Russian americans

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

Taken in 1947, this photograph demonstrates the influence of American fashion on traditional Russian dress. The lace shawls of these women are called kascinkas; their high-heeled shoes are American.
Taken in 1947, this photograph demonstrates the influence of American fashion on traditional Russian dress. The lace shawls of these women are called kascinkas; their high-heeled shoes are American.
Pale was the only place Jews were allowed to reside. The vast majority lived in small towns and villages in their own communities known as the shtetl, which were made famous in America through the setting of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This Russian American vendor sells handicrafts from his booth  in Brooklyn,  New York.
This Russian American vendor sells handicrafts from his booth in Brooklyn, New York.
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

Russian American immigrant Olesa Zaharova leads a game of hangman on the blackboard of her language class.
Russian American immigrant Olesa Zaharova leads a game of hangman on the blackboard of her language class.
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 General—the 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.

Online: .

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.


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.


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.



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.


Online: .

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.


Online: .


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.


Online: .

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.


Online: .

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.

Online: .

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.

User Contributions:

Jordan Wardell
is there anyone who can tell me how often russian americans us the united states 911 or emergency services?? like how often they would call 911... are they nutral, frim not to call, or call alot?? just curious im doing a research project on russian americans for my paramedic class
Thanks, Jordan
Joe Szabo
For research purposes I am looking for information on the number of Russian Jewish immigrants and refugees (receiving political asylum in the US) after 1970. Many thanks if someone could point at the proper data.

I am looking for some Russian writers who wrote their book in Russian but, at the same time, used in their books many english loan words, code-switching, and other contact linguistics fenomena. I would be very please if somebody could help me, becouse I am preparing a dissertation on this argument. Thanks again.
I am interested in Russian folk music in America. I am particularly interested in songs that women would sing. I am writing my masters thesis at San Diego State on this topic. I have studied the Russian language for a couple of years, and have attended Russian folk performances in San Francisco.
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Maya Marx
I was born in russia so this was fun to read about especially when i will need to do a report on Russia
hello, can anyone please tell me three famous people from Russia? it's for a school project. Thanks,

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:Augustine Parkes
This site really helped me with my research project for US history. it has a lot of info. it can probably help you learn about any culture, hence, its name.
This had great information, but I'm curious about some of the struggles that Russian immigrants have faced, primarily in the areas of racism or discrimination. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.
george smith
who was a influential leader russian american leader, what did he do?
I am looking for resources that portray the Russian cinema similar to the united states films in how they both portrayed gender discrimination. I appreciate any information and thanks for sharing.
For research purposes, I am curious to know about the Russian American experience in the United States in the mid to late 1960s. In the wake of the McCarthy era and the intense fear and distrust of all things connected with communism, did Russian immigrants to the United States feel ostracized and discriminated against?

Can anyone address these questions or recommend a resource for me?

Many thanks!
Vodka Vodka
I have met, known and made alot of people who are from eastern europe. Russians have good food and they seem to really like to have fun! All of them have been friendly to me. But, I dont understand why all my eastern european friends dont like people from the balkans? I dont even know where that is or care! I love all of the worlds children even if I dont necessarily like them.
I am a US citizen,but my parents immigrated when my mother was 6 months pregnant with me. My mother and father had grown up in Russia, and as I was growing, they taught me much about their lives in Russia, and the troubles they and other Russian immigrants suffered even here in America. If anyone who has a project wants to speak with me, please feel free to contact me at the e-mail provided. just please title the e-mail referring to a subject you wish to speak to me regarding
Hi CarlosI am not aware of any Estonian ruetasrants per ce (ie advertised as such), however Verru (which I've reviewed ) has an Estonian chef. They do classic French dishes with a Baltic twist a lovely place. Do let me know once and if you've been.
I am looking for a person went to USA from USSR, name Binazarov Amir Fahatovich. Would you help me to find him? My e-mail address is
Thanks in anticipation.
I am doing a research paper and i need to know how the americans in the 1800s felt about russian culture
I'm looking for the information how did the russian americans vote in 2012 election. Please help me if you can to find statistics
Robert K.JR
I am looking for Russian Americans Scout Troops in Los Angeles.
Don`t hesitate to contact me!/Robert/
Michelle Crist
Hoping someone can be of some assistance. My mother-in-law was brought over from Germany by her parents when she was 5 years old. We are trying to get a birth certificate for her. Her mother and father are Russian, however, they were captured by the German's during the war and placed in work camps. They stayed in the camps until after the war until they were able to find someone to sponsor their trip to the States. They came over in 1951. Within 4 years her mother died of Leukemia and within another 5 years her father passed. I've tried to gather as much info as I can, but this is all so new to me. Anyone know Where I might try looking? They left for the US from Bremerhaven, Germany in December 1951.

Thank you.
Lily Chase
I'm doing a Push Pull project on what pushed the immigrants out of Russia and pulled them into the United States for my 8th grade social studies class. The focus is on pre World War I. Thanks
Tim Robert
Fascinating background on Russian emigres to the US beginning in the early 1900s particularly the "White Russians" who were referred to in this article which is how this web site was discovered. I have been focusing attention on George de Mohrenschildt and his brother, Dimitri de Mohrenschildt knowing thy were "White Russians" and George de Mohrenschildt's wife was from Pennsylvania.

George de Mohrenschildt was a highly trained intelligence operative from Minsk and arrived in the US in 1938 in New York where a French intelligence operative working at the same company George de Mohrenschildt got a job at introduced him to the Bouvier family. Jacqueline Bouvier would call him "Uncle George."

George de Mohrenschildt then is in Dallas, Texas and heavily involved with the "White Russian" community there surrounding the Tolstoy Foundation and then when George de Morhenschidlt was in Haiti on November 22, 1963, John Kennedy is alleged to have been murdered in Dallas.

The astonishing thing is that the "White Russians" and their connection to Pennsylvania and Dallas is most intriguing. And then if that is not intriguing enough, the alleged assassin of Officer Tippit in Dallas who was said to be "Lee Harvey Oswald's double", was also a "White Russian" by the name of Igor Vaganov.
Richard Jones
I am in search of anyone who can contest to the limited or poor living conditions in remote areas of Crimea and the hardship of travel for those residing in Crimea
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