People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Russian Americans

About the Russian Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Russian-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The earliest Russians sailed across the Bering Sea from Kamchatka to Alaska, where they set up a profitable fur trade in the mid-1700s. But the great mass of immigrants came to America from European Russia, primarily the western and southern border areas, between 1880 and 1914. After 1920, Russians and other ethnic groups fled from all reaches of the U.S.S.R. as exiles from the new Communist regime.

Why They Left: Most immigrants were peasants seeking economic freedom and a better life. Czar Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had only worsened their already wretched situation. Russia's archaic methods of agriculture contributed to periodic costly famines. High taxes reduced peasant landholdings by half. Lack of sanitation and medical care kept mortality rates high. Peasant education was unheard of. And the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904 sacrificed whole divisions of peasant "cannon fodder" and impoverished the Russian countryside.

Several religious groups--the Mennonites, Old Believers, and Molokans--left Russia because of persecution. Following W.W. II, 20,000 Russians released from Nazi prison camps chose to seek asylum in the U.S. (However, thousands of other Russian soldiers and ex-prisoners who wanted to come to the U.S. were returned to the U.S.S.R. by American authorities, who were reacting to pressure from Stalin.) In the years since, most Russians who have come to the U.S. are artists, intellectuals, and military officers who defected or were expelled from the Soviet Union.

Where They Settled: The first Russian settlers established a mainland settlement at Sitka, Alaska, in 1804, and called it New Archangel. When Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, most of the colonists stayed on with their native wives and children. Others migrated to California, particularly San Francisco, where a small colony gathered on Russian Hill.

In the 1880s, the first tides of peasants from European Russia reached New York City. Though a Russian community grew up on the Lower East Side, most immigrants chose to leave the city. Between 1910 and 1919, Russian populations multiplied several times in Michigan and Massachusetts, where the automobile and textile industries were burgeoning. W.W. I pulled these immigrants toward munitions, steel, and shipbuilding industries in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

Numbers: From 1900 to the outbreak of W.W.I., the number of Russian immigrants increased steadily. Over 51,000 arrived in 1913 alone. In 1920 the census bureau estimated that there were 731,949 Russian Americans (foreign and native-born) in this country.

Present-day figures are not very reliable. An overwhelming percentage of Russian immigrants who arrived between 1898 and 1914 were single males, who intermarried. However, the U.S. census reported that in 1973, about 1,747,000 Americans perceived themselves as being of Russian origin.

Their Story in America: Like many other ethnic groups, the Russian immigrants had a difficult time assimilating into the American culture. Practically none of them could speak a word of English. Most of them had very little money; from 1910 to 1914, only 5% had as much as $50 in their pockets. About 90% took bottom-of-the-ladder jobs in railway construction and coal mining or in the iron and steel, canning, lumber, and meat-packing industries. Long hours and low pay further hindered their assimilation.

Because of their labor union sympathies and Russian identities, these immigrants found difficulty in obtaining jobs and otherwise being accepted during the red scare following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The emigres who fled the Communists, by and large, were aristocrats, professionals, and army officers. Peter A. Demens (born Petr Damianov), a businessman, founded St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1888. Other Russians named Moscow, Ida.; New Kuban, N.J.; Nikolaevsk, Alaska; and two Odessas, one in Texas and the other in Washington.

Famous Russian Americans: Composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and Dimitri Tiomkin; actress Natalie Wood; author Vladimir Nabokov; Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of Joseph Stalin who defected to the West in 1966 and settled in the U.S. in 1967; Marina Prusakova Oswald Porter, widow of Lee Harvey Oswald.

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