Russian Immigrants

Russian Immigrants

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.

There were several very important books written about Russian immigrant life. This included Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) by Abraham Cahan and the The Promised Land (1912) by Mary Antin.

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.

Jacob Mithelstadt and his family from Russia at Ellis Island in 1905.
Jacob Mithelstadt and his family from Russia at Ellis Island in 1905.
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912)

The Gentiles used to wonder at us because we cared so much about religious things about food and Sabbath and teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy, as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things. There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people, like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors. They were always respectful and openly admired some of our ways. But most of the Gentiles were ignorant. There was one thing, however, the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take any kind of bribe, at any time. They expected it. Peace cost so much a year, in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their children maltreating your children, they might complain against you to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called unless the judge had reason to befriend you.

The czar was always sending us commands - you shall not do this and you shall not do that - till there was very little left that we might do, except pay tribute and die. One positive command he gave us: You shall love and honor your emperor. In every congregation a prayer must be said for the czar's health, or the chief of police would close the synagogue. On a royal birthday every house must fly a flag, or the owner would be dragged to a police station and be fined twenty-five rubles. A decrepit old woman, who lived all alone in a tumble-down shanty, supported by the charity of the neighborhood, crossed her paralyzed hands one day when flags were ordered up, and waited for her doom, because she had no flag. The vigilant policeman kicked the door open with his great boot, took the last pillow from the bed, sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof.

The czar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There was a poor locksmith who owed the czar three hundred rubles, because his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his time in the army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the whole family was liable. Now the locksmith never could have so much money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached his household goods, everything he had, including his bride's trousseau; and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's time the police came again, looking for the balance of the czar's dues. They put their seal on everything they found.

There was one public school for boys, and one for girls, but Jewish children were admitted in limited numbers - only ten to a hundred; and even the lucky ones had their troubles. First, you had to have a tutor at home, who prepared you and talked all the time about the examination you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for the Jewish candidates, of course: a nine-year-old Jewish child had to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected to answer. But that did not matter so much; you had been prepared for the thirteen-year-old test. You found the questions quite easy. You wrote your answers triumphantly - and you received a low rating, and there was no appeal.

I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store munching an apple that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their troubles, as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults from everybody. They were rejected at the universities, where they were admitted in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school: especially rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without disguise. No, the czar did not want us in the schools.

(2) Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman often considered returning to Russia

Russian hearts dwelt more in Russia than in the country they were enriching by their labour, which nevertheless scorned them as "foreigners." All through the years we had been close to the pulse of Russia, close to her spirit and her superhuman struggle for liberation. But our lives were rooted in our adopted land. We had learned to love her physical grandeur and her beauty and to admire the men and women who were fighting for freedom, the Americans of the best calibre. I felt myself one of them, an American in the truest sense, spiritually rather than by the grace of a mere scrap of paper.

(3) In her book Promised Land, Mary Antin described what it was like to be Jewish in Russia during the 1880s.

I remember a time when I thought a pogrom had broken out in our street, and I wonder that I did not die of fear. It was some Christian holiday, and we had been warned by the police to keep indoors. Gates were locked; shutters were barred. Fearful and yet curious, we looked through the cracks in the shutters. We saw a procession of peasants and townspeople, led by priests, carrying crosses and banners and images. We lived in fear till the end of the day, knowing that the least disturbance might start a riot, and a riot led to a pogrom.

(4) Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931)

The hated Romanovs were at last hurled from their throne, the Tsar and his cohorts shorn of power. It was not the result of a political coup; the great achievement was accomplished by the rebellion of the entire people. Only yesterday inarticulate, crushed as they had been for centuries, under the heel of a ruthless absolutism, insulted and degraded, the Russian masses had risen to demand their heritage and to proclaim to the whole world that autocracy and tyranny were for ever at an end in their country. The glorious tidings were the first sign of life in the vast European cemetery of war and destruction. They inspired all liberty-loving people with new hope and enthusiasm, yet no one felt the spirit of the Revolution as did the natives of Russia scattered all over the globe. They saw their beloved Matushka Rossiya now extend to them the promise of manhood and aspiration.

Russia was free; yet not truly so. Political independence was but the first step on the road to the new life. Of what use are "rights," I thought, if the economic conditions remain unchanged. I had known the blessings of democracy too long to have faith in political scene-shifting. Far more abiding was my faith in the people themselves, in the Russian masses now awakened to the consciousness of their power and to the realization of their opportunities. The imprisoned and exiled martyrs who had struggled to free Russia were now being resurrected, and some of their dreams realized. They were returning from the icy wastes of Siberia, from dungeons and banishment. They were coming back to unite with the people and to help them build a new Russia, economically and socially.

The Russian-Jewish market in Hester Street, New York
The Russian-Jewish market in Hester Street, New York