The Russian Diaspora and Its Settlement in America

The term “Russian diaspora” refers to the global community of ethnic Russians. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the largest number of Russians living outside the Russian Federation can be found in the former republics of the Soviet Union. According to official Russian government figures, there are approximately ten million Russians in Central Asian countries, eleven million in Ukraine, and about one million in the independent republics of the Caucasus. Another 1.3 million live in Belarus and one million in Israel, with Moldova and three Baltic states being home to another two million.

Four Waves of Immigration

According to scholars, there were four principal waves of Russian immigration in the last few centuries. The first wave of immigration took place in the second half of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century before World War I. The majority of these Russian immigrants were Jews who were escaping religious persecution and pogroms.

Those who fled to the United States mostly settled in New York and other large American coastal cities. Like previous Jewish immigrants, many of these Russian Jews went into business, but they also maintained a highly orthodox religious practice. In Chicago, for example, large numbers of Russian Jews moved to the south side of the city in the 1880s. By 1930, they constituted 80% of Chicago’s Jewish population. In 1891, there were 19 Russian newspapers and 11 Russian magazines published in Chicago.

Other Russian immigrants included religious groups that were persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church; among them were the Molokans and the Old Believers. The Molokans (a name derived from the Russian word for “milk’) were given this name because they did not refrain from milk during Orthodox feasts; many of them settled in the Los Angeles area and later in the Williamette Valley in Oregon. They chose to live in isolated communities and often worked in agriculture. The Old Believers, whose ancestors refused to accept church reforms in the 17th century, mostly settled in Oregon and Alaska where they went to work in agriculture and the fishing industry.

The second wave from Russia came after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War of 1917-1921. Over two million Russians fled the chaos and violence of these tumultuous days and approximately 30,000 came to the United States, while large numbers of others settled in France and Germany. Because many of these immigrants came from the wealthy ruling classes of tsarist Russia, they often found work in their professions and made their homes in large urban areas like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

The third wave came in the aftermath of World War II, during which millions of Europeans, including Russians, were displaced from their homes. This wave brought about 50,000 people from the Soviet Union to the United States; most of them did not come directly from the USSR, but often were channeled through refugee camps. This third wave included Russians from all classes, particularly farm and factory workers. Most of them settled in large American industrial areas like New York and Chicago.

The fourth and final wave of immigration began in the early 1970s and involved many Russian Jews who were suffering from continued religious persecution. Following the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act that denied “most favored nation status” for commerce with countries that restricted emigration, the Soviet government allowed 250,000 Jews to emigrate. After Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, the restrictions on immigration were relaxed and many other Russians decided to leave Russia as well.

The Russian “Brain Drain”

In contrast to earlier waves of immigration, many of the immigrants since the 1970s were the “best and brightest,” well trained in technical and scientific fields. An astonishing 56% of these new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to the United States in the 1990s describe themselves as academics, scientists and professional workers. This loss of Russian talent represents one of the largest transfers of intellectual power in world history.

According to U. S. Census Bureau Report issued in June 2004, there were 2,652,214 Russians living in the United States as of 2000 — or a little under 1% of the American population. Whether or not some of them will eventually return to the Russian Federation is an open question. In my conversation with Russian immigrants here in the States, they often do not like to discuss this question, but when they do they frequently say it depends on what internal developments occur in the Russia, especially whether or not true freedom is allowed and the rule of law is established.