Immigration of Russian citizens to the United States in the late 19th to early 20th century was one of the largest in Russian history, and adaptation of more than three millions of immigrants in the new society depended on a number of economic, political, social and cultural factors both in the U.S. and Russia. The beginning of a massive Russian immigration coincided with the resettlement of people from Southern, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, known as the “new immigrants” (Greenberg and Watts 123-125, 127-128).
The main reason for immigration was the social tensions in Russia related to the scarcity of land and impoverishment of the peasants, lack of internal financial resources for raising farms, low wages, and, at the same time, higher development of capitalism in the U.S., high salaries and lack of semi-feudal remnants in agriculture (Hardwick 78). This definitely united Russian immigrants with immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
However, there were distinctive reasons, which allocated the Russian immigration from the European flow. First of all, it is the predominance of national (Jews, Poles, Germans, the Baltic peoples) and religious (Old Believers and religious sectarians - Molokans and Doukhobors) minorities of the Russian Empire, who moved to the United States for permanent residence for the reasons of national and religious discrimination (Hardwick 82-98; Simon 4-5). In addition, among the Russian immigrants there were representatives of the oppositional and banned political parties and movements, as well as political ex-convicts and exiles, who wanted to find shelter in the United States from political persecution of the Russian authorities. However, economic factors dominated for the majority of Russian immigrants: both for those who immigrated with the desire to earn some money and go back to their homeland, and for those who wanted to stay in the new country and to integrate into American society (Behnke 15-18). In this case, the economic factors worked equally for immigrants of different nationalities and faiths.
It is necessary to consider that European shipping companies, mainly from Germany and the UK, due to the loss of passenger traffic in their countries, were able to shift to the Southern and Eastern Europe and Russia (Greenberg and Watts 123). Companies carried out reasonable policies and actively used their agents to find new potential immigrants. They decided to use the conscious violation of Russian legislation on the border. For the mass of potential immigrants, companies` agents, presenting life in the U.S. as "a paradise", had only one purpose - to attract more people to immigrate. This largely contributed to the increase of the flow of the "new" immigration (Wills).
Attempts of Russian government to control the activities of agents of steamship companies didn`t bring about any positive results, owing largely to the ban on immigration laws of the Russian Empire. In fact, the control of the Russian citizens’ movement across the ocean was in the hands of foreign shipping companies and their agents, which was the result not only of the unsettled right process, but also the weak development of the Russian shipping. This led to the fact that immigration to the United States was of semi-legal character and forced immigrants to violate the law by using the services of agents for transportation, whose assistance has turned into a very profitable business, and it often had a criminal nature (Glazier ix; Behnke 18-21). This situation caused discontent in social circles, directed against most immigration and foreign intermediaries in the Russian immigration overseas.
There was a sharp increase in the number of Russian immigrants in the 1890s, which forced the Russian government to begin to discuss the issue of immigration and the legal status of immigrants, but these measures were very limited. This is largely due to the fact that the Russian immigration politics had no unified approach to this problem, because this was done by local authorities. The ministries and departments of the Russian Empire made a draft law on the settlement of immigration, but they did not come to a consensus on the development of immigration legislation. The whole process of going abroad did not change in the Russian Empire. The government provided legal authorization to leave the country to some ethnic and religious groups, including Jews and religious sectarian groups (Behnke 21-22). Freedom of obtaining a foreign nationality was not permitted, while a period of going abroad limited to five years. In fact, this meant that most Russian immigrants were in the U.S. illegally, creating additional difficulties for the life of most of them. In the USA, on the contrary, at the end of 19th century there the fundamentals of national legislation on immigration were laid down, which made it possible for immigrants not only to legally enter the country, but also to regulate their composition, limiting the entry of those immigrants, who could not be successfully integrated into American society (Greenberg and Watts 128-144).
With regard to Russian immigrants, until the end of WW I, there were no special restrictions in the U.S. immigration law on the entry and staying in the United States. In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the requirements for immigrants from the Russian Empire, which were registered in U.S. immigration laws, were completely legitimate and they could only partially be called restrictive. The stream of "new" immigrants from South Asia, South-Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire helped to start the American public debate on issues of national identity and led to the development of the two main theories of assimilation: "Americanization" (or "Anglo-conformity") and the "melting pot (crucible)” ones (Greenberg and Watts 134-139). In fact, the process of assimilation was entirely different from the assumptions of both these theories; it resembled the conflict between representatives of the “old” and “new” immigration waves. This largely influenced the U.S. administration’s thinking on the changes in the U.S. immigration policy. The increase in the revolutionary, ethnic and religious (especially Jews) immigration from Russia began to cause concern among American politicians (Simon 96-97). However, the adoption of more restrictive immigration laws and the establishment of a special committee of the U.S. Congress to study all aspects of immigration, in which all immigrants of Slavic origin in the degree of assimilation were classified as the 4th category, didn’t reduce the number and didn’t change the structure of the flow of Russian immigrants in the United States (Greenberg and Watts).
Thus, regulation of immigration to the United States from the Russian Empire did not significantly affect the flow of immigrants from the Russian Empire to the U.S. or its composition. At the same time, the illegal status of Russian immigrants in the United States and the reluctance of the Tsarist administration to solve the problem of illegal immigration was one of the reasons for the deterioration of Russian-American relations in the early 20th century.
The number of Russian immigrants in the U.S. has increased gradually, starting from the 1880s, reaching its peak one decade before the war. Just before WW I, according to official data, more than 3.2 million people came to the USA from the Russian Empire (Magosci). Because of the data’s imperfection and lack of Russian statistics, it has not been possible yet to establish the exact number of Russian immigrants, especially on a national basis. One may assume that the bulk of immigrants to the USA were national (Jews, Poles, Germans, the Baltic peoples) and religious (conservatives and religious sectarians) minorities of the Russian Empire, especially Jews. Ethnic Russians were 4.4% of the total emigrants (Magosci).
Each of the national groups of Russian immigrants led a different lifestyle in the USA. Representatives of Russia’s national minorities, especially Jews, Germans, and religious sectarians sought a new home here; the majority of ethnic Russians sought temporary earnings (Simon).
The specificity of the Russian migration trends was that Jews and Germans predominated among those who came to the U.S. with their families, while the Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Russians were generally bachelor males (Behnke). Each of the ethnic and religious groups of Russian immigrants had their own characteristics and sought to find a place in the U.S. economy. Jews, among which artisans and traders comprised the largest group, tried to start a business in the U.S., while Germans, just as their forebears in the Russian Empire, sought to become farmers in the agricultural heart of North America. Since persons with no professional skills were the majority among Poles, Lithuanians, Finns and Russians, in the U.S. these latter were mostly employed as unskilled and low-paid workers.
Despite the differences in the social structure, the majority of Russian immigrants, regardless of their ethnicity, lived in destitution, while the conditions of work and living were generally dismal. Lacking money to move on themselves, many of these immigrants signed contracts with the owners of shipping companies, and as a result they were forced to accept the heaviest and dirtiest work (Behnke 15). Salaries of most Russian immigrants working in the U.S. industry were lower than those of the U.S. workers, although a working day could range from 12 to14 hours for 7 days a week (Behnke 24-27). Nevertheless, even in such difficult conditions, many immigrants managed to accumulate certain savings in order to send money home to help their families come to the U.S. or to raise their farm for repatriation. This indicates that most of the immigrants, even those who never came back home, did not break economic relations with Russia.
Immigration inflicted certain damage to the Russian economy, as there was a flow of labor and, besides, more able-bodied men were leaving. At the same time, moving to the U.S. enabled the Russian peasants to escape the atmosphere of traditional community, fostered individualism, undermined their collective consciousness. In the U.S., the Russian peasants had the opportunity to get acquainted with a new experience in agriculture, as well as with the new types of agricultural machinery.
The bulk of Russian immigrants experienced great difficulty in adapting to the U.S. conditions. It was difficult for them to fit into American society, because of different languages, traditions, manners and customs. For most members of the first generation of Russian immigrants, the process of entering the American society was associated with the development of English language and adaptation to national and cultural characteristics of the new country (Greenberg and Watts). It was a major psychological shock, which caused a defensive reaction, expressed in the preservation of different cultural elements. Different religious organizations of Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants played an important role in the adaptation of Russian immigrants into the U.S. society, as they helped to disseminate the knowledge of English among them. Russian Jews, Germans, and all those who did not profess the Orthodox faith sought to integrate with religious and secular organizations and associations, focusing on American ideals and stereotypes. Russian Orthodox immigrants in the U.S. had a great influence on the Orthodox mission, which sought to preserve Russian immigrants` native language, traditions and customs (Hardwick 107-108). This led to the later integration of many Russian immigrants into the American society, in contrast to other ethnic groups that emigrated from Russia in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
One of the most important elements of this adaptation, without prejudice to ethnic and religious affiliation, was the activity of mastering skills of speaking and writing in English. At the initial stage of staying in the U.S., most immigrants possessed a meager vocabulary needed for daily communication, while in the future, the study of English language was conducted at a higher level. Most Russian immigrants sought to integrate with their national, religious or class communities through the creation of numerous organizations which helped them in the process of socio-economic adjustment. However, these associations did not differ from organizations that were formed on racial or religious grounds, or guided by immigrants’ social status. Most attempts of Russian immigrants to create socio-political and labor organizations were defeated because of weak financial support, but also because of the strong politicization (Behnke). The process of adaptation of Russian immigrants to American society was faster or slower depending on the willpower and the specific characteristics of each ethnic or religious group of Russian immigrants. For Russian immigrants who were different from each other due to varied ethnic and religious legacies, Russian language, culture, and memory of the homeland could not be their unifying factors. The latter didn`t have any effect on the viability of immigrant organizations, so that the factor of ethnicity did not contribute to the formation of Russian Diaspora in the U.S. However, pre-1917 immigrants became an important link in the formation of Russian Diaspora in the United States during the next wave of immigration from Russia.
Certain ethnic groups, such as the Jews and the Germans, managed to adapt themselves to life in the U.S to the greater extent than the others. As soon as the financial situation of Russian immigrants improved, the process of Americanization intensified. Being influenced by American culture, the immigrants took on some of its elements, while still preserving national customs and traditions.
The process of adapting to the American society was extremely slow and not always successful for most first generation Russian immigrants. However, life in America changed the lifestyle of the Russian immigrants. They got used to the conditions of capitalist and wage labor society, they broadened their perspectives significantly, many of them were able to learn new activities and study English.
Thus, each of the national-religious groups who emigrated from the Russian Empire in the late XIX - early XX centuries, possessed its own peculiarities, trying to find their place in the American economy and society. Members of Russia’s national and religious minorities’ communities, especially the Jews and the Germans, were looking for a new home there, while the majority of t ethnic Russian immigrants were looking for temporary, but higher, earnings. The research on pre-1917 Russian immigrants in the USA cannot yet be regarded as complete, as some unsolved issues present significant challenges to the historians of this era.