The Trans-Siberian, one of the world's most famous railway routes: 9,000 kilometres of track running from Moscow to the Pacific at Vladivostok. In recent years the line has become a popular tourist attraction, but for locals in this isolated corner of Russia, it remains a vital link to the outside world.
Olga Friedman is on her way back from a hairdressing course in Vladivostok. Fifty years ago her grandmother also boarded the train to flee the Nazis.She headed to Russia from Poland...after hearing about a safe haven for Jews in the country's Far East...the region of Birobidjan.
"This is the extreme east. Israel...that's the near east...Birobidjan is the Far East)...We're a long way from Moscow...I don't know how many kilometres...but the train takes seven days," explains Olga Friedman, a resident of Birobidjan. After three generations...the Friedman’s have put down roots in this autonomous Jewish region.
The capital, also called Birobidjan, is a little stop on the Trans-Siberian, home to 80,000 of the region's 200,000 people. The station signs are in Russian and Hebrew and Jewish culture is everywhere, from the writer Shalom Aleichem to the local paper the Birobidjan Stern, printed in Russian and Yiddish. The region's autonomous status goes back to the 1920s.
Long before the creation of Israel, the USSR's Jews demanded their own state. Stalin obliged, but offered them this hitherto uninhabited corner of the Soviet Empire, a no man's land of biting winters and mosquito-infested summers.
This is the seat of the Birobidjan government. A state within a state with its own national assembly. This is the only place in Russia where all official documents are translated into Yiddish.
"The Jews don't form the majority here...but as we like to say jokingly: you have the right not to be Jewish...but you have to live like one," says Valery S. Gurevich, Deputy Chairman of the government of this Jewish Autonomous Region. Like many of his colleagues in the local administration, Valery Salomonovitch Gurievitch is Jewish, but their numbers are dwindling.
Here temperatures of minus 20 Celsius have turned the river Biro to ice, but it's not the cold that's caused the exodus. Once there were some 30,000 Jews in the area...now that figure stands at between 4,000 and 6,000. Valery’s mother now lives in Israel.
"Emigration really took off at the beginning if the 1990s...to Israel...sometimes Germany and the US...economic conditions were hard...there was a lot of unemployment and production had ground to a halt...people went off in search of a better life...but this is the fourth year in a row where more people have come back than left," explains Valery.
Sitting at the crossroads of Soviet and Jewish history, Birobidjan has forged its own secular Jewish culture. Here past communist ideals rub shoulders with Christianity and, of course Judaism. This Synagogue is on the main road, Lenin Street.
"We installed this memorial for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust...every year those who were deported and now live here gather to remember those who lost their lives at the hands of Hitler."
Birobidjan's modern synagogue was built just three years ago when the town welcomed a new Rabbi from
Israel...the first for decades. When he arrived he was shocked to discover that...after 70 years of Soviet atheism...there was nobody left who remembered the prayers.
"Arriving in Birobidjan perhaps some people thought it was a second Israel. A first even as Israel didn't even exist. Many thought they could live like real Jews but it wasn't like that at all. From the start religion just wasn't here...it was all artificial," explains Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner, Rabbi of Birobidjan."You know...I'm well aware of Stalin and his character...and nobody can make me believe that he wanted to do something good for the Jews."
"I don't know if the Jews were physically forced to come here...but morally...there was propaganda saying "here there's poverty and starvation...you should go there...things will be better...so morally people were forced to come here."
All age groups come to the synagogue building. Here youngsters learn the Hebrew alphabet and the history of Judaism. Three floors below...the older generation talks of relatives who've left for Israel.
Group of women:
"I've got nephews over there in Israel"
"I’ve got a niece and a grandson"
"I've got an aunt, a brother and a sister."
Rabbi: "Hello, how are you all?"
Among the oldest, very few can yet speak Yiddish but the feeling of being Jewish, even without being religious is strong.
Stalin gave 36,000 square kilometres of land to the Jews, an area bigger than Israel, a vast landscape of forests and rivers. On the face things, it seems like a good deal but was Stalin trying to clear Moscow of so-called undesirables?
Waldgheim, or house in the woods in Yiddish, is a little village a few kilometres from Birobidjan...until a few years ago it was home to a flourishing collective farm.
"Hello Zyama Mykhailovitch, aren't you freezing?" asks a Russian woman. " No, no, I'm OK," answers Zyama Mikhailovich Geffen
A few of the region's early settlers set up here in the heart of the forest. As in the Kibbutz of Israel...they cleared and cultivated the land with their hands.
"It was 1929 and I was 8. There was nothing here, just trees. The first Jews who arrived here were westerners, sent to the far east by decree those who wanted to signed up and were taken here by the government. The journey was free of charge for us and our belongings," says Zyama Mikhailovich Geffen, a former Waldgheim Kolkhoz resident.
"That's enough, thank you”
"Before coming here we practiced religious traditions when we were in the city of Kazan...but when we arrived here everything was forgotten...laws...prayers...we threw them all away...there was no synagogue or anything and nobody minded."
Yossif Brenner, Chairman of Metaloplast:
"When I started building the block, I advertised...in just a few months half the apartments had been sold...by the end of the year there were none left...and there's still six months of work left to do."
Here as elsewhere in Russia, the economy is booming and far from becoming a relic. Birobidjan is being swept up by modernity."If you look around there are building sites everywhere...people have money." Yossif Brenner is a Jewish entrepreneur, who like many Russian businessmen, has cashed in on the switch to capitalism. "I built this Menora in brick...everybody likes it." Brenner bought up an abandoned factory and now employs over a hundred workers...producing plastics and metals for home-building.
"This region is looking towards China. It's nearby so we can import materials easily. A lot of our materials come from China and we also use Chinese labour."
"The Jewish region has become a brand...and brands are worth a lot of money if one day Moscow thinks about abolishing the region, it would be a huge error."
Like everybody here Yossif Brenner is proud of his home and its Jewishness...his two children live in Israel.
Yet the Jews know that even here they are in the minority. The fall of communism has brought religious freedom to Russia and orthodox Christianity is enjoying a revival. In 2007, the church in the region baptised 4,000 people, almost as many as the total number of Jews who live here.
"According to the last census the Jews represent less than 2% of the region's population, that's not very high but there's an entrenched Jewish history here.The Jews and the Russians have intermixed. Lots of people here have relatives in Israel and parishioners quite often ask me for a blessing for their trip to Israel," says Father Yossif, of Birobidjan's Orthodox Church:
Strong links with Israel and a lack of anti-Semitism. Birobidjan remains a Russian exception. 55 years after Stalin's death, the Jewish Autonomous region has carved its own unique path into the 21st century.