Russian immigrants have come in steady waves for the past three centuries. Fur traders who crossed the Bering Strait in the 1700's, poor peasants and persecuted Jews fleeing Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, Russians escaping the Communist Soviet Union under Stalin and Lenin and the Jewish immigrants who left Russia during World War II have all come to America in search of a better life. In the past thirty years, a new ethnic group has joined America's "melting pot": the Soviet Jews. These recent immigrants have thrived on the eastern seaboard and have even formed their own communities in New York City. The Soviet Jews have risen from a difficult past and are becoming influential members in American society.
The first Russian settlers in America were fur traders who crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska in the mid eighteenth century. Vitus Bering, A Danish sea captain, discovered the strait while exploring eastward under the command of the czar. Fur traders began to cross the strait to secure land for fur trading. Alaska soon became a frontier society with explorers searching for fur and gold. Members of persecuted religions such as the Molokan and Orthodox crossed the strait to escape government oppression in Russia. These people converted many Eskimos to their religions, and started small communities in Alaska. The migration stopped, however, in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the United States.
From 1880 to 1914, there was a new wave of Russian immigrants coming to America, which included poor peasants and persecuted Jews. In 1870, a period of "Russification" began; the Russian government implemented a policy to try to stamp out different ethnic groups within the country. Basic rights were taken away from many peoples, including the Jews. Jews were forced to move to the Pale settlement, a small region of western Russia and eastern Poland. The conditions and jobs available in the Pale were poor. Violent pogroms in the area caused many deaths. These conditions led to a huge influx of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Post Bolshevik Revolution
A large group of skilled Jewish Russian laborers came to America after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Thies Russians were the first major group of immigrants to bring their families to a new country. In America, these Russians enjoyed their new freedom and the economic advantages of America. Most of thies immigrants settled in New York City's lower east side, an area which is still dominated by Jews. This wave of immigrations was followed by another in the wake of World War II. These people, who feared there nation after the holocaust, had no problems assimilating into society; most of them were skilled laborers, and America needed more workers of this kind after the war.
Russian Jewish Immigration
More recently, a fourth wave of Russian immigration has taken place. There were many reasons behind the desire of Soviet Jews to come to the United States. In the early 1960's, many Jews were leaders in a movement among eastern block intellectuals to create an end to human rights violations and more immigration rights for Jews in the Soviet Union. Also, the Arab Israeli War of 1967 brought emotions to the Soviet Jews; more than ever, these people wanted the right to live and pray in Israel. Jewish movements and demonstrations for immigration began taking place around the U.S.S.R, and soon more Soviet Jews were given the right to move to Israel. In 1971, when the United States made a deal with the Soviet Union for improved trade agreements in return for more lenient immigration policies, the doors were opened some. At this time any Soviet Jew could obtain an exit visa for Israel, but they still could not go to the United States. Then in 1976, HIAS ( the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society ) started to give Soviet Jews the chance to settle in America. Many Soviet Jews soon applied for visas for two reasons: first, Soviet Universities were continuing to restrict the number of Jewish students, and secondly there was a shortage of food, clothing and housing in the U.S.S.R which had been a problem since the World War II.
Coming to America
Moving to America was and still is a complicated process for Soviet Jews. First, the Jews must travel to HAIS headquarters in Vienna. At this point the immigrants must decide between Israel and the United States for their final destination. Those who choose the United States then have to travel to Rome where they are housed, sheltered and offered English classes while their papers are being processed. Of his stay in Rome, a middle age Soviet Jew said, " In Rome we got our first taste of the west. It was beautiful. Not only the history, which was, of course, interesting to us, but the clothes, the food. ... For three months we celebrated." After processing is completed, the Jews fly to New York. Although the process of coming to the United States is a complicated one, Soviet Jews find the trip well worth it.
The Soviet Jews have formed flourishing communities in the New York City, most notably Brighton Beach, a community on the edge of Brooklyn and on the Atlantic Ocean. The vast majority of the Jews have stayed on the east coast, most of them still live in the New York area. In the beginning, the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) helped the Soviet Jews find a community for themselves. The NYANA felt that Brighton Beach was a perfect spot for a new Russian community; the area had a lot of cheap, solid housing available, cheap commercial space and an organized senior services program. The Soviet Jews soon revived the community. Vacancy rates were transformed from thirty percent in the seventies to waiting lists for up to two years at the present. Also, the previously quiet downtown area now holds many shops and restaurants owned by Soviet Jews. Brighton Beach is a truly successful immigrant community.
Russia has had a turbulent and violent history which has caused many of its citizens to come to America. The immigrants, coming for various reasons including religious oppression and poverty, have been successful in America. Many of these immigrants have slowly assimilated into the American "melting pot". The Russians are a positive valuable to the United States.
Foner, Nancy. New Immigrants in New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Greenleaf, Barbara Kaye. American Fever: The Story of American Immigration. New York: Four Winds Press, 1970.
Magocsi, Paul R. The Russian Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Purcell, Edward L. Issues in American History Series: Immigration. Arizona: Onyx Press, 1995.
"Russians". Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995.
"Russians". Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1981.