The History of Russian Americans: Part 1

Updated: Mar 29

According to the Institute of Modern Russia, there are currently 3 million Americans who trace their ancestry to Russia. Many of them grew up speaking English and have little to no knowledge of Russian culture. Have you ever wondered why so many Russians were fleeing their country in the first place? This is the first part of this article in which we want to walk you through the main events that led to this massive migration.


The First Wave (1880-1910)


This story begins at the end of the 18th century, when Catherine II, the Russian Empress at the time, annexed large Lithuanian and Polish territories that were historically home to many Jews. When she established the Pale of Settlement many were forced to obtain special permission in order to immigrate to other parts of Russia. Jewish residents of the Pale had the right to vote (even though they only made up 1/3 of all votes, no matter which fraction of the actual population they were) but they were not allowed to leave the Pale unless they obtained a university degree, converted from Judaism or became merchants.


Pogrom in modern-day Ukraine, Yekaterinoslav, 1905

Until the end of the 19th century, the term "pogrom" wasn't common in the English language. Due to the events of the early 1880s, the word disseminated and became known outside of Russia. From 1881 to 1884 people in the Russian Empire faced more than 200 anti-Jewish events. The reason for the pogroms might seem irrational to us now. The Jewish part of the population was scapegoated for the assassination of Alexander II. One of the conspirators, Hesya Helfman, was, in fact, of Jewish origin but her role in the murder was exaggerated by rumors. The conspiracy had nothing to do with the Jewish population of Russia, but people tended to believe everything they heard from their neighbors and relatives, so the rumors spread quickly. Normal people from all over the country joined the anti-semitic riots.


These pogroms made the government take action and create the Temporary Regulations, also known as the May Laws. Their primary purpose was to restrict the Jews’ freedoms. Some of these restrictions included: Not being allowed to live outside of certain regions, rent land, or trade on weekends and at Christian festivals (if they were merchants). The idea was to keep these regulations for a short time until they were revised and rewritten however they ended up lasting for more than 30 years.


Even after those restrictions, many Russians maintained a negative attitude towards Jewish people. Alexander III himself was an open anti-semite. At the beginning of the 20th century, many Jewish communities were dissolved, their properties seized and many rights were taken from Jews by the Pale of Settlement.


The conditions that Jewish people were forced to live in slowly led to one of the biggest migrations in Russian history. From 1880 to 1920 more than 2 million Jews left Russia, trying to escape the horrors of violence and political oppression. More than 1 790 000 of them headed to the USA in search of better lives.


The second wave (1916–1922)


The year 1917 was a year of enormous change. The Great October Socialist Revolution brought new policies. Of course, some citizens disagreed with them - mostly Tsar supporters, Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries, or simply apolitical individuals. Such events were turning their lives upside down. Knowing that Bolsheviks would not stand anyone whose opinion differed from their own, they understood that they had to flee. This was the time for the term white émigré to become pretty well-known.


A white émigré was a citizen of the former Russian Empire who had to leave the country due to the events of the biggest coup d'état. The term was mostly used in the USA, the UK, and France, but the immigrants themselves preferred to be called first-wave émigré (Russian: эмигрант первой волны, emigrant pervoy volny), "The Russian émigrés" (Russian: русская эмиграция, russkaya emigratsiya) or "Russian military émigrés" (Russian: русская военная эмиграция, russkaya voyennaya emigratsiya) if they participated in the White movement.


The exact amount of immigrants that fled Russia remains unclear. According to to the League of Nations' report, there were more than 1.4 million Russians who migrated from 1918 to 1921. On the other hand, there are sources that state that there were over 5 million emigres between 1918 and 1924.


Although many of these people were monarchists, the political values of those who migrated right after the revolution represented a wide variety of views that were present in the Empire. While more liberal émigrés tended to go to the USA, France, and the Czechoslovak Republic, the ones who supported monarchism fled to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, China, and Argentina.


In 1926 many immigrants gathered together for the Russian Foreign Congress. Its main goal was coordinating the movement of white emigres. Later on, they created the National Union of Russian Youth (later renamed to National Alliance of Russian Solidarists) that still exists to this day.


The grandchildren of these emigres, the ones who escaped the country disagreeing with its regime, don't have much connection to their Russian heritage and the culture of the country in general. Descendants of the immigrants that are living now usually represent the third or fourth generation. Most of them speak little to no Russian, don't celebrate national holidays, and don't follow most cultural traditions. If you speak Russian, you can watch this video to find out what the children and grandchildren of those immigrants think about their families' Russian past.


Main resources:

IRINA DUBININA, MARIA POLINSKY. Russian in the U.S.A.(Brandeis-Harvard): https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mpolinsky/files/irina_dubinina_polinsky.pdf

GITELMAN, ZVI. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Indiana University Press, 2001: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16xwbzp

https://web.archive.org/web/20181017163146/http://www.friends-partners.org/partners/beyond-the-pale/eng_captions/39-4.html https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/polish3.html

https://www.ancestry.com/contextux/historicalinsights/russian-immigration-1800s