains me that some people can't seem to leave Yeaoia in peace. It seems some people've gotta be messing with the water supply in the House of Culture.” –Kotto seemed to be slipping increasingly into the dialect of the string of blaxploitation films that had made him famous.– “What they don't seem to realize is, is the fact that that House of Culture is where it's at for the Yeaois. The House of Culture is to the Yeaois what the Vatican is to the Catholics. And you don't see nobody stealing the pope's water, do you? So next time they come back, y'all tell 'em Yaphet Kotto's gonna be on they asses!”
Kotto hit that last line with great relish and the crowd went wild. That night a group of Yeaoi adolescents descended upon the barracks on the outskirts of town, where the Birobidzhanis had taken, quite against their will, to performing their ablutions, and painted its walls with hateful slogans.
“Go back where you came from!”
On the way back the boy who had written this last slogan realized it might not make much sense, but his co-conspirators insisted it was too late to go back and change it, and in any case no one would be scrutinizing its meaning too closely. “It's hate-speech, you dumb fuck,” they said. “Not poetry.”
Through the late 1970s and into the 1980s the incidents of ethnic conflict increased sharply. Extremist Birobidzhanis developed a new tactic of entering the House of Culture disguised as Yeaois, and once inside quickly disrobing and attempting to bathe themselves, stark naked, in the drinking fountain of the main foyer, before the Igbo guards managed to seize them and throw them out on their ears. It seemed no matter how much the Yeaois boosted security measures, and no matter how rough the guards grew in their expulsions, the Birobidzhanis would aways find a way to slip in and get their clothes off. The Yeaois widely denounced this tactic as a desecration and an abomination. The Birobidzhani national poet, Gon-Tuk, responded soberly: “Behold, my thick coat. Behold it I say! An abomination? Then all of Deng-Uk's creation is an abomination!”
Over the course of the 1980s many young Birobidzhanis grew more radical, drifting ever further from international norms of civility and resorting to horrible violence. Some –mostly desperate youth who saw no future for themselves in a Yeaoi-dominated society– had taken to storming the House of Culture, filling water balloons with the very water they had once used to perform their sacred ablutions, and throwing these at the Igbo guards. It was widely reported that the president of neighboring Manchuria –a playboy who had entered office at the age of 22 to replace his father when the latter died suddenly of rickets– was secretly supplying balloons made of a highly explosable rubber banned by international treaty. Some even said the Manchurian president was paying these young men's families in hard rubles –which by the 1980s was already the only currency that walked– for their contribution to the anti-Yeaoi cause. “A Perversion of the Deng-Ukist faith!” proclaimed the headlines in the Yeaoi papers. “How could these young men, who claim to be defending their religion do something that so clearly goes against everything religion is about?!”, asked a man in the street, rhetorically. “You don't put holy water in water balloons,” declared another.
After the Nato Bloc collapsed in 1991, and the UN Headquarters was relocated to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, its members began to voice much more aggressively their commitment to solving the Yeaoi-Birobidzhani conflict. “We remain committed to the Far Eastern 'flight plan' worked out at the Murmansk Summit,” secretary general Oswaldo Gomez declared in 1993. “We will see peace in our day. We will see Birobidzhanis scrubbing between their toes, and in their ears, and deep in their thick beards,” he declared with a barely perceptible shudder, “in a UN-protected 'safe zone' within the House of Culture. I, and my partners in dialogue, are committed to this flight plan,” Gomez concluded, adding with a thumbs-up: “So return your tray tables to their locked position. We're cleared for take-off!”
“YEAOWWW!!” screamed the headline in the New York Post a few weeks later (which had only descended further into tastelessness after the collapse of the West). “Yeaois Burned Again by Birobidzhani Backstabbers.” It turns out a group of these latter, working at night, had rigged the plumbing in the House of Culture to carry its water through an underground pipeline to the barracks. They were showering in the barracks using the House of Culture's water. “We are finally performing our ablutions as Deng-Uk commands,” declared a young man wearing a ski mask and speaking on an improvised stage set, where his fiery denunciation of the “oblast' entity” was videotaped, and then distributed by boy courriers to the television stations not just of Birobidzhan itself, but also of Komsomol'sk, Blagoveshchensk, and even faraway Ulan-Ude.
After the Betamax tapes hit the news studios and the images of the naked Birobidzhanis –wearing nothing but ski-masks to protect their identities, and showering with water stolen from the House of Culture– spread across the globe, the international community finally grasped the enormity of the conflict. UN ambassadors from around the world were hastily summoned to Sochi for an emergency meeting of the security council's five permanent members: Vanuatu, Lesotho, Malta, Trinidad, and Tobago, all mere puppet-states hand-picked by Moscow. The US had protested that the last two should be counted as one, but by the time of the 1998 restructuring ('UN 2.0', the advertising campaign billed it), America's once mighty roar had been reduced to an impotent squeak.
The Americans were invited to participate in the open session ('for old time's sake', many delegates whispered). Their contingent showed up wearing suits and ties, apparently too poor, or too set in their backward ways, to adopt the wardrobe that had become de rigueur by the end of the milennium: a shiny Puma track suit, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses (with the UV-ray-protection sticker fashionably left on the lens), and an oversized pair of Puma cross-trainers (unlaced, for that extra touch of sophistication). The Russians set the standard of taste in the world, that much was clear. The impoverished Americans were no doubt better off wearing their monkey ties and hoping to pass these off as 'traditional costumes', like some ridiculous poo-bahs from Punjab in a group photo of distinguished exotics attending the Paris World Fair of 1900.
“We have some bad news,” the Tobagan ambassador announced to the assembly. “You all have heard of the illegal and barbaric tactic the Birobidzhanis have recently adopted. They are, as you know, stealing water directly from the House of Culture for their own, um,” –here the Tobagan could not help but wince– “hygienic purposes. But it gets worse still. There is a radical fringe of Yeaoi settlers who believe that everything Stalin had built in Yeaoia was intended for the Yeaois alone. This land was created to rivet them together, not to be shared, they claim. They say that's the true meaning of Stalin's 1928 decree. They call themselves the 'original-intentists'.”
“Get to the point,” shouted his Trinidadian colleague (rumored to be his older brother). “What are they doing?”
“They're showering in the barracks.”
“You mean the barracks built for the Birobidzhanis to shower in?”
“The very ones.”
This affirmation was followed by a long, perplexed pause.
“So what's the problem?”, the American delegate piped in. Somehow his suit and tie didn't look so ridiculous all of a sudden.
“The problem is that we are on the verge of a conflict of epic proportions. As we speak, there are Yeaois and Birobidzhanis showering next to each other, in a barracks designated under international law as Birobidzhani territory, but patrolled and securitized by the Yeaoi army, and claimed as sacred birthright by a growing number of Yeaoi extremists. Can you picture what's likely to happen when you've got Yeaois and Birobidzhanis showering next to each other? One only hopes they will be wise enough to, how do you say, keep their 'soap on a rope'.”
“Just tell the Yeaoi security forces to make a few symbolic arrests,” advised the American. “Haul away some Yeaoi showerers, get a few money shots, you know, dicks flapping, a few wet-assed Yeaois being dragged through the dirt, and while you're at it fling a casual wink to the hawks in the defense wing of the House of Culture to let them know everything's good to go. Before you know it the little hairballs will be performing their ablutions in the fucking drainage pipes. The Yeaois could make a musical out of it. You know like those old ones they used to do? Our House! or some shit? Can you imagine the fucking shower scene?”
The Security Council was abuzz. This guy –what was his name, Jim? John? Bill?– was speaking their language.
“You are a man of action, Jim,” the Tobagan ambassador said. “We will tell the security forces to get over there right away.”
“That's Bill. And tell them to bring the news cameras.”
By the time the Yeaoi security forces arrived at the scene, along with several hundred UN blue-helmets there to enforce Security Council Resolution 4782 –mostly just teenaged Swazilanders eager to shoulder their way into the local black market in cigarettes– the situation inside the barracks was on the verge of exploding. A Birobidzhani showerer had indeed failed to keep his 'soap on a rope', and in bending over to pick it up found himself in an instant pinned down to the floor, receiving the harshest of towel-whippings from a group of Yeaoi men, evidently very skilled at flicking the wrist just so and exacting a maximum of pain from the victim's exposed rump.
The other Birobidzhanis had temporarily fled the showers, returning to their squalid huts just across the road from the barracks, and loading up on weapons powerful enough to liberate their comrade. All this fuss sent their women into the predictable tizzy –moaning incoherently and raising their hands up to the sky, vainly imploring Deng-Uk to do something– but the men knew what they were after. They split into two camps, one raiding the towel cubbies and pulling out the biggest, thickest ones they could find, the other rummaging briskly through the desk drawers in search of paper clips: not the small, all-purpose trombone shaped kind, but real office clips, more clamps than clips really, the kind they make for binding documents. The two camps came back together and worked as a team to load the clips onto the edges of the towels, bravely flinging their newly weaponized linens over their shoulders, and hastily rushing back to the showers.
The security forces had been given a codeword: rivet. They had been drilled to raid the barracks upon hearing it from their commander. A small group of them would be responsible for seizing two or three naked Yeaois, and hauling them before the news cameras. The rest would stay behind and “rivet the hairballs into the drainage pipes.”
“How exactly are we supposed to do that?”, inquired one young soldier wearing thick, horn-rimmed glasses. “Do you mean literally? Is that even really possible, I mean, physically? Can you rivet a hairball into a drainage pipe?”
“College boy with his questions again,” mocked the sergeant. “It's simple: 'Hairballs' are those hairy-assed little shower monkeys we're supposed to look like we're protecting when we haul a few Yeaois away. 'Drainage pipes' is symbolic, I think, for 'as low as you can go'. And 'rivet', well son, they don't teach you this at the university anymore, with all your elective courses on women's oral poetry from Lapland, but 'rivet', well, that's what holds a nation together.”
“So you mean we won't be pulling any punches?”
“Not at all.”
“We'll be leaving behind the ping-pong paddles and bringing out the heavy artillery?”
“We'll crush them so thoroughly any future resistance will be impossible?”
“Well said,” smiled the elder.
“Got it, sarge!” beamed the student soldier, his heart filled with love for his own people.
“Marlboro Golds, whole carton, special deal,” interrupted a diminutive Swazilander.
Meanwhile the Birobidzhanis had reentered the barracks with their clip-laced towels, and commenced a thorough whipping attack on the Yeaois who had held their brother hostage. Towels were whipping about like windsocks in a hurricane, leaving trails of fat red welts on exposed buttocks. The Yeaoi showerers quickly escalated the violence by turning the Birobidzhanis' own soap against them, squirting liquid moisturizer into eyes, stuffing lathery bars into every reachable orifice.
By now the Swazis had set up a picnic on a grassy hillock a few dozen meters away. They were eating bags of Chex Mix, smoking the Pall Malls they couldn't sell or barter, and watching the security forces make their final preparations. Hundreds of Yeaoi soldiers were now crouched at the ready. They could hear the screams and the commotion coming out of the showers. It was now or never. The sergeant raised the old-fashioned baton he had been given by his grandfather, a veteran of the 1911 invasion of Simferopol' by the Czarina's elite maritime cavalry, and prepared to swing it down.
“Men,” he shouted, “let's see some carnage. Ready… And… Rivet!”
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
For an exquisite introduction to the history of the real Birobidzhan, please visit the virtual exhibition, Stalin's Forgotten Zion: An Illustrated History, 1928-1996.