These are the central questions addressed in the very impressive documentary “L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!,” directed by Yale Strom and written by Elizabeth Schwartz. The 90-minute film is not nearly long enough to comprehensively address such a large subject or delve into the many equally intriguing subplots it unveils throughout, but it is more than adequate to dust off and demystify one of Russian history's most peculiar and little-known footnotes.
Known as the “Jewish Autonomous Region,” Stalin's 1928 experiment was anything but altruistic--like many other European leaders of the era, he saw Jews as troublesome in their independence, piety and lack of assimilation. Stalin's solution to the so-called “Jewish problem,” however, was unique. It involved neither bloodshed nor passive exclusion. It was, in a sense, a form of internal colonialism, a strange sort of uncharacteristic Soviet segregation which Russian Jews were only too happy to embrace. Twenty years later, as the State of Israel struggled to its feet, a thriving Jewish community of nearly 50,000 was already standing in the most remote reaches of Soviet Russia.
“L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!” consists of narrated archival footage and traditional historical documentary filmmaking blended with personal footage shot by Strom as he journeys to see what has become of the region in the present day. His encounter with lingering anti-Semitism and history's long shadow provide a vital, fascinating contrast.
It's rare that historical documentaries aspire to, much less attain, any kind of narrative vigor--the stories are generally too familiar. But “L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!” is a bold exception, replete with surprises, twists and thought-provoking anecdotes. Directed by Yale Strom. Written and produced by Elizabeth Schwartz. A Cinema Guild release. Documentary. English-, Russian- and Yiddish-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 90 min.