Russian and Soviet immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 Ukrainian immigrantsUkraine. After the Russian RevolutionRussian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, RussianCivil War (1917-1921), large numbers of nobility, intellectuals, and members of the middle class fled or were deported. Some immigrated directly to the United States. The third wave began in 1969, when the Soviet Union;Jewish emigrationSoviet Union eased its emigration policies to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel;Soviet immigrantsIsrael, and the United States granted these migrants refugee status.Russian immigrantsSoviet immigrantsRussian immigrantsSoviet immigrants[cat]EUROPEANIMMIGRANTS;Russian and Soviet immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Russian and Soviet immigrants[cat]CRIME;Russian and Soviet immigrants

Early Russian Immigration

The earliest immigrants from Russia to what is now the United States settled in Alaska;Russian immigrantsAlaska between 1733 and 1867, when Alaska was a Russian territory. Fur trade;AlaskaRussian fur trappers and traders married to native Alaskan women established permanent settlements at Kodiak in 1790 and at Sitka in 1795. Although they exerted a cultural influence on the native population that has persisted into the twenty-first century, the total number of ethnic Russians who settled in Alaska never exceeded one thousand, and most of them returned to Siberia after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867.

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.

(Library of Congress)

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 RussiaRussian immigrants;Jews who arrived in the United States before 1917 were YiddishYiddish-speaking JewsJewish immigrants;Russian from communities within the Poland;Pale of SettlementPale of Settlement, a region that had been part of Poland until Russia annexed it during the late eighteenth century. After annexation, the social and economic position of Jewish inhabitants deteriorated. Increased discrimination, restrictions, and hostility on the part of ethnic Russians and Ukrainian immigrantsUkrainians culminated in waves of pogroms. The czarist government ignored and sometimes encouraged these organized, brutal attacks on Jewish communities. In response to the pogroms, poverty, and increasing intolerance, roughly one-half of Russia’s estimated 4 million Jews emigrated between 1890 and 1915, 1.4 million of them to the United States.

Most of these immigrants settled in urban areas in the Middle Atlantic states, especially in New York City;Russian immigrantsNew York City. A large majority, 88 percent, had been town-dwelling artisans and service workers in Russia, not agricultural workers. Many found employment in the Garment industry;Russian immigrantsGarment industry;Jewish immigrantsgarment industry. Russian Jewish immigrants brought with them a strong work ethic, a tradition of caring for their own in a tightly knit community, and respect for education–all traits that served them well in the New World. Within a generation they were almost completely integrated into the economic life of America. In 1970, the median income of Americans of Russian descent was 130 percent of the median for white Americans as a whole. Except for their religious observances, Russian Jews as a group have retained relatively little of their Old World heritage, and of what they have retained, almost none of it is Russian.

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 Orthodox Christianity;RussiansRussian Orthodox immigrants, whose own church had no official head in the United States between 1917 and 1960.

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, Carpatho-RussiansCarpatho-Russians, whose ancestors immigrated from the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Carpatho-Russians converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy after coming to America and form the backbone of the Russian Orthodox Church in America.

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 "Undesirable aliens"[Undesirable aliens];Russian immigrantsconsidered alien and undesirable on the grounds of language and customs. After the Russian RevolutionRussian Revolution, during the Red ScareRed Scare of 1919-1920, anti-Russian Xenophobia;and Russian immigrants[Russian immigrants]xenophobia included a supposed threat of violent revolution. Fear of political radicalism helped frame immigration quotas based on America’s ethnic makeup in 1890, before significant immigration from Russia had taken place.

Second Wave, 1920-1960

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 Russian immigrants;Old BelieversRussian Old Believers. Members of this religious sect who had earlier settled in AlaskaAlaska;Russian immigrants and Oregon still speak Russian and retain customs dating back to the seventeenth century.

Though numerically the smallest of the three waves of Russian immigration, the second wave included a number of prominent figures, including Kerensky, AlexanderAlexander Kerensky, Russia’s head of state between February and November of 1917, who became a professor at Stanford University in California; the author Nabokov, VladimirVladimir Nabokov; the television pioneer Zworykin, VladimirVladimir Zworykin; the inventor of the helicopter, Sikorsky, IgorIgor Sikorsky; and Leontieff, WassilyWassily Leontieff, who would win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1973.

At the end of World War IIWorld War II[World War 02];and Russian immigrants[Russian immigrants], nearly 1 million Soviet citizens remained in Germany as prisoners of war and conscript laborers. Most were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, but approximately 30,000 were admitted to the United States.

Third Wave, 1969-2005

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 Israel;Soviet immigrantsIsrael, as a condition of a general treaty establishing more normal commercial relations. The United States classified Soviet Jews as refugees from political and religious persecution, which exempted them from overall annual limits on immigrant visas.

For many Jewish immigrants;SovietSoviet immigrants;JewsSoviet Jews, the principal reason for emigrating was economic advancement, and the ultimate destination was the United States. Between 1969 and 1985, when Soviet immigration policies relaxed and citizens of other ethnic backgrounds became free to leave the country, 300,000 Jews from the Soviet Union were admitted as permanent residents to the United States. These third-wave immigrants were typically well educated and eager to make the most of increased economic opportunities. Most were nominal Jews who had not actively sought to practice their religion in the Soviet Union. The new immigrants disappointed their Jewish American sponsors by having little interest in the faith-based cultural practices that still form an important part of the lives of many descendants of first-wave Russo-Jewish immigrants. A majority of them settled initially in the Middle Atlantic states; later years have seen increasing numbers of them relocate to the West Coast and the Sun Belt states. Areas with high concentrations of technology-intensive industries have also been magnets for people with degrees in mathematics and engineering.

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 Communism;Russiacommunism gutted Russia’s own social safety net and the excellent Russian education system that had prepared these people to be successful in a competitive economy, without a compensatory change in the overall standard of living.

Post-Soviet Challenges for Immigrants

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.

Russia Illegal immigration;Russianhas also become a source of undocumented immigrants to the United States, although the numbers are low compared to undocumented migrants from Latin America. The Mafia;Russian“Russian mafia” has become, in the popular imagination, synonymous with organized techno-crime. While Organized crime;Russiaorganized crime is rampant in the former Soviet Union, its influence in America appears to be limited.

One area of questionably legal to frankly criminal immigration operations is the Mail-order brides[mail order brides];Russianmail-order bride industry. Nearly half of the women advertised as mail-order brides since 1990 have been Russian or Ukrainian immigrants;mail-order brides[mail order brides]Ukrainian. At its peak, during the mid-1990’s, the mail-order bride industry brought a maximum of 6,000 Russian women into the United States on legal visas, or perhaps 3,000 Russians and Ukrainians. Since then, the U.S. government has made it much more difficult for American citizens to obtain visas for prospective spouses of foreign origin. Consequently, the mail-order bride industry has evolved into a cover for Prostitution;and mail-order brides[mail order brides]prostitution.

Twenty-first Century Trends

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.Russian immigrantsSoviet immigrants

Further Reading
  • 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

Antin, Mary

Brin, Sergey

European immigrants

Former Soviet Union immigrants

Jewish immigrants

Mail-order brides

Polish immigrants

Red Scare

Yezierska, Anzia

Categories: History