Russian Immigrants Diversity
I come from a varied group of groups. In my family tree, there are those with Native American, Russian, German, Polish, Irish, even Italian roots. I am sure there is more that I am forgetting in there, but those are the major ones that I know of off the top of my head. They used to call this being a Heinz 57, and I still refer to myself as that. Because my last name is derived directly from my Russian roots, and it seems to be the ancestry I most closely identify myself with, I chose to take a look at how Russian immigrants were treated upon entering and establishing themselves in America.
Depending on what timeframe one considers—and who one asks—the Russians have had a myriad of success and failures in immigrating to the United States. In ancient times, some believe that the continents had not fully separated and the oncoming Ice Age allowed just enough of a bridge for Russian natives to cross over to North America. It is believed these native Russians became the forefathers for many Native American cultures (Kruetzer, n.d.). In the late 1800s, we saw a major emigration from Russian lands. These immigrants included Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and more headed for the United States en masse, as land shortages threatened poverty and even starvation. Ethnic Russians, however, were forbidden from leaving their native land by the Russian government (Library of Congress, 2004).
In 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the previous Russian government, the Russian lands were caught in an upheaval for four long years. Many Russians found their way to the United States during this time. Many of these Russian Americans took work in upcoming industries such as mine and heavy labor mills. Others took advantage of the Homestead Act and headed west to start their own farms. Not all was well for long for these new immigrants, however.
After the Russian Revolution, the American government began to fear that the U.S. was in danger of its own communist revolution and cracked down on political and labor organizations. Russian immigrants were singled out as a particular danger, and their unions, political parties, and social clubs were spied upon and raided by federal agents. In New York City alone more than 5,000 Russian immigrants were arrested. During the worst years of the Red Scare, 1919 and 1920, thousands of Russians were deported without a formal trial.
Library of Congress, 2004
Waves of Russian emigration to the United States continued over the years. In the 1930s, we saw a number of well educated Russians come to the United States in an attempt to avoid the looming world war. There were singers, dancers, scientists, and others from the upper crust of Russian society. After the war, more Russians found their way to the United States, known as “displaced persons” at that point, having lost their homes during the war.
By 1952, the Russians had established very tight controls on Russians wishing to leave the country. Some say that they were embarrassed at the rate they were losing prominent citizens to the United States (Library of Congress, 2004). The trouble Russian Americans faced during the McCarthy period is well documented. Americans as a whole had a new enemy to deal with: communism. Those from communist countries—even if they had fully embraced their new capitalist home—were easy targets for discrimination.
Times have changed, however, and we are seeing more Russians immigrate to the United States. It is a different world, a more sensitive world. It is also quite possible that world is perhaps a bit too sensitive. According to the BBC, the current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, believes that a good portion of the rest of the world is so prejudiced against his people that they would go so far as to teach false history about Russia (Rodgers, 2009). Try doing a search for “prejudice against Russians” into Google.com and you will see one of the top results is a blog by an individual who goes only by the name KamilSifu. The title of his most recent article: Are Russian Medical Graduates so Incompotent? (KamilSifu, 2009). There are other similar results, but the question is how serious are these sentiments. From the tone and demeanor, one could easily conclude they are wholeheartedly behind what they type. At the same time, one must wonder who would support such a diverse group of individuals who want to question an entire nationality’s capabilities when they have as yet to master the basics of high school English.
Overall, Russians have the history of a relatively easy immigration to the United States. I have spoken to a number of individuals from the Russian community who strongly disagree with the conventional wisdom that is available to us. My question remains. What was it really like? Are these memories and stories from Russian Americans merely nightmares and tall tales? Or, is there some sort of conspiracy to hide portions of America’s darker side?
KamilSifu. (2009). kamilsifu. Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from http://kamilsifu.wordpress.com/2009/03/27/are-russian-medical-graduates-that-incompetent/
Kruezer, R. (n.d.). St. Lawrence University. The Natives Russians. Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from http://it.stlawu.edu/~rkreuzer/natives.htm
Library of Congress. (2004). Library of Congress- Immigration Polish & Russian. Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from http://rs6.loc.gov:8081/learn/features/immig/polish2.html
Rodgers, James. (2009). BBC News. BBC. Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8166020.stm