The first Russians reached America in 1747 when fur traders arrived in Alaska. Some settled in the area and the Russian Orthodox Church became active in the region in 1795. When Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867 most Russians living in the area returned home.
It was not until the later stages of the 19th century that large numbers of Russians emigrated to the United States. The main reason for this was the wave of pogroms in southern Russia against the Jewish community that followed the assassination of Alexander II in 1881.
Research suggests that over half settled in New York and Pennsylvania. Most were unskilled and were forced to accept low-paid jobs in factories and mines. Some unions refused to accept them as members and this resulted in them joining organizations such as the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Large numbers of Russians settled in the Lower East Side of New York. One trade union activist, Abraham Cahan, emerged as the leader of this group and played a role in persuading a significant number to join the American Socialist Party. Others, such as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer, became involved in the emerging anarchist movement.
Russian immigrants also contributed a great deal to the development of science and industry. Important figures included the aircraft engineers, Igor Sikorsky and Alexander de Seversky, the biologist, Selman Waksman and the pioneer in the development of television, Vladimir Zworykin.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia in 1917, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Mollie Steimer, and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
Between 1820 and 1920 over 3,250,000 people emigrated from Russia to the United States. The 1920 the Census revealled that there were 392,049 American citizens that had been born in Russia. By 1930 the Russian Orthodox Church claimed to have 120,000 members in the United States.
An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 3,374,000 people emigrated to the United States from Russia. This amounted to 6.9 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.