Russian Americans

views updated May 23 2018


by Paul Robert Magocsi


Since the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia has been the largest country in the world, stretching from the plains of eastern Europe across Siberia as far as the shores of the Pacific Ocean. For centuries, Russia has straddled both Europe and Asia, two continents that are divided by the Ural Mountains.

In a sense, there are two Russian homelands. One is the present-day state of Russia, which coincides with territory inhabited by ethnic Russians. The other includes territories that are beyond Russia proper but were once part of the pre-World War I Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. Americans who identify their heritage as Russian include first-generation immigrants and their descendants who came from Russia within its present-day border; people from the Baltic countries, Belarus, and Ukraine who have identified themselves as Russians; East Slavs from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who have identified themselves as Russians once in the United States; and Jews from the Western regions of the former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union who, aside from their religious background, identify themselves as Russians.

Much of European Russia west of the Urals was part of a medieval state known as Kievan Rus', which existed from the late ninth century to the thirteenth century. During the Kievan period, Orthodox Christianity reached Russia and that religion remained intimately connected with whatever state or culture developed on Russian territory until the twentieth century. It was in a northern part of Kievan Rus', the Duchy of Muscovy, that the birth of a specifically Russian state can be found. The state-building process began in the late thirteenth century, when the Duchy of Muscovy began to consolidate its power and expand its territory. The expansion proved to be phenomenal. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the growing state included lands along the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and large parts of Poland. The country's borders also moved beyond the Ural Mountains into Siberia, a vast land whose annexation together with Central Asia the Caucasus region were completed in the nineteenth century.

As the country grew, it also changed its name from the Duchy to the Tsardom of Muscovy and in 1721 it became the Russian Empire. Throughout the centuries, Muscovy/Russia functioned as a centralized state ruled by autocratic leaders whose titles changed as their power and influence grew. The grand dukes became the tsars of Muscovy, who in turn became emperors of the Russian Empire. Although the rulers of the empire were formally called emperors (imperator ), they were still popularly referred to as tsars or tsarinas.


During World War I, Russia experienced a revolution, and in March 1917, the tsarist empire collapsed. In November 1917, a second revolution took place, led by the Bolsheviks and headed by a revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin. The Bolshevik Revolution was opposed by a significant portion of the population, and the result was a Civil War that began in 1918 and lasted until early 1921. In the end, the Bolsheviks were victorious, and in late 1922 they created a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union consisted of several national republics, the largest of which was called Russia. Beyond the Russian republic many inhabitants, especially in the western regions of the Soviet Union, continued to identify themselves as Russians.

The new Soviet state proclaimed the establishment of Communism worldwide as its goal. It intended to achieve that goal by promoting Bolshevik-style revolutions abroad. Since many countries feared such revolutions, they refused to recognize Bolshevik rule. Thus, the Soviet Union was isolated from the rest of the world community for nearly 20 years. That isolation came to an end during World War II, when the Soviet Union, ruled by Lenin's successor Joseph Stalin, joined the Allied Powers in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Japan. Following the Allied victory, the Soviets emerged alongside the United States as one of the two most powerful countries in the world. For nearly the next half-century, the world was divided between two camps: the free or capitalist West led by the United States, and the revolutionary or communist East led by the Soviet Union.

By the 1980s, the centralized economic and political system of the Soviet Union was unable to function effectively. In 1985, a new communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried desperately to reform the system but failed. He did set in motion, however, a new revolution, bringing such enormous changes that by late 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared as a country. In its place, each of the former Soviet republics became an independent country, and among the new countries was Russia.


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 commona 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.


Of the 2,953,000 Americans who in 1990 identified themselves wholly (71.6 percent) or partially (28.4 percent) of Russian ancestry, nearly 44 percent reside in the Northeast. The Jews, in particular, went to New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and other large cities. The non-Jewish Russians from the Russian Empire and the Carpatho-Rusyns settled in these cities as well as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the coal mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania. Nearly 5,000 members of a Russian Christian religious sect known as the Molokans settled in California during the first decade of the twentieth century. They formed the nucleus of what has become a 20,000-member Russian Molokan community that is concentrated today in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Most White Russian soldiers, aristocrats, professionals, and intellectuals settled in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But some moved into farming communities, such as a group of Don and Kuban Cossacks who established what are still vibrant rural centers in southern New Jersey. Those who left from the Russian far east and Chinese Manchuria settled in California, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The fourth wave settled almost exclusively in cities where previous Russian immigrants had gone, especially New York City. Certain sections like Brighton Beach in Brooklyn were transformed into a vibrant Russian communities by the 1980s.

While the basic settlement pattern established by the first two waves of immigrants may have been maintained, the past three decades have also witnessed migration toward the sun-belt states like Florida, as well as to California where the original Russian communities have been supplemented by newcomers from the northeast.

Acculturation and Assimilation

For the most part Russian immigrants and their descendants have succeeded in assimilating into mainstream American life. There are a few groups that have avoided acculturation and maintained the traditional lifestyle they brought from the homeland. Such traditionalists include the Orthodox Christian Old Believers and the non-Orthodox Molokan Christian sect. Whether these people live in large cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Erie, Pennsylvania; in rural towns like Woodburn, Oregon; or in the backwoods of Alaska, they have continued to use the Russian language at home and sometimes succeeded in having it taught in public schools. The distinct dress and religious-based lifestyle of these groups keep them at a social distance from other Americans and distinguish them from the rest of the community. A large number of White Russians, especially those of aristocratic background from the immediate post-World War I era, also found it difficult to adapt to an American society that lacked respect for the deference that Russian nobles, princes, princesses, and intellectuals otherwise had come to expect.

The Old Believers, Molokans, and White Russian aristocrats are only a small minority of the Russian American community today. But even among the vast majority who sought to assimilate, the goal was not always easy to accomplish. American society during the past 70 years has had a negative opinion of the Soviet Union and, therefore, of Russian Americans. Russian Americans have frequently been suspected of being potential communist spies or socialists and anarchists intent on infiltrating and disrupting America's labor movement.

Even before the Soviet Union existed, immigrant workers from Russia, particularly Jews, played a leading role in organizations like the American branch of the International Workers' Organization. Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, two of Lenin's closest associates, lived in New York City for a time where they edited a Russian-language socialist newspaper. And just before the American branch of the Red Cross was about to assist thousands of White Russians in finding refuge in the United States, authorities in places like New York led raids against the headquarters of the Union of Russian Workers and the Russian-dominated American Communist party. As a result, several thousand aliens were deported, nearly 90 percent of whom were returned to what by then had become Bolshevik-controlled Russia. It is a little known fact that as late as the 1970s some of these returnees and their descendants still maintained an identity as Americans even after living in the Soviet Union nearly half a century.

After World War II the United States was once again struck by a Red Scare, this time even more widely publicized as a result of the congressional investigations led during the 1950s by the demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy. Again Russians and all things Russian were associated with Communism, so Russian Americans were forced to maintain a low profile, and some felt obligated to renounce their heritage.

Most recently, Russians in the United States have been linked to organized crime. With the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the radical change in that country's economy, a number of speculators have tried to take advantage of the situation. Many of these new Russian businessmen have contacts or are themselves residents in Russian American communities like Brighton Beach where they carry out illegal transactions. It is common to find references in today's mainstream American media to the dangers of the Russian mafia and, by implication, of all Russians.


Russian Americans enjoy many traditional dishes. They prepare a variety of rich and tasty soups, which are almost always served with a dollop of sour cream, or smetana. Most famous is borshch, or borscht, made from beets, cabbage, and meat. In the summer, borscht is served cold. Shchi, also made from cabbage, includes as well turnip, carrot, onion, or leek, and beef. Fish soups, such as solianka, that include onion, tomato, cucumber, lemon, butter, and sometimes beef, are popular. Many soups also include potatoes or dumplings. The traditional dark Russian bread is made from rye, though wheat is used increasingly. Russian meals are accompanied by vodka.


Russian is the largest of the Slavic languages and is spoken today by over 250 million people. For most first-generation immigrants the Russian language was used to communicate with one's family and friends until they attained a knowledge of English. For others the Russian language took on a symbolic function and was maintained to preserve a sense of Russian identity. For these reasons, the Russian language has never died out in the United States and, if anything, the number of native speakers and publications has expanded dramatically during the last two decades.

The appearance of newspapers, journals, and books in the United States and other countries where Russians lived helped keep traditional Russian culture alive throughout much of the twentieth century. Following the onset of Bolshevik rule in late 1917, the Soviet state eventually banned all forms of cultural and intellectual activity that did not conform to Stalin's version of Communism. Even the Russian language was transformed by the deletion of several letters from the Cyrillic alphabet and the infusion of new words that reflected the changes brought about by the Soviet system. Many of these new words were really abbreviations, such as gensek (general secretary), gosplan (state plan), kolkhoz (collective farm), Komsomol (Communist Youth League), natsmen (national minority), vuzy (colleges and universities), and zarplata (salary). At the same time many words were eliminated, such as gorodovoi (police officer), gospodin (gentleman, Mr.), gospozha (lady, Mrs.), and gubernator (governor).

Many Russians who emigrated after the Bolshevik Revolution felt they had a moral duty to preserve the old alphabet as the medium for the "true" Russian language. As a result, until the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, there existed two Russian literatures: Soviet Russian literature and Russian literature abroad. Schools were also created in an attempt to preserve the Russian language for the descendants of immigrants. Since the late nineteenth century many Orthodox church parishes have had their own Russian-language schools. This tradition is still practiced in some parishes and summer camps conducted by the Russian Scout movement. At a higher level various Orthodox churches operated Russian-language seminaries, and there were even Russian classes at university-level institutions such as the Russian Collegiate Institute in New York City (1918) and the Russian People's University in Chicago (1921). These efforts proved to be short-lived, although today there is no shortage of Russian language, literature, history, and culture courses taught at some high schools and numerous universities throughout the United States.

Family and Community Dynamics

The Russian extended family structure of uncles, aunts, cousins, godparents, etc. that prevailed in villages and shtetls was difficult, if not impossible, to recreate in the United States. Therefore, families became more inner-directed and isolated than they had been in Russia.

There was also a decrease in the number of children. Among post-World War I White Russian émigrés, there were twice as many men as women. This meant there was a high percentage of unmarried men with no children or marriages with women of other backgrounds. Poverty and unstable economic conditions among émigrés also worked against having children. Even among the pre-World War I Russian Jewish immigration in which the number of males (56 percent) and females (44 percent) was more balanced, the number of children married couples bore was well below the American norm. Statistics from 1969 reveal that Russian American women of the first generation and their descendants had an average of 1.7 to 2.4 children, while women of comparable ages who were of English, German, Irish, or Italian backgrounds had between 2.1 and 3.3 children.

Initially, Russian immigrants strove to have their children choose marriage partners from among their own group. Among Russian Jews, the religious factor was of primary importance. Hence, descendants of pre-World War I Jewish immigrants from Russia largely intermarried with Jews or non-Jews with non-Russian origins. Non-Jewish Russians were more concerned with maintaining a Russian identity within their family, but marriages with non-Russians soon became the norm.


While their family units may have been smaller than those of other Americans on average, Russian immigrants tended to place greater emphasis on education. This was certainly the case among Jews who brought a strong tradition of learning that had characterized Jewish life for centuries. Non-Jewish White Russians were intent on providing their offspring with the highest possible education (in the Russian language, if possible) so that they could take an appropriate place in Russian society when the communist regime would collapse and they could return home. Even when it became obvious that returning to a non-communist Russia was impossible, higher education was still considered useful for adaptation to American society. It is not surprising, then, that by 1971, among Americans of nine different backgrounds (English, Scottish, Welsh, German, Italian, Irish, French, and Polish), Russians between 25 and 34 had on average 16 years of education, while all others had at most only 12.8 years.


In traditional Russian society, women were legally dependent upon their husbands. The Bolshevik Revolution radically changed the status of women. Under communist rule, Russian women were offered equal economic and social responsibilities, which resulted in a high percentage of females in the labor force. The majority of physicians and health care workers in general are women. In the family, however, a woman is still expected to perform domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Women have played a determining role in maintaining the cultural identity in the family, passing on knowledge of Russian language and culture to younger people and by participation in philanthropic work that affects the entire community. Among the oldest of such organizations was the Russian Children's Welfare Society Outside Russia founded in New York City in 1926 to help orphans and poor children. Today the best known is the Tolstoy Foundation, set up in 1939 by Alexandra Tolstoy (1884-1979), daughter of the famous nineteenth-century Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. With branches throughout the world, the Tolstoy Foundation still operates a Russian senior citizen's home and cultural center in Nyack, New York, which has helped tens of thousands Russians and other refugees settle in the United States.


Based on religious criteria, Russian Americans are classified in three categories: Orthodox Christians, Jews, and nominal Jews. The large pre-World War I influx of Jews from the Russian Empire consisted mainly of individuals whose lives were governed by Jewish law and tradition in the thousands of shtetls throughout European Russia. Whether they were of the conservative Orthodox or Hassidic tradition, attendance at the synagogue; observance of the Sabbath (from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday); and deference to the rabbi as community leader, characterized Russian-Jewish life. While the authority of the rabbi over most aspects of daily Jewish life could not be fully maintained in the New World, the pre-World War I Russian-Jewish immigrants maintained their religious traditions within the confines of the home and synagogue. It was their Jewishness and not any association with Russia that made them indistinguishable from the larger Jewish-American society.

"I felt lost, as if there was nothing to hold onto ahead of us. But having my mother and my two brothers with me, we felt we were still a family, though our life would never be the same."

Maria Oogjen in 1923, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

The arrival of Russian Jews since the early 1970s stands in stark contrast to their pre-World War I predecessors. For nearly 70 years, the Soviet system frowned on Judaism and other forms of religion. Therefore, by the time of their departure, the vast majority of Soviet Jews had no knowledge of Yiddish or Hebrew and had never been to a synagogue. Living in an officially atheistic Soviet Union, many found it politically and socially expedient to forget or even deny their Jewish heritage. When it became possible for Jews to emigrate legally from the Soviet Union, many quickly reclaimed their ancestral religious identity.

These Russian-speaking nominal Jews found it difficult to relate to English-speaking religious Jews when they arrived in the United States. While a small percentage of the newcomers learned and accepted the Jewish faith while in the United States, most follow no particular religion and have remained simply Russians or Russian Americans who are Jews in name only.

The concept of being a Russian in America is often associated with the Orthodox Christian faith. The Russian Orthodox church traces it roots to the Eastern Christian world. After the Christian church split in 1054 between the western or Latin sphere (centered in Rome) and the eastern or Byzantine-Greek sphere (centered in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul), the Orthodox church in Russia maintained its spiritual allegiance to the Byzantine east. In the second half of the fifteenth century a jurisdictionally independent Russian Orthodox church, with its main seat in Moscow, was founded. At first the church was headed by a patriarch, but after 1721 it was led by a council of bishops known as the Synod.

Eastern Christianity, and thereby Russian Orthodoxy, differed from the western Christian churches in several ways. The Divine Liturgy (not Mass) was conducted in Church Slavonic instead of Latin; priests could marry; and the old Julian calendar was retained. This meant that by the twentieth century fixed feasts like Christmas (January 7) were two weeks behind the commonly used Gregorian calendar.

Russian Orthodox church architecture both in the homeland and in the United States also had distinctive features. Church structures are based on a square floor plan (the so-called Greek cross) covered by a high central dome and surrounded by four or more smaller domes. The domes are usually finished in gold and topped by three-bar crosses. Inside the dominant element is the iconostasis, a screen covered by icons that separates the altar from the congregation. Some traditional churches have no pews and there is never an organ because of the Orthodox belief that only the human voice is permitted in the worship of God. Russian Orthodox priests are often clad in colorful vestments laden with gold trim. Some priests also wear long beards, which according to tradition should not be cut. Easter is the most festive of holidays when churches are packed with worshippers at midnight services, which include candlelight processions, and are followed by the early morning blessing of Easter baskets filled with food delicacies and hand-painted eggs.

Throughout its history in the United States, the Russian Orthodox church has not only ministered to immigrants from Russia, but has also functioned as a missionary church attracting new adherents. Even before Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, the church converted over 12,000 Aleutians and some Eskimos to Orthodoxy. Aside from his spiritual work, the Orthodox Russian Bishop Innokentii Veniaminov (1797-1879) was also the first person to codify a written Aleut language for which he published a dictionary, grammar guide, Bible, and prayer-books.

Nearly 50,000 converts were attracted to Russian Orthodoxy during the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century. These were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants of the Greek or Byzantine Catholic faith living in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and other northeastern industrial states. One of their own priests, Father Alexis Toth (1853- 1909), convinced many Greek Catholic parishioners to return to the Orthodox faith of their ancestors. For his work, Toth was hailed as the father of Orthodoxy in America, and in 1994 was made an Orthodox saint.

The Russian Orthodox Church also had problems with internal divisions. Some of those divisions had occurred decades or even centuries earlier in the Russian Empire. Consequently among Russian immigrants in the United States there were Old Believers, whose movement dates from the seventeenth century, and the Molokans, whose movement emerged in the nineteenth century. The Old Believers and Molokans have been most fervent in retaining a sense of Russian identity through an active use of the Russian language in their religious services and in their daily lives.

More significant are the splits that occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church after its establishment in the United States. The divisions were the result of developments in the homeland, in particular the reaction of Russians abroad to the Bolshevik Revolution and the existence of the officially atheist Soviet Union.

During the 1920s and 1930s, three factions had developed within Russian Orthodoxy. One faction consisted of the original Russian Orthodox Church that started in Alaska before moving to California and New York. It continued to recognize formally the patriarch, whose office as head of the mother church in Russia was restored in 1917. But as long as Russia was ruled by an uncompromising Soviet government, the American branch of the church governed itself as a distinct jurisdiction known as the Metropolia. The second faction consisted of the post-World War I White Russian émigrés, whose numbers included some clergy and laymembers of the church who rejected the idea of a patriarch, and favored a church governed by the Synod. Those who favored rule by the Synod came to be known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, or the Synod. A third group consisted of individual parishes that remained directly under the jurisdiction of the patriarch in Moscow, even though he was living in a godless Soviet communist state and was subject to governmental pressure.

Each of the three factions of the Russian Orthodox church in the United States had its own bishops, clergy, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, seminaries, publications, and supporting lay organizations. Each of the three also often denounced the others so that much of Russian community life in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s was characterized by fierce rivalry between competing Russian Orthodox churches.

In 1970 the Metropolia reached an agreement with the patriarch in Moscow, was released from its formal subordination to Moscow, and became an independent body known as the Orthodox Church of America. This church is the largest of the three Russian Orthodox churches in the United States. Since 1970 the Orthodox Church of America has conducted all its services in English. The patriarchal parishes have mostly been absorbed by the Orthodox Church of America. The Synod Abroad remains staunchly Russian in terms of religious tradition and language use, and was an enemy of the Soviet Union until that state's demise in 1991.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The majority of Russian Jews and other Russians who arrived in the United States between the 1880s and 1914 entered the industrial labor force in the northeastern United States. This was not a particularly difficult adjustment, since 88.7 percent of Jews in European Russia in 1897 had been in manufacturing, commerce, and the equivalent of a white-collar service trade. In contrast, 63.2 percent of non-Jewish Russians worked in agriculture.

Women immigrants of Russian-Jewish background dominated America's garment industry as seamstresses in the small clothing factories and sweatshops of New York City and other urban areas in the northeast. Other Russians, including Belarusans and Carpatho-Rusyns, worked in factories in the large northeastern cities as well as in the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania, the iron and steel factories in the Pittsburgh area, and the slaughtering and meatpacking plants of Chicago. The Russian presence was so pronounced in certain trades that they established their own unions or branches of unions, such as the Russian branch of the Union of Men's and Women's Garment Workers, the Russian-Polish department of the Union of Cloakmakers, the Society of Russian Bootmakers, and the Society of Russian Mechanics.

The White Russians who came after World War I had a much higher level of education than their predecessors. Although many took on menial jobs at first (there are countless legends of Russian aristocrats employed as waiters, taxi-drivers, or doormen at night clubs), they eventually found employment that took advantage of their skills. This was also the case among the post-World War II DPs, many of whom found their way into university teaching, federal government employment, publishing, and other jobs that reflected the Cold War interests of the United States in the Soviet Union.

The educational and skills level is highest among the most recent Russian-Jewish immigrants. As high as 46.8 percent have had a university education, and 57.6 percent have been employed in the Soviet Union as engineers, economists, skilled workers, or technicians. In the United States, most have been able to find similar jobs and improved their economic status. Among the best known, and highest paid, of the recent immigrants are several hockey players of Russian background from the former Soviet Olympic team who have become a dominant part of teams in the National Hockey League during the 1980s and 1990s.

The descendants of the large pre-World War I immigration have done very well economically. By the 1930s and 1940s, the American-born offspring of the older immigrants remained in the same industries as their parents (clothing, steel, meat-packing, etc.), although some moved into managerial or white-collar positions. The third generation began to enter professions and have become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businesspeople in larger numbers. By 1970 the median family income for Russian Americans was nearly $14,000, which was three to four thousand dollars higher on average than the median family income among Americans of English, Scottish, Welsh, German, Italian, Irish, and French background.

Politics and Government

Aside from their active participation in the labor movement during the early decades of the twentieth century, Russians have generally not become involved in American political life. In a sense, their labor union activity acted as a deterrent to further political work, since many were accused of being socialists or communists. In general, Russians have never formed a strong voting bloc that would encourage American politicians to solicit their support. Only in the past decade, in places like the Brighton Beach area of New York City, have local politicians like U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz successfully courted the Russian vote.


While Russians may have avoided American politics, they did not shy away from concern with the homeland. This was particularly the case among the White Russian immigrants. The very fact that they were designated White Russians was a political statement. As refugees and political émigrés, most White Russians felt that their stay abroad was only temporary, and that they must live a Russian life while in temporary exile until the inevitable fall of the Soviet Union would allow them to return to a democratic Russia. This was the basic ideology that held the post-World War I White Russians and the post-World War II DPs together, even though they represented a wide variety of political persuasions. At one extreme some believed in the return of the monarchy. This included a woman living in the New York City area who claimed she was Grand Duchess Anatasia (1901-1918), one of the daughters of the last tsar Nicholas II Romanov who somehow had miraculously survived the mass assassination of the royal family. The legitimacy of this woman's claims were never proved or disproved.

Many rejected the monarchy and awaited the creation of a parliamentary liberal democratic state. The leader of this group was Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970), the last prime minister of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. He immigrated to New York City on the eve of World War II to escape the Nazi occupation of Paris where he had been living in exile. There were also regional groups like the Don and Kuban Cossacks who argued for autonomy in a future Russia, several socialist and anarchist groups on the political left, and a Russian fascist organization based in Connecticut during the late 1930s on the far right. Among the post-World War II DPs there were also those who believed in Lenin's brand of socialism, which they felt had been undermined by his successor, Joseph Stalin.

Each of these political orientations had at least one organization and publication that was closely linked to or was a branch of the same or similar émigré organization based in western Europe. Despite their various social, propagandistic, and fund-raising activities, none of these Russian-American organizations ever achieved the abolition of Soviet rule in their Russian homeland. Realizing their inability to end communist rule in Russia, some Russian Americans turned their efforts to their community in the United States and its relationship to American society as a whole. These people became concerned with the way they and their culture were perceived and depicted in America's media and public life. In response to those concerns lobbying groups, such as the Congress of Russian Americans and the Russian-American Congress, came into existence in the 1970s.

Individual and Group Contributions


Several researchers from Russia have enriched our knowledge by writing studies about their native land. In fact, much of America's present-day understanding of Russia and the Soviet Union is in large part due to the work of immigrants like ancient historian Michael Rostovtsev (1870-1972); church historians Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), and John Meyendorff (1926-1993); linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982); literary critic Gleb Struve (1898-1985); and historians Michael Florinsky (1894-1981), Michael Karpovich (1888-1959), Alexander Vasiliev (1867-1953), George Vernadsky (1887-1973), Aleksander Riasanovsky (1923 ), and Marc Raeff (1923 ).


Influential Russian American artists include Gleb Derujinski, a noted sculptor, and Sergey Rossolovsky, a respected painter from Portland, Maine.


Writers generally have the greatest difficulty adapting to and being accepted in a new environment, since their language is their instrument of creativity, and by its nature a foreign and inaccessible element. Nevertheless, a few Russian authors have flourished on American soil. These include Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977), who switched from Russian to English in the late 1940s and produced many novels, including the very popular Lolita (1958), and the short story writer Nina Berberova. Two other authors, while continuing to write in Russian, have nonetheless enhanced their careers while in the United States. They are Josef Brodsky (1940 ) and the historical novelist and social critic Aleksander Solzhenitzyn (1918 ), both of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.


John Basil Turchin (born Ivan Vasilevich Turchinov) served in the Union army during the Civil War and was promoted to the rank of U.S. Brigadier Generalthe first Russian American to be elevated to such a high position.


Classical music, opera, and ballet in the United States have been enriched for over a century by the presence of Russian composers and performers from Petr Illich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofieff to Fritz Kreisler, Feodor Chaliapin, Sergei Diaghileff, Anna Pavlova, and Rudolf Nureyev, all of whom have graced America's stages for varying periods of time. Others came to stay permanently, including Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951), conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949; composers Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956); cello virtuoso, conductor, and musical director since 1977 of the National Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 ); choreographer, founder of the School of American Ballet, and from 1948 to his death, director of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine (1904-1983); and ballet dancers Natalia Makarova (1940 ) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948). But the most famous of all was Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who settled permanently in New York City in 1939, from where he continued to enrich and influence profoundly the course of twentieth-century classical music. Dimitri Tiomkin was a noted composer and musical director and author of many musical scores for Hollywood films. Natalie Wood, who was born in San Francisco as Natasha Gurdin (1938-1981) was an actress in numerous American films.


Vladimir Ipatieff (1867-1952) was a prominent research chemist; George Gamow (1904-1968) was a nuclear physicist who popularized the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe; Wassily Leontieff (1906 ) is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who formulated the influential input-output system of economic analysis; Alexander Petrunkevitch (1875-1964) wrote numerous works in the field of zoology; Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) was an aviation industrialist and inventor of the helicopter; Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) was a controversial sociologist who argued that western civilization was doomed unless it attained "creative altruism"; and Vladimir Zworykin (1889-1982) was a physicist and electronics engineer who is known as the father of television.



Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Selected version of Russian daily; text in Russian; published semi-monthly in English translation. Russian online version available.

Address: 7338 Dartford Drive, Suite 9, McLean, Virginia 22102.

Telephone: (703) 827-0414.

Fax: (703) 827-8923.


Novoe Russkoe Slovo/New Russian Word.

This publication is the oldest Russian daily newspaper in the world.

Contact: Andrei Sedych, Publisher.

Address: 111 Fifth Avenue, 5th Floor, New York, New York 10003.

Telephone: (212) 387-0299.

Fax: (212) 387-9050.

E-mail: [email protected].

Novyi Zhurnal/New Review.

Scholarly publication covering Russian interests.

Contact: Professor Vadim Kreyd, Editor.

Address: 611 Broadway, Ste. 842, New York, New York 10012-2608.

Telephone: (212) 353-1478.

Fax: (212) 353-1478.

E-mail: [email protected].

Pravoslavnaya Rus.

Religious newspapaer on Russian Orthodox history and Eastern Orthodox spirituality in Russian.

Contact: Arch Bishop Laurus, Editor-in-Chief

Address: PO Box 36, Jordanville, New York 13361-0036.

Telephone: (315) 858-0940.

Fax: (315) 858-0505.

E-mail: [email protected].


KTYM-AM (1460).

Operated by KMNB Media Group.

Address: 7060 Hollywood Boulevard, Suite 919, Los Angeles, California 90028.

Telephone: (323) 463-7007.

Fax: (323) 463-0917.

E-mail: [email protected].


WMNB-FM (100.1).

Russian American Broadcasting Company.

Address: One Bridge Plaza, Suite 145, Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024.



Owned and operated by KMNB Media Group.

Address: 7060 Hollywood Boulevard, Suite 919, Los Angeles, California 90028.

Telephone: (323) 463-7007.

Fax: (323) 463-0917.

E-mail: [email protected].



Russian Television Network.

Address: Box 3589, Stamford, Connecticut 06903.

Telephone: (800) 222-2786.


Russian American Broadcasting Company.

Address: One Bridge Plaza, Suite 145, Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024.

Telephone: (800) 570-2778; or (800) 772-2080.

Organizations and Associations

Congress of Russian Americans, Inc.

Political action umbrella group with branches throughout the country; seeks to promote Russian cultural heritage and to protect the legal, economic, and social interests of Russian Americans.

Contact: Katherine P. Lukin, Treasurer.

Address: P.O. Box 818, Nyack, New York 10960-0818.

Telephone: (914) 358-7117.

Fax: (914) 353-5453.

E-mail: [email protected].


Orthodox Church in America.

The largest church with members of Russian background; 12 dioceses throughout North America.

Address: P.O. Box 675, Route 25A, Syosset, New York 11791.

Telephone: (516) 922-0550.

Russian Children's Welfare Society.

Philanthropic group to help needy children of who are immigrants or refugees, especially from Russia.

Contact: Jennifer Kaplan, Executive Director.

Address: 349 West 86th Street, New York, New York 10024.

Telephone: (212) 779-2815.

E-mail: [email protected].


Russian Independent Mutual Aid Society.

Fraternal organization and insurance company to provide workers and other policy holders with security in old age.

Contact: Alexander G. Hook, Secretary.

Address: 917 North Wood Street, Chicago, Illinois 60622-5005.

Telephone: (312) 421-2272.

Museums and Research Centers

Immigration History Research Center.

Contact: Joel Wurl, Curator.

Address: University of Minnesota, 826 Berry Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455.

Telephone: (612) 373-5581.


Museum of Russian Culture.

Includes archival and published materials as well as artifacts pertaining to Russian American life, especially in California.

Address: 2450 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94115.

Telephone: (415) 911-4082.

New York Public Library, Slavic and Baltic Division.

Aside from a rich collection of printed materials on the Russian and Soviet homeland, there is much material on Russians in the United States from the 1890s to the present.

Address: Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, New York 10018.

Telephone: (212) 930-0714.

Orthodox Church in America Archives.

Includes archival and published materials on Russian Orthodox church life in North America from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Address: P.O. Box 675, Route 25A, Syosset, New York 11791.

Telephone: (516) 922-0550.

Sources for Additional Study

Chevigny, Hector. Russian America: The Great Alaskan Adventure, 1741-1867. Portland, Oregon: Binford and Mort, 1979.

Davis, Jerome. The Russian Immigrant. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Eubank, Nancy. The Russians in America. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Lerner Publications, 1979.

Hardwick, Susan Wiley. Russian Refuge: Religion, Migration, and Settlement on the North American Pacific Rim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Magocsi, Paul Robert. The Russian Americans. New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1989.

Morris, Richard A. Old Russian Ways: Cultural Variations among Three Russian Groups in Oregon. New York: AMS Press, 1991.

Ripp, Victor. Moscow to Main Street: Among the Russian Emigres. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1984.

Studies of the Third Wave: Recent Migration of Soviet Jews to the United States, edited by Dan N. Jacobs and Ellen Frankel Paul. Boulder, Colorado: West-view Press, 1981.

Wertsman, Vladimir. The Russians in America, 1727-1976. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1977.

Russian Americans

views updated May 29 2018

Russian Americans

ETHNONYMS: Russians, Russkie, Rossiyane, Velikorusy (Great Russians)


Identification and Location.

The term Russians can be used to refer to the members of any ethnic group that lived in the former Soviet Union (including Ukrainians, Belarusans, Jews, and peoples of the Caucasus region) for whom theRussian language is the main vehicle of communication in the home environment. Russians have been living in the United States since the sale of Alaska in 1867. The first of four massive waves of immigration occurred at the end of the Russian Revolution (1917), the second took place at the end of World War II, a third wave (1950s-1960s) consisted of those who left the Soviet Union on Israeli visas, and a post-Cold War fourth wave was economically motivated.

Demography. According to the annual reports of the Commissioner-General of Immigration and Census Data, 95,137 Russians lived in the United States in 1910 and 171,075 in 1920. About 40,000 Russians came in the 1920s, and 14,000 arrived in the 1930s. Around 20,000 former World War II prisoners and slave laborers in Germany refused to return to Russia and arrived in the United States between 1947 and 1952. According to the 1990 census, 2,114,506 Russian Americans lived in the United States, of whom 1,919,722 were native-born and 194,784 were foreign-born. Among the foreign-born, 128,249 entered the country before 1980 and 66,535 entered between 1980 and 1990; 123,415 were naturalized citizens, and 71,369 were not citizens. Preliminary data from the 2000 census estimate 2,987,143 people of Russian ancestry in the United States.

Linguistic Affiliation. Russian belongs to the Eastern Slavic group of the Indo-European language family and has more than 270 million speakers. According to the 1990 census, the total number of people above age four years speaking Russian at home in the United States was 241,798. The Russian language is maintained primarily by the Russian Orthodox Church, which offers instruction in that language in parish schools on weekends. There are also full-time churchrun schools in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Small groups of Russian-speaking Doukhobors, an Old Believer sect, settled in the Canadian province of British Columbia at the turn of the twentieth century. They have preserved their language and culture because of their isolation from English-speaking Canadian communities and militant resistance to assimilation.

History and Cultural Relations

During the development of the West and the California gold rush many Russian laborers came to Hawaii and the mainland United States and Canada to work on sugar plantations and build railroads. Later immigration quotas were introduced that favored immigrants from Western Europe and discriminated against immigrants from Asia and Africa. After the Russo-Japanese war (1905-1907) about five thousand Russian Molokans left Russia for Los Angeles.

Whereas pre-World War I emigration from Russia consisted largely of peasants, the Russian refugees of the 1920s included a high proportion of middle- and upper-class people with good educations and professional qualifications. The biggest problem for the refugees was poverty. The largest and best-organized community in the United States was in New York City. After World War II many so-called displaced persons from Europe (especially Germany) and Asia (especially China) found new homes in the United States.

Among the more famous Russian immigrants to the United States were the inventors Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) and Vladmir Zworykin (1889-1982), the writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the actor Yul Brynner (1915-1985), and the actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981). In 1923 Sikorsky formed a corporation to produce one of the first twin-engine airplanes in the United States. The contribution of Russian scholars has been great: in history Valentin Karpovitch at Harvard, Valentin Riasanovsky at the University of Oregon, and Michael Rostovtzev and George Vernadsky at Yale; in linguistics and literary theory Roman Jakobson at MIT; and in sociology P. Sorokin at Harvard. The founder of modern ballet, Michel Fokine (1880-1942), came to New York City in 1923. The composer and musician Dimitri Tiomkin (1899-1979) settled in Los Angeles and became one of the most prolific composers for Hollywood films. Boris Bakhmeteff, a professor of mechanics and hydraulics, joined Columbia University in 1936. A former Soviet ambassador, he created a $1,400,000 fund at that university to expand the Russian studies program and foster the advancement of Russian culture in the United States. The Russian Classroom at the University of Pittsburgh was officially opened in July 1938 and featured furniture, embroidery, and ornamental hardware in the Russian tradition. The Tolstoy Foundation was established in 1939 to assist refugees. The Russian American Youth Theater was founded in 1968 in New York City by Tamara Levitskaia. In 1970 there were thirty-one Russian American publicationstwenty-five in Russian and six in Englishwith a total circulation of 65,128. In New York City there is a Russian high school (gymnasium) run by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

Illegal immigration has increased because of the economic downturn in Russia, which causes people to look for better economic opportunities elsewhere. Some Russians come as "tourists" and then try to arrange a fictitious marriage with an American citizen and apply for a "green card," which allows a person to stay in the United States as an immigrant and work legally. Others ask for political asylum, knowing in advance that the request will be denied by the immigration authorities. However, several years may pass before an immigration judge becomes available to hear the case, and in the meantime the petitioners are allowed to stay and work in the United States.

One legal way to immigrate to the United States is to invest in an American business; this allows a person to enter the United States and stay as long as he or she stays in business there. Eventually such a person may petition to stay in the country permanently. These petitions are usually granted if the petitioner shows that he or she has paid all taxes due, has not engaged in criminal activities, and is otherwise a "solid citizen."

The existence of Russia Abroad was a unique phenomenon of the twentieth century. The question of what constituted the essence of traditional Russian culture was one that affected the emigrants. Even among those for whom religion was not a central concern, Russia's ecclesiastical past could not be forgotten. The émigrés maintained the traditions of their ancestors from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They have embodied the creative spirit of the Silver Age and the early innovative years of the Soviet regime. In the West the émigrés were free to create whatever they wanted. For the first time writers and artists enjoyed freedom from censorship. Russian émigrés had an impact on the countries that took them in, and their cultural achievements are becoming known in the former Soviet Union.


The largest communities of Russian Americans are in California, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Their housing is of the normal American and European type, with the exception that Russian Orthodox icons are placed in the krasnyi ugol (red corner) of the living room.


Subsistence. The economic life of Russian émigrés is based on small businesses and wage labor. Russian families try to give their children at least a secondary education, after which the children enter the work force. In the United States, Russians are employed in many industries as unskilled laborers, social service workers, and factory workers. To find employment in professional fields such as law and medicine, Russians have had to pass professional qualification examinations that are very difficult for those with a limited knowledge of English.

Commercial Activities. For the most part commercial activities are limited to operating small family-run businesses such as restaurants and retail stores. Today a number of Russians in the United States are involved in joint ventures funded with Russian and American capital. These businesses usually involve the trading operations of products such as fish, timber, and computers.

Industrial Arts. The first Association of Russian Painters and Artists included seventy painters, sculptors, and decorators. The honorary president was Nicholas Roerich. In New York the societies and unions tended to not break apart into right and left factions but maintained two branches under one roof.

Trade. Trade activities are focused on the former Soviet Union and on serving the needs of the Russian-speaking community. The most popular trading items are books, videos, and souvenirs.

Division of Labor. Most Russians in the first wave of immigrants worked in coal mining and the iron and steel industries. Immigration Commission reports from 1909 indicate that Russians also were involved in meatpacking, sugar refining, iron and ore mining, oil refining, construction work, and the manufacturing of clothing, wool and worsted goods, cotton goods, agricultural implements, cigars and tobacco products, leather, glass, footwear, silk goods, and furniture. Russian American workers were members of the United Mine Workers and Steel Workers' Union and other labor unions associated with garment workers, stonemasons, window washers, and house demolition workers. Earlier immigrants had established Russian branches of some unions, including the Russian Branch of Clockmakers, Russian Branch of Garment Workers, Society of Russian Boot Makers, Society of Russian Mechanics, and New York Union of Russian Longshoremen.

Immigration quotas were very low during the Depression, and aliens were encouraged to become Americans in order to be eligible for jobs. It was reported in 1923 that 40 percent of White Russian émigrés wished to become auto mechanics. Others became taxi drivers, restaurant workers, milliners, house painters, janitors, and construction workers. Women became language teachers, nurses, and social workers. Some men and women found jobs in universities. Quite a few immigrants were engineers. The current émigrés tend to be more educated.


Kin Groups and Descent. The father is usually the head of the family and is helped by his wife, who keeps house and looks after the children and who also may have an outside job. Kinship links are very strong, and the concept of the extended family is still prevalent, with several generations of family members living in the same residence or close by. Elderly parents used to live with their children until death, and it is common for a son-in-law or daughter-in-law to live with the spouse's family. More recent immigrant families have tended to borrow some practices from Americans, and young people more often live independently of their parents. The concept of kinship is extended to include close friends of the family such as godparents.

Kinship Terminology. The husband's mother is called svekrov', and his father is called svekr. The wife's mother is called tioshcha, and her father is referred to as test Both sets of parents call each other svoiaki. A husband's sister is zolovka and his brother is called dever', whereas his wife's sister is called svoiachnitsa and her brother is shurin. Kinship relations and terminology are a source of many jokes and anecdotes.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Many of the earlier emigrants were men, and most were single. The poor and unstable finances of the majority of the refugees discouraged marriage. Single émigrés lived in great social isolation, often in barracks. They were reluctant to assimilate and always hoped to go back "home." A consequence of this situation in regard to marriage was the very low proportion of children among Russians abroad.

Until 1917 marriage partners were chosen almost exclusively within the Russian community since it was assumed that the family would return to Russia after accumulating sufficient resources. This was also true of Russians who came to the United States after the Russian Revolution, who hoped that the communist regime would not survive and that they would be able to return home. Today Russian parents do not oppose marriage with members of other nationalities since this is considered a way to facilitate assimilation into the American mainstream. Russians who think about emigration and those who have already entered the United States often look for Americans to date and then marry.

Domestic Unit. The Russian family in the United States is patriarchical as it was in Russia, where the husband traditionally was considered the head of the family. Today, especially among the younger generation, the holder of that position can be of either sex, depending on who is the main source of support for the family.

Inheritance. In prerevolutionary Russia inheritance took place along the male line. During that time the family received land according to the number of men, and it was always the son who inherited the father's possessions. Daughters could expect a trousseau before marriage. In Russia the process of making a will is not common, but Russian immigrants have adopted the American custom of writing a will.

Socialization. The first émigrés were not eager to accept American values because they expected to return to Russia, but those in the second and third waves willingly assimilated into American society. Since the 1990s the scale of immigration from Russia has increased dramatically, and some groups of immigrants live in Russian communities such as Brighton Beach, New York, and do not want to assimilate. They work in Russian stores, cafés, and restaurants; speak Russian with Russian shop personnel, waitresses, and neighbors; and feel no need to learn English. This attitude is more common among older people. Their children do not differ much from Americans in their lifestyle.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Nauka, the largest Russian cultural and educational society, was organized in New York City in 1905. The Russian Orthodox Catholic Women's Mutual Aid Society was founded in Pittsburgh in 1907 as an insurance society and philanthropic organization. Societies such as these were organized in other cities as well. The Russian Collegiate Institute in New York City and the Chicago Fund for the Relief of Russian Writers and Scientists sponsored lectures and concerts and obtained donations. In the 1930s Russian émigrés created a large number of associations for mutual aid and support. The Russian Independent Mutual Aid Society was founded in Chicago in 1931 and had about 1,500 members. These societies were concerned with every sphere of life: social, cultural, political, and economic. Refugees also received help from a number of private and public philanthropic organizations, such as the International Red Cross and the Young Men's Christian Association. The Russian Center in San Francisco was founded as a social group in the 1950s.

Political Organization. Although in the 1930s to the 1950s most of the Russian American community was anticommunist, negative publicity associated with raids by the U.S. Department of Justice on the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party and the arrests of party members led to the tainting of the entire community as disloyal radicals. Two anticommunist organizations were organized in New York City: the American Society for Russian Naval History and the All-Union Monarchist Front. The Russian Armed Services Union was very active. In New York, Russian Americans formed the Society of the Russian Imperial Guard, the Russian Naval Officers Group, and the Society for Aid to Invalids.

Conflict. Before perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union conflicts took place between immigrants who had been forced to leave for political reasons and those who continued to recognize Soviet authority.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The first Russian Orthodox parishes were organized in Alaska in 1794 and in New York City in 1870. The Russian Orthodox bishop was moved from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872. At that time the Orthodox religion in America was known as the American Ecclesiastical Province of the Moscow Patriarchate. Before World War I it was estimated that there were 169 Russian Orthodox churches with about 50,000 members in the United States. The 1916 census recorded 169 Russian Orthodox churches with 99,681 parishioners. In 1936, the Commerce Department of statistics counted 229 churches with 89,510 parishioners. The Russian Orthodox Church was an anchor for exiles, providing spiritual and social sustenance. It was also the preserver of the Russian language and culture. Often there were libraries, schools, theaters, and clubs attached to the churches.

The American Ecclesiastical Province was granted autocephalous status and began to be called the Orthodox Church of America. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which was formed in Europe in 1920, also plays a significant role in the religious life of Russian Americans. It was founded by bishops and priests who left Russia with the White armies, and for the most part its adherents were monarchists. It moved to the United States after World War II and has many parishes as well as a monastery, the Holy Trinity Monastery of Jordanville, New York, which publishes Orthodox Life and Pravoslavnaia zhizn'. In California the Orthodox press of Berkeley issues Po stopam Khrista (In Christ's Footsteps), and in Los Angeles Soglasie (Concord), an anticommunist monthly, appears. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has remained hostile to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and demands its repentance for collaborating with the Soviet government and the Communist Party.

Significant numbers of Russian immigrants, especially among the intellectual leadership, experienced a revival of interest in and a commitment to religion and the church. Religious institutions were looked to for both material and spiritual assistance. Many exiles returned to the Russian Orthodox Church for worship and for the preservation of their cultural traditions. They began to regard the church with greater respect and were willing to assist in expanding its social, material, and cultural (particularly educational) roles.

The Orthodox confession includes a number of small groups and sects, such as the Starovery (Old Believers), Baptists, Piatidesiatniki, Molokane, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Some Russian Americans are members of other religious sects and faiths, including Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam.

Religious Practitioners. The highest rank in the Orthodox Church is the Arkhierei (archbishop or bishop). The Arkhierei rules the eparchy (the administrative district), appoints priests, conducts services, and passes judgments on religious questions. A priest in a parish is called a Ierei, the chief priest is the Protoierei, and a monk is a Ieromonakh.

Ceremonies. Most émigréseven those who do not go to churchare likely to follow old traditions and celebrate religious holidays and church ceremonies. On the baptizing holiday (January 19) there is a ceremony of water crossing, and many people come to church to take "saint water." On Easter morning there is zautrenia, a service that takes place before dawn. Both Russians and Americans are attracted by the pageantry, the priests' clothing, the icons and implements, and the singing. Many family ceremonies take place in church, including weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Arts. Icon painting is a well-developed art. The first icons for Russian churches in the United States were brought from Russia, but the first wave of émigrés organized their own icon-painting shops. Church architecture was developed by émigrés, who built churches in New York, Seattle, San Francisco. There are small embroidery and metal craft shops in the women's monastery in San Francisco and the men's monastery in Jordanville, New York.

Death and Afterlife. Death rituals in the Orthodox Church are similar to those in other Christian confessions. The deceased is buried in a coffin.

For the original article on Russian Americans, see Volume 1, North America.


Davis, Jerome (1922). The Russian Immigrant. New York: Macmillan.

Glad, John (1999). Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics. Tenafly, NJ: Hermitage; Washington, DC: Birchbark Press.

Hassell, James E. (1991). "Russian Refugees in France and the United States between the World Wars," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. v. 81, pt. 7, 96 p.

Karlowich, Robert A. (1990). A Guide to Scholarly Resources on the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in the New York Metropolitan Area. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

(1991). We Fall and Rise: Russian-Language Newspapers in New York City, 1889-1914. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Raeff, Marc (1990). Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schlogel, Karl (1994). Der grosse Exodus: Die russische Emigration und ihre Zentren 1917 bis 1941. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck.

Wertsman, Vladimir (1977). The Russians in America, 1727-1975. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications.


Russian Americans

views updated May 23 2018

Russian Americans

For more information on Russian history and culture, seeVol. 4: Russians.


The term "Russian Americans" is somewhat confusing because it can be used to refer either to ethnic Russian immigrants or to immigrants from any of the former soviets of the Soviet Union (including Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.). In this article, Russian Americans will be used to refer only to ethnic Russian immigrants. Russian Jewish immigrants will be mentioned in this article, but they are discussed in more detail in the article on Jewish Americans.

Most Russian American scholars and ethnic Russian Americans count three major waves of immigration to the United States: The first wave happened just after the Russian Revolution of 1917–21, stretching from the 1920s into the 1930s; the second wave occurred after World War II, from 1945 until the early 1950s; and the third wave began in the 1970s and continues today. A sizeable number of immigrants came to the United States from Russia before 1920, but they were of varied ethnic origins and so are discounted by most ethnic Russian Americans.

The very first Russians to set foot on the North American continent were fur traders from Siberia who traveled across the Bering Strait in the 1700s in search of game. They settled in Alaska and maintained a Russian colony there for a time. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Russians from the middle class fled Russia to escape the oppressive government of that time, many emigrating to the United States. In 1861 Russian peasants (or serfs) were given their freedom, and a host of them emigrated to America. Between 1861 and 1914, 9 out of 10 Russian immigrants to the United States were peasants. Most were single young men, hoping to find employment and a better life in America. A few young women also came to the United States to escape arranged marriages in their homeland. During this same time, a number of German–Russian Mennonites, Molokans (another religious sect), and Jews fled religious persecution in Russia and settled in America.

The "first" wave of Russian American immigration (according to scholars and ethnic Russian Americans) consisted largely of members of the Russian middle class and aristocracy who suddenly found their homeland inhospitable after the Communist Revolution of 1917. About 40,000 Russians came to the United States in the first few years after the Revolution. When Stalin took over the Soviet government in 1930, he introduced strict regulations forbidding emigration. For the next 14 years, only 14,060 Russians managed to escape the Soviet Union and come to America.

Most of these "first"-wave Russian Americans were well-educated, skilled laborers or professionals. They had a much easier time acclimating to life in the industrialized United States than did the peasants of earlier immigrations. However, first-wave Russian Americans met with a sudden surge of hostility from non-Russian Americans who suspected them of being Communists (called "Reds"). The "Red Scare" of 1919–20 drove many Russian Americans to hide their ethnicity. Some 3,000 Russian Americans were arrested and jailed as suspected Communists and, although most were soon released, a number were deported to the Soviet Union. In actuality, very few Russian Americans were Communist sympathizers. Most had in fact fled the Communist government.

The pressure to assimilate caused much of Russian culture and heritage to be lost by Russian American immigrants. Many Americanized their names, stopped speaking Russian, and adopted American customs. The same was true of the "second" wave of Russian American immigrants, who entered the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Europeans displaced by the destruction of World War II were allowed to immigrate to the United States. Those Russians who immigrated encountered a second surge of anti-Communism in America, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Russian Americans again felt driven to hide their ethnicity and become "American" as soon as possible.

No one was allowed legally to leave the Soviet Union again until the 1960s and 1970s, when Russian Jews were permitted to emigrate to Israel. Some then moved to the United States shortly after arriving in Israel. A handful of elite Russians, such as artists, scientists, and athletes, defected (illegally renounced their Soviet citizenship and requested residency in the United States) while visiting America on Soviet-sponsored tours or exchanges. Stalin's own daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the United States. Other defectors include ballet artists Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Valery Jalina Banov; poet Joseph Brodsky; cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich; and scientists Valery Chalidze and Chores Med-vedev. However, the number of Russian immigrants, legal or illegal, was very small during these decades.

The "third" wave of Russian immigration to the United States, beginning with Russian Jews in the early 1970s, picked up speed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, approximately one million Russians have immigrated to the United States. A majority of them are still Russian Jews, most of whom settle in New York City, but a number of other ethnic Russians are also making the trip across the globe in search of a better life.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted some 3 million "Russian" Americans, but this includes many who are not ethnic Russians. According to the U.S. Census 2000, 706,242 Americans indicated Russian as their spoken language. The regions with the highest concentration of Russian-Americans in 2000 were: the NY Tri-State Area (24%), California (16%), Illinois (16%), Pennsylvania (10%), Massachusetts (8%), Florida (7%), and Washington D.C. and Maryland (3%).

The very first Russians in America, the Siberian fur traders, settled in Alaska. Russian immigrants who came between 1870 and 1920 tended to settle in large cities of the Northeast and Midwest, including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit. Some Russians who fled to China after the Revolution in 1917 later fled persecutions in China, ending up in California. Some settled in the San Francisco area and others in Los Angeles. German–Russian Mennonites established farms in the Midwest, particularly in the states of Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. A religious sect known as the Molokans escaped persecution in Russia and moved to Los Angeles. Today, there are about 20,000 Molokans in California and a few thousand more in Oregon.

Most of the Russian immigrants who have arrived since the 1960s and 1970s have settled in and around New York City. Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the few Russian neighborhoods left in America. In 2008 there were more than 700,000 Russian speakers in the tri-state New York metropolitan region. More than 100,000 Russian Americans also live in San Francisco. Other small Russian American neighborhoods exist, but there are no real "Russiantowns" to speak of today, excepting Brooklyn Beach and the San Francisco Russian American community.

First-generation Russian Americans strive to learn English as quickly as possible in order to blend in with their American environment and enable themselves to get better jobs. Their children grow up speaking both English and Russian, but when they establish homes of their own, they speak only English. Therefore, by the third generation, most Russian Americans no longer speak Russian. The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which began in Alaska in 1792, now uses English in its liturgy. Most Russian Americans, if they are not Jewish, belong to the OCA. Another organization is the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Traditionalists believe that the Russian language is the only thing that gives Russians their true identity and to lose it is to lose one's heritage.

The OCA has about one million members; the ROCOR has about 400,000 members. About half of the Russian American population is Jewish; a minority are Mennonite or belong to other Protestant denominations. A very small group of Russian Americans belong to the Old Believers sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the teachings of the Church prior to changes that were made in 1654. These Old Believers live in intentionally isolated communities in Alaska and Oregon, speak only Russian, wear 17th-century clothing, and keep themselves separate from the rest of society.

Russian Americans celebrate the rites of passage and holidays common to their particular religious tradition, be it Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant, or Mennonite. They have also adopted traditional American holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Most were not supporters of the Soviet government and so do not celebrate any Soviet holidays.

Russians love to party, however, so they find many occasions to celebrate together. Russian Americans are no less festive. Births, weddings, holy days, graduations, the purchase of a new home, new jobs, even funerals are all reasons to gather together and eat, drink, and be merry. Hospitality and generosity are highly valued by Russian Americans, and old-time traditions such as welcoming guests with a loaf of bread are still honored.

Russian families are traditionally very close and, though Americanizing influences have lessened the bonds somewhat, most Russian Americans are still closely tied to their families, particularly first- and second-generation immigrants. Elderly relatives are cared for at home, and women give birth at home. Young women often live with their parents until they marry, and sons tend to settle near their parents after marriage. Later-generation Russian Americans are more Americanized with a greater focus on individual nuclear family units.

Food is an important part of Russian Americans' ethnic identity, and many of their traditional foods have become common among the general American population. Mennonite farmers introduced hard wheat to American farmers, and it is now grown on many farms across the United States. Chicken Kiev (batter-fried chicken breasts stuffed with butter and herbs), beef stroganoff (thinly sliced beef in sour cream sauce), and borscht (beet soup) are well-known to most Americans. Bagels, pumpernickel bread, sour cream, vodka, and lemon in tea are even better-known Russian additions to the American menu.

Russian Americans have made tremendous contributions to the cultural life of America as well. Russian folk music, played on the balalaika (a triangular guitar with a flat back, usually with three strings), and Russian folk dances are very popular with the general American population. Classical music and dance abound with Russian Americans, including composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff; conductors Serge Koussevitsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Nicholas Sokomoff; violinists Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, and Mischa Elman; pianist Vladimir Horowitz; and ballet artists Michael Fokin, George Balanchine, Natalia Makarova, Valery Banov, Alexandra Danilova, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Barishnikov. Popular music composers Irving Berlin, Efram Zimbalist, Louis Gruenberg, and Dmitri Tiomkin also contributed greatly to American culture.

Russian American visual artists include Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who work together, and Louise Nevelson (Berliawsky). There are many highly successful Russian American writers, including Isaac Asimov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Ayn Rand, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, and Irina Ratushinskaya. Director Konstantin Stanislavsky (founder of The Actors' Studio in New York City) made a tremendous impact on American theater and film, and actors Natalie Wood, Yul Brynner, Milla Jovovich, and comedian Yaakov Smirnoff found success in film and television. Fashion designer Oleg Cassini was a Russian American.

In the worlds of science and industry, Russian Americans have made countless contributions. Some noted examples are David Dubinsky, founder of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union in 1900; Vladimir Zworykin, inventor of the tube that made television possible, and inventor of the electron microscope; Solman Waksman, who discovered the bacterium that causes tuberculosis; and George Gamow, who played a critical role in the development of nuclear fission technology. In the world of business, Sergey Brin is one of the co-founders of Google.

Tennis stars Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova are important sports figures in the 21st century.

For the most part, Russian Americans have successfully adapted to American life, suffering little overt discrimination excepting the two "Red Scare" eras. Perhaps the greatest problem Russian Americans face at this juncture is the rapid loss of their traditional culture. Americanization is quickly turning Russian Americans into merely "Americans," with little of their Russian heritage remaining. Some see this as a good thing; others grieve the loss. For Russian American women, escaping some of the trappings of traditional culture can be liberating. Be they orthodox or Jewish, many Russian American women are carving out new roles for themselves in the wider American society.


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Boym, Svetlana. Territories of Terror: Mythologies and Memories of the Gulag in Contemporary Russian-American Art. Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 2006.

The Congress of Russian Americans. (April 11, 2008).

Ferry, Steven. Russian Americans. Tarrytown, NY: Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 1996.

Horowitz, Joseph. Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts. New York: Harper, 2008.

Magosci, Paul R. The Russian Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Salz, Marianna. "New Americans: A Tale of Three Cultures; Yours, Mine and Ours." Jewish Exponent 199, no. 3 (18 January 1996): 16.

—revised by J. Hobby