|Directed by:||Valery Ovchinnikov||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||2001||Running Time:||16 mins.|
|More Info:||Film Preview; Wikipedia||Category:||World Jewry|
Fleeing pogroms and prejudice for a new hope in the untamed Crimean wilderness, they had a dream of an idyllic and self-determined Jewish community that could thrive unnoticed in the corner of the Soviet empire. The Jewish Steppe reveals the fascinating history of the agricultural community founded by this brave assemblage of Russian Jews as they ventured into the unknown.
“Why should the Jewish people go to Palestine where the land is less productive and requires big investments?” a Russian Jewish newspaper asked at the time of the settlement, “Who’d go so far if the fertile Crimean land is beckoning to the Jewish people?”
Anti-Semitism ran rampant in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Legislation was passed that limited Jews to working only in retail and handicrafts. When these laws were finally lifted, pogroms broke out among the local citizenry. Willing to face new challenges in order to leave their present state of oppression, 30,000 Jews decided to make new lives for themselves in the Crimean Peninsula.
Unafraid of the hard work, Russian Jews left their homes and tackled this unsettled wilderness, where together they built new homes and learned how to farm. Full of courage and determination, they overcame tremendous obstacles and grew from modest beginnings to become one of Russia’s major agricultural providers. But their heroic beginnings met with a tragic ending. Rare pictures and film footage from the Russian State Film and Photo Archives illustrate the story of one people’s struggle against their countrymen and nature, in the hope of creating happy and productive lives for themselves.
The Jewish Steppe points to the strength of the human spirit. The Jews who relocated knew little about farming, had no machinery or assets, and were on hilly land with extreme seasons that would have been difficult even for an experienced farmer to cultivate. But they were determined to survive and willing to work hard. One newspaper wrote that everyone, from the elderly to children, was competing with each other to work the hardest. Together they survived on the little that they knew and eventually their farms began to flourish. In fact, the Jewish settlements’ farms were so successful that their bountiful harvests continued through Russia’s 1931 famine, so these Jewish settlements helped feed the rest of the nation.
Only two years after it was settled, the area was recognized as the Soviet Union’s first Jewish District. The social experiment was a success: The Jews’ farming was able to sustain them, and they went on to establish schools and two colleges.
The sense of accomplishments had a profound effect on the community’s mentality. A people who had become accustomed to prejudice and hardships could begin to relax. “As a result of healthy life and labor,” a local farmer commented in a newspaper, “peace of mind is replacing the nervousness typical for Jewish people, movements have become measured, and faces have become calm.” Noting that these changes were particularly noticeable in the younger generation, he expressed great optimism for the community’s future.
But with Josef Stalin’s murderous ascendancy in the Kremlin, all that these Jews had built would soon be destroyed. The Jewish Steppe’s rare archival footage and documents are this community’s only remaining legacy.
The slow-moving, poetic footage reveals what the community was once like. One particularly poignant shot captures an elderly couple as they pick a basket full of grapes and then carry it through a field back home. It’s clear that after distancing themselves from anti-Semitism and learning to cultivate the land, they’re finally able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures — each other’s company and the fruit of their own labor.
They couldn’t then know of the broader threat on the horizon. In The Jewish Steppe, the peace and calm so rarely achieved is forever preserved — the calm before the storm.