Between 1870 and 2004, a time span encompassing the nineteenth century Russian Empire, seven decades of the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet Russian Federation, roughly 4 million people immigrated to the United States from Russia.
There have been three waves of immigration from the various Russian domains since the late nineteenth century. The first and largest wave occurred between 1870 and 1915 and included mainly peasant and working-class families from western Russia and the
The earliest immigrants from Russia to what is now the United States settled in
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia, like the United States, needed people to develop large tracts of thinly populated territory. Needing manpower, the czarist government actively discouraged immigrant brokers, favoring voluntary and involuntary relocation from European Russia to Siberia and Central Asia. The Russian government had a system of penal transportation throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and provided relocation subsidies to farmers wanting to homestead during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Settlers in Siberia enjoyed more political and religious freedom than those who remained in European Russia. In 1885, the czarist government passed a law prohibiting emigration of Russian citizens other than Jews and Poles.
Siberians preparing to emigrate to America in 1910.
Until 1863, the mass of Russian peasantry consisted of serfs whose landlords controlled their movements and places of residence. Reforms instituted during the next decade increased peasant autonomy. However, the paternalistic system of village councils that replaced serfdom left Russia’s rural masses with little incentive to migrate to cities in search of industrial employment, relocate to the country’s own frontier areas, or emigrate to America. The extreme inertia of Russian peasants was one reason why the czars relied so heavily on convict labor to develop Siberia.
Nearly one-half of all immigrants from Russia
Most of these immigrants settled in urban areas in the Middle Atlantic states, especially in
Slavic immigrants from the Russian Empire gravitated toward American cities with heavy industries, mainly in the Midwest. As with many immigrant groups, continued cultural identity centered around religious affiliation, which gave Poles and Ukrainians who were Roman Catholics a distinct advantage over
Only about 65,000 of the 3 million immigrants from the Russian empire to the United States between 1870 and 1915 were ethnic Russians. Most modern Americans who claim Russian cultural roots are, in fact,
Immigrants from Russia during the early twentieth century tended to be left-wing in their political leanings and active in trade unions. This association of Russians with political radicalism reinforced prejudices against people already
The Russian Revolution of 1917, subsequent bitter civil war, political repression, and extreme economic hardship produced a flood of refugees from Russia during the early 1920’s. Because the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 set the quota for Russia at only 2,248 immigrants per year, few refugees from that period were admitted directly as permanent residents. Over the next decade, however, many more managed to circumvent the quota. Fourteen thousand of the 30,000 immigrants in the second wave entered the United States as refugees from Western Europe and Manchuria on the eve of World War II. Among the arrivals from Manchuria were
Though numerically the smallest of the three waves of Russian immigration, the second wave included a number of prominent figures, including
At the end of World War II
Except for an occasional highly publicized defector, restrictive Soviet emigration policies prevented further Russian emigration to the United States between 1945 and 1969. In 1969, pressure from the United States resulted in the Soviet Union’s agreeing to permit Soviet Jews to emigrate to
At first these third-wave immigrants tended to be politically conservative. This changed after several decades of experience tempered their unquestioned early enthusiasm. In contrast to the experience of earlier Russian immigrants, these new Americans have seen their children face declining opportunities and a poor social safety net for those who fail to prosper. Many of them have expressed a desire to return to Russia–if it were still the country they had left during the 1970’s. Although no legal barriers prevent their remigration, the collapse of Soviet
After the collapse of Soviet communism, prospective immigrants from Russia lost their status in the United States as political refugees and had to begin competing for scarce work and residency visas on an equal footing with immigrants from most other countries. Consequently, the number of legal immigrants from Russia dropped dramatically.
One area of questionably legal to frankly criminal immigration operations is the
Immigration from Russia to the United States has lost its value as a propaganda tool for reinforcing American stereotypes of Russia as a totalitarian country. The numbers and proportions of new migrants from Russia are both steadily declining and expected to continue to do so, especially as Russia has a low birthrate and has itself became a destination for numerous immigrants from East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
To the extent that Americans of Russian or Russo-Jewish descent have a common political agenda–and, except in certain areas of foreign policy, there is little evidence for this–that influence is likely to lessen. With minimal ongoing Russian immigration and a historically low Russian birthrate, the proportion of Russians in the American population may continue to decline, leaving the persuasive effects of the existing community’s economic clout and superior education as these immigrants’ only competitive advantage.
Davis, Jerome. The Russian Immigrant. New York: Arno Press and New York Times, 1969. Sketches the history of Russian immigration from the mid-eighteenth century; provides data on the geographical distribution of Russians in 1910 and their means of livelihood. Finckenauer, James, and Elin Waring. Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998. Thorough academic study that concludes that most crime in America’s Russian immigrant community is not organized. Gloecker, Olaf, Evgenija Garbolevsky, and Sabine von Mering, eds. Russian-Jewish Emigrants After the Cold War. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Center for German and European Studies, 2006. Collection of conference papers, the majority of which treat the role of Russian immigrants in American society. Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. Rev. ed. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. Personal reminiscences of a famous Russian immigrant writer, who describes his experiences as an immigrant to the United States. Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. College-level textbook focusing on recent immigration issues; especially useful for comparisons of Soviet immigrants with members of other immigrant groups. Shasha, Dennis, and Marina Shron. Red Blues: Voices from the Last Wave of Russian Immigrants. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2002. Collection of interviews with men and women who immigrated from the Soviet Union to America, documenting the varieties of experience.
American Jewish Committee
Former Soviet Union immigrants