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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Soviet Exiles

Russian American steelworkers, Pennsylvania

Soon, though, all Russian Americans fell victim to a wave of xenophobic panic that spread through U.S. society. 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. Ironically, most were sent to the Soviet Union—a new nation that the older generation of immigrants had never lived in, and that the White Russians wanted to overthrow. As a result of the Red Scare, the Russian American community began to keep a low profile. Fear of persecution led many Russians to convert to Protestantism, to change their names, and to deny their heritage to any outsiders.

In the 1930s, fears of a new world war brought several thousand more Russians to the U.S. These immigrants were fairly affluent and well educated, and many were able to eventually find work in their old professions. Some had been farmers in the old country and founded a string of successful farms in the mid-Atlantic states. Others gravitated to established Russian American communities in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York City, and Cleveland.

This wave of Russian immigrants also carried with it the latest intellectual and artistic currents from Europe. The interwar years saw many of the major thinkers of the Russian avant-garde make their way to New York, where they influenced and enriched the burgeoning modernist movement. The composer Igor Stravinsky was able to present his challenging symphonies to U.S. audiences, while the choreographic vision of George Balanchine helped bring much of 20th century American dance into being. Later, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov brought his elegant prose and incisive critical sensibility to bear on the cultural landscape of his new homeland, illuminating both its promise and its paradoxes.

The end of World War II saw an even greater upheaval, as refugees from across Europe fled the chaos and depression of the postwar years. More than 20,000 Russian refugees—known as “displaced persons” successfully reached the United States. By this time, though, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were rising, and prospective emigrants became pawns in a global geopolitical game. In 1952, the Soviet government had become embarrassed by the high rate at which its artists and scientists were decamping to America, and it established strict controls over emigration. Just as it had been during the rule of the czars, Russian immigration to the U.S. became a rare and risky undertaking.

For two decades, any Soviet citizen who dared move to the U.S. became a nonperson—the Soviet Union stripped defectors of their citizenship, cut them off from contact with their families, and sometimes made it illegal to even mention their names. In the early 1970s, however, relations between the two superpowers began to thaw. The authorities began allowing a few thousand dissatisfied citizens to leave the U.S.S.R. each year, including Jewish Soviets, dissidents, writers, and others deemed “undesirable” by the state. Cultural ties were also extended, and Soviet artists and musicians were sent on tours of the United States; when some of these cultural ambassadors chose to defect, the Soviet government was embarrassed once more.

The Great Thaw

Russian American Marine

The defectors of the 1970s included a number of world-renowned artists, such as the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. Many joined the sizable group of Russian Americans who had long agitated against abuses of the Soviet system, most notably the fiercely critical novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of many years as a Soviet political prisoner. In the late 1980s, as the U.S.S.R. entered its death throes, these activists saw their efforts come to fruition. Before it finally collapsed in 1990, the Soviet Union threw open its gates to all emigrants, and hundreds of thousands of Russians began to find their way to the U.S. once more.

A New Revolution

Russian immigration to the United States continued in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Russian language can be heard in enclaves across the country, from the street corners of Borough Park in Brooklyn to the café tables of North Hollywood. This new Russian American community is predominantly young and highly educated and still carries memories of the turmoil of the 20th century. The ways in which this generation will enrich and transform its new homeland will make for one of the most compelling stories of the 21st.