The first Russians on U. S. territory were part of Russia's internal migration. During the eighteenth century, Russian traders and missionaries crossing Siberia reached Alaska, which became a colony of the Russian Empire. By 1784 the first permanent Russian settlement was founded on Kodiak, a large island off the Alaskan coast. Soon there were Russian colonies on the Alaskan mainland (Yakutat and Sitka), and by 1812 the Russians pushed as far south as Fort Ross in California, 100 miles north of San Francisco. In 1867 the Russian government sold Alaska to the United States, and most Russians in Alaska (whose numbers never exceeded 500) returned home. Russian influence persisted in Alaska, however, in the form of the Orthodox Church, which succeeded in converting as many as 12,000 of the native Inuit and Aleut people.

Large-scale emigration from Russia to the United States only began in the late nineteenth century. Since that time, four distinct periods of immigration can be identified: 1880s-1914; 1920-1939; 1945-1955; and 1970s-present. The reasons for emigration included economic hardship, political repression, religious discrimination, or a combination of those factors.

The pre-1914 Russian Empire was an economically underdeveloped country comprised primarily of poor peasants and a small but growing percentage of poorly paid or unemployed industrial workers. European Russia also encompassed the so-called Pale of Settlement (present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, and large parts of Poland, and Ukraine). The Pale was the only place Jews were allowed to reside. The vast majority lived in small towns and villages in their own communities known as the shtetl, which were made famous in America through the setting of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Between 1881 and 1914, over 3.2 million immigrants arrived from the Russian Empire. Nearly half were Jews; only 65,000 were ethnically Russian, while the remaining immigrants were Belarusans and Ukrainians. Regardless of their ethnoreligious background, their primary motive was to improve their economic status. Many of the 1.6 million Jews who also left did so because they feared pogroms—attacks on Jewish property and persons that occurred sporadically in the Russian Empire from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century.

While many Jews from the Russian Empire did not identify themselves as Russians, another group of immigrants adopted a Russian identity in the United States. These were the Carpatho-Rusyns, or Ruthenians, from northeastern Hungary and Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today far western Ukraine, eastern Slovakia, and southeastern Poland). Of the estimated 225,000 Carpatho-Rusyns who immigrated to the United States before World War I, perhaps 100,000 eventually joined the Orthodox Church, where they and their descendants still identify themselves as Americans of Russian background.

The second wave of immigration was less diverse in origin. It was directly related to the political upheaval in the former Russian Empire that was brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War that followed. Over two million persons fled Russia between 1920 and 1922. Whether they were demobilized soldiers from anti-Bolshevik armies, aristocrats, Orthodox clergy, professionals, businesspersons, artists, intellectuals, or peasants, and whether they were of non-Jewish (the majority) or Jewish background, all these refugees had one thing in common—a deep hatred for the new Bolshevik/communist regime in their homeland. Because they were opposed to the communist Reds, these refugees came to be known as the Whites.

The White Russians fled their homeland. They left from the southern Ukraine and the Crimea (the last stronghold of the anti-Bolshevik White Armies) and went first to Istanbul in Turkey before moving on to several countries in the Balkans (especially Yugoslavia and Bulgaria; other countries in east-central Europe; Germany; and France, especially Paris and the French Riviera (Nice and its environs). Others moved directly westward and settled in the newly independent Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, or farther on to western Europe. A third outlet was in the Russian far east, from where the White émigrés crossed into China, settling in the Manchurian city of Kharbin. As many as 30,000 left the Old World altogether and settled in the United States. This wave of Russian immigration occurred during the early 1920s, although in the late 1930s several thousand more came, fleeing the advance of Nazi Germany and Japan's invasion of Manchuria. During this period, approximately 14,000 immigrants arrived in the United States.

The third wave of Russian immigration to the United States (1945-1955) was a direct outcome of World War II. Large portions of the former Soviet Union had been occupied by Germany, and hundreds of thousands of Russians had been captured or deported to work in Germany. After the war, many were forced to return home. Others lived in displaced-persons camps in Germany and Austria until they were able to immigrate to the United States. During this period, approximately 20,000 of these Russian displaced persons, the so-called DPs, arrived.

Both the tsarist Russian and Soviet governments placed restrictions on emigration. In 1885 the imperial Russian government passed a decree that prohibited all emigration except that of Poles and Jews, which explains the small numbers of non-Jewish Russians in the United States before World War I. By the early 1920s, the Bolshevik/communist-led Soviet government implemented further controls that effectively banned all emigration. As for the second-wave White Russian refugees who fled between 1920 and 1922, they were stripped of their citizenship in absentia and could never legally return home. This situation was the same for the post-World War II DPs, who were viewed as Nazi collaborators and traitors by the Soviet authorities.

In contrast, the fourth wave of Russian immigration that began in late 1969 was legal. It was formally limited to Jews, who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Israel as part of the agreements reached between the United States and the Soviet Union during the era of détente. In return for allowing Jews to leave, the United States and other western powers expanded the economic, cultural, and intellectual ties with their communist rival. Although Jews leaving the Soviet Union were only granted permission to go to Israel, many had the United States as their true goal; and by 1985 nearly 300,000 had reached the United States.

After 1985 the more liberal policy of the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev allowed anyone to leave the Soviet Union, and thousands more Jewish and non-Jewish Russians immigrated to the United States. Because Russia is an independent country with a democratically elected government, newcomers cannot justify their claim to emigrate on the grounds of political or religious persecution. This has resulted in a slowing of Russian emigration during the last decade of the twentieth century.

Other Resources

source everyculture.com 2007


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