Research as we have seen it tends to classify post-Soviet immigrants as being primarily Jewish immigrants. Most of these Jewish immigrants came to the United States in the late 1960’s. However, this paper will not focus on that aspect of Russian immigration. Instead, I will demonstrate that Russian speaking immigrants who arrived in the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 were the most diverse group, in terms of religion and circumstances for immigration what was previously understood. The United States has a history of taking in immigrants, though the circumstances for their immigrations have changed significantly over time. The history of Russian immigration is often described as a series of exact movements of people from the East to the West, but there is no consensus over which time is more valuable than another. In the 1880’s, a large number of Russian Jews arrived in the United States, which lasted well into the 1920’s. After WWII, and restrictive immigration policy in the United States, Russian immigration continued, though on a much smaller scale.
Dennis Shasha and Marina Shron detail in the introduction to their book a series of three periods of Russian immigration to the United States since WWI, as originally coined by Steven Gold. The first wave was the flight of White Army after the 1917 revolution. The second wave happened after WWII when several hundred thousand were fleeing Stalin’s brutal Soviet regime. Gold considers the post-Soviet Russian immigrants as a continuation of the third wave which started in the late 1970s. This was due in part by the loosening of Soviet immigration restrictions to the United States’ acceptance of Soviet Jews, Ukrainian Catholics, and Evangelical Christians as refugees.
Looking at Russian immigration without regard to merit, Anatoli Vishnevsky and Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya suggests an alternating pattern of four waves of immigration since World War I. The first was the evacuation of about 5 million people between 1917 and 1938, who fled the Russian Revolution and the tightening grip of Soviet authority. The second wave was the immigration of about 10 million from the Soviet Union during and surrounding World War II.
The third wave in their model is from the period 1948 to 1990. They perceive this group of emigrants and the first voluntary, but smaller, group of departures. An estimated 1.1 million people left the Soviet Union during these years in a slow stream. Only in 1988 do the authors acknowledge the emergence of a shift in the pattern, as the right to immigrate was offered nearly unrestricted to Jews and those with special invitations from the West. The largest source republics of third wave immigrants from the Soviet Union were Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
Vishnevsky and Zayonchkovskaya published their work in 1994, having predicted the pattern of immigration for the then emerging fourth wave. Their predictions were that the causes of migration from the former Soviet republics would be economic and political, rather than the ethnic and religious that it had been in the past waves. During the writing of their book, groups of fourth-wave immigrants were already fleeing the effects of Stalinist and communist party ethic policies in the Soviet Union. These immigrants were identified as returning to their ethnic homelands within other states of the former USSR and undoing forced displacements of the 20th century. Vishnevsky and Zayonchkovskaya also cited the possibility of refugees leaving to escape dangerous political crisis.
As those two different analyses show, scholars often have conflicting explanations for the waves of Russian immigration to the United States. There is still debate as to the time of the third wave, which was the immigration of a large number of Soviet Jews. Some scholars see the progression I explained earlier, with the Soviet refugees of the 70s and the emergence of other Russian immigrants in the 90s and early 2000s.
Others differentiate between the Soviet Jewish arrivals and the post-Soviet arrival as the two groups are demographically different. Each piece of scholarly work that talks about the refugee or immigrant flows in the last 40 years offers its own model and date structure to separate the significant changes in immigration, whether they be Soviet or post-Soviet in nature. It appears that no single model of time has gained the most support of the academic community to date. Despite this debate, the general facts about the Russian immigration following World War II are clear. As in the late 19th century, the majority of arrivals were ethnic Jews who settled on the East Coast of the United States.
Soviet Jews, since the 1960s, have immigrated mostly to Israel, Western Europe, and the United States. This was due in part by the Soviet Union allowing a small stream of immigrants to leave, so long as they renounce their Soviet citizenship upon departure. Jews specifically, waiting for an opportunity to leave, quickly took this opportunity. Until 1973, as many as 34,000 Jews each year left the Soviet Union. Before this, only about 2,000 a year immigrated. After 1973, the numbers of immigrants leaving the Soviet Union dropped again, but peaked in 1979 when 67,000 people moved abroad. All in all, in the 1970s about 300,000 people immigrated, mostly Jews, Germans, and Armenians.
The Soviet government did not make it easy to leave, even when emigration was permitted. The process of renouncing citizenship came at a fee of about 50 rubles if immigrating to a socialist location. The fee for immigrating to a capitalist country was 500 rubles. Also, those who received a higher education in the Soviet Union were taxed upon leaving the country (because the education was free to citizens).
Even though, many Jews fled the persecutions in the Soviet Union, they were supported by many international communities and organizations. They encouraged the departure of refugees from communist countries. Bill Frelick describes this approach on refugees held by many of the recipient countries: Refugees from Communist dominated countries, at the least, could win propaganda points by having ‘voted with their feet.’ Often, they served foreign policy goals of host countries more directly, for example, by continuing to actively weaken their home countries, seen as enemies by the host governments and their patrons.
In the early stages of mass Jewish immigration, American Jews took care of the expenses of the new arrivals, but in 1979, the United States Congress set aside $20 million to aid in the resettlement of “Soviet and other refugees not currently covered by existing federal refugee programs.” The funds were given to various “voluntary agencies” in the amount of $1,000 per refugee. This was known as the Voluntary Agency Matching Grant Program.
Since American Jewish organizations were “saving Soviet Jewry”, the Soviet Jews were eager to escape the harsh discrimination they faced in the Soviet Union. Discrimination against Jews has a long history in Russia, but direct threats and abuse increased in the 1970s. Since the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the Soviet Union sanctioned more direct anti-Semitism within its own borders. Ukraine was the location of some of the most blatant prejudice in the 1970s. These acts of anti-Semitism only grew in the following decades as the Soviet Union collapsed, and freedom of expression was growing more popular. This explains why Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States was at its peak in 1979 and 1992 as it reflects these social upheavals.
When the Jewish refugees were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union, their passports did not record the country of their birth but instead only had the label of “Jew.” This allowed them to return to Israel after its establishment, which was recognized by the Soviet government as an ancestral homeland. Starting in the 1970s, however, many did not go to Israel but rather applied for United States refugee status. The reasons given for this were because the US had more economic opportunities, no military draft, more political stability, and a more comparable size to their former country. Also, many felt more comfortable in a secular society rather than a religious state.
In 1989 Jewish immigrants were able to apply for US refugee status right from the Embassy in Moscow, instead of in a transit country en route to Israel. In turn, this allowed for many more Soviet Jews to come straight to the United States by the end of the 1980s. By 1995, roughly 325,000 Jewish refugees had resettled in the United States.
These refugees were highly educated and generally unfamiliar with Jewish religious practice prior to arrival, especially when compared with other Jewish immigrant groups. The presence of one third of a million immigrants is the result of tremendous efforts expended by the American Jewish community over the last 25 years and, accordingly, represents the successful culmination of a campaign to save Soviet Jewry. However, despite their status as religious refugees and the generous support they have received from American co-ethnics, Jews from the former Soviet Union have been less religious and more Russian in their style of adaptation to the United States than was expected by the host community.
The interest they had to identify with Russian culture was true of Jewish immigrants throughout the 20th century. Because many Jewish immigrants had a difficult experience in the USSR, their lack of connection with their religion left them without cultural characteristics. The Soviet Jewish community also had unusually high rates of married couples and of multigenerational families residing together. This created more stable, supportive family structure that helped the immigrants in their adaptation to a new country. Steven Gold attributed the arrival of complete, extended families and the small number of children per household to the scarcity of housing and other amenities the refugees endured in the Soviet Union. Also, Gold noted that the egalitarian nature of communism and the matriarchal Soviet society prepared former Soviet women with extensive previous work experience, education, and a stubborn pragmatism to make do with what little resources or jobs that might be available. This extended family structure is a pattern that is also more Soviet than Jewish, and the same analysis could be made of the former Soviet immigrants.
While the United States had made allowance for this flow of Soviet refugees, the systems for refugee admissions were generally not well defined, and the processes were not standardized. By 1980, the US government sought to regularize the admission and treatment of refugees entering the country. The Refugee Act, passed on March 17, 1980, officially classified refugees using the United Nations’ definition: someone who is “unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of their home country because of persecution or a well founded fear of persecution.” Also, Title I of the Refugee Act referred to refugees of “special humanitarian concern,” which was interpreted in light of the reality of the previous 35 years of refugee treatment in the United States. Generally, the US government’s refugee policies had reflected its own foreign policy concerns- almost exclusively focusing on the acceptance of refugees fleeing Communist governments. The Refugee Act now widened the provisions to include refugees who fit the UN definition, regardless of national origin.
In 1980, over 207,000 refugees entered the United States under the provisions of this new legislation. From 1983 to 1987, the number of newly arriving refugees dropped to between 61,000 and 71,000 as fewer Southeast Asians were seeking refuge and fewer Soviet citizens were being allowed to leave. Beginning in 1988, the numbers increased again, and almost 70% of the refugees that year were Soviet Jews. This increase was due in large part to Soviet relaxation of emigrant restriction. Since 1987, Soviet citizens were allowed to get exit and reentry visas for personal and family reasons if they had a formal invitation, and in 1988, the processes for exit visas were simplified, opening the door to more emigration.
Many of the first Pentecostal refugees benefited from the paths of Soviet Jews who had immigrated before. Some Israeli immigrant organizations provided invitations for persecuted Pentecostal families in order to get them out of the country. Then mid-stream, mainly in Vienna or Rome, the refugees would seek protection from the United States. Many of the New York-area immigrants took this approach, spending two or three months in Austria or Italy before being given refugee status in the US. During this window, which was available for only two years (1987-1989), refugees’ applications were still being processed by a special center in Washington, D.C. In September 1989, that center was closed, and from that time on all applications for refugee status in the United States had to originate in Moscow.
Between 1989 and 1993, there were no less than 100,000 refugees entering the United States annually. This trend of growth primarily reflected an influx of former Soviet people, a distinct change from the earlier predominance of Southeast Asian refugees.
As for non-refugee admissions, the Foreign Operations Act was passed on November 21, 1989; this bill relaxed the requirements for asylum applicants from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. Then, in 1990, The Immigration Act was passed into law adding a complex system of limits for immigration and additional considerations for family relationships in immigration numbers. At this point, family sponsored, and employer sponsored immigration fell under separate regulations.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, and the borders opened refugee policies in the US continued to evolve, widening the scope of immigrants accepted by the United States. The maximum number of former Soviet refugees admitted to the US had been set at 50,000, and after 1995, the priority for this annual quota was given to applicants who were “likely targets of persecution” as redefined annually by the US Congress. Examples of these refugees include Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, Jews, and members of the Orthodox Church. Within these vulnerable religious minority groups, those with close relatives who were legal US residents were given the first priority. Anyone with an immediate family member who is a US citizen is not eligible for refugee status, but must apply to enter as an immigrant.
If we do not look at the large numbers of refugees immigrating to the United States in the early 1990’s, then we see that the anticipation for the arrival of immigrants was even greater. However, what the international community saw as the decade progressed was a nonexistent mass departure of Soviet people destined for the United States. Nicholas Van Hear summarizes this in his book, New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities. In the 1990s, social and economic pressures that traditionally fueled mass migrations coincided with an increasing ease of travel around the world. Also, the disintegration of former Soviet countries left some 450 million people to potentially enter the immigration streams for the first time after the loss of strict immigration restrictions. Many were expected to flee “ethnic, religious, and nationalist tensions” then filling the vacuums of power left in the wake of the crumbled nation-states, aided by the “rights revolution” in the West, which proliferated lobby and aid groups for ethnic migrants and refugee populations.”
Mass immigrants from former Soviets did happen, even if not in the manner predicted by western observers. As Van Hear reported in 1998, the majority of migrants were changing location within the former Soviet states rather than immigrating out of the region. Around nine million people immigrated or were displaced as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Many of these internal migrants were reversing Soviet-era dislocations caused by labor migration, the establishment of colonial outposts, and deportations of groups or individuals that had fallen out of favor with the regimes of the time. Many of the formerly dominant ethnic groups, namely Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians began repatriation to their “home” regions after becoming strangers in their countries of residence overnight. It is estimated that three to four million members of these dominant groups migrated in the 1990s, leaving primarily from Central Asia or the Caucuses.
The research of Pilkington, Van Hear, and others revealed the tumultuous nature of life in the former Soviet Union and the migration patterns that followed its demise. While the massive exodus to the West in the 1990s did not match the forecasts, millions of people were on the move internally- seeking stability and returning to areas where their ethnic and religious compatriots were in the majority. In light of this, the academic literature includes little about the minority of migrants who did make the trip to Western Europe or the United States. Sociological research on the cultural adaptation of immigrant communities forms the substance of what has been published about post- Soviet immigrants in the United States, and these often lack the rich historical context for their subjects’ migrations. While less than expected, over one million former Soviets had immigrated to the US by the end of the 1990s, according to unofficial estimates. Despite these large numbers, Russian immigrants have attracted little social or historical research because of their generally low profile. According to Vera Kishinevsky, this immigrant group tends to adapt quickly in language and economics, and they are not known for political activism.
The vast majority of studies published on former Soviet immigrants have been sponsored by Jewish community organizations and interest groups. These studies tend to focus on Jewish former Soviets almost exclusively. Some sociological research has been done with a mixed group of Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, usually set in the New York area where the Jewish community remains the dominant component of the former Soviet immigrant community.
While the Soviet Jewish refugee movement is documented by general surveys of late 20th century refugee and immigrant groups, the immigration of non-Jewish immigrants remain largely unchanged. As established above, the existing research on former Soviet immigrants is primarily focused on Jewish Soviets, on the East Coast of the United States. Yet, when looking at the West Coast or specifically at non- Jewish former Soviets, the extent of existing research grows even smaller. With the exception of some research focused on the 1960s and 1970s settlements of “Old Believers” and other Orthodox splinter groups residing in the Pacific Northwest, Susan Wiley Hardwick, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon has published the only comprehensive scholarly study of non-Jewish, former Soviet immigrants.
Throughout the 1900’s, Brighton Beach has been the home for immigrants since the first European Jews settled in this little community. It hummed with the sounds of Yiddish for many decades, until the mid 1960’s when many of the neighborhood’s residents had moved to other areas and Brighton Beach fell into a decline. It was quickly uplifted in the 1980’s with the arrival of new Russian immigrants. This immigration was due in part by relaxed emigration policies for Russian Jews, and many Ukrainians that came from the city of Odessa. As the story goes, they settled in Brighton Beach because it reminded them of their hometown, near the Black Sea. The United States was a cultural shock for them, as well as for the older Americans who lived there. Language was the largest barrier of these new arrivals. One senior Russian woman explained through a translator, “in Russia I was an educated woman, but now I speak like a kindergarten child.” A Russian housewife believing that the floors were made of cement took a bucket of soapy water and spilled it over her kitchen floor, which began raining on her neighbor. A Russian Jewish man opened up a butcher store with a kosher sign and sausages hanging in the window. He thought that because he was Jewish, the store was kosher.
Neighborhood Rabbis ascended on him and he received a quick course in Judaism. These are just a few, of many, comedic stories that are spread about the effects of cultural differences this new wave of immigrants had encountered. Another Russian man thought he would find the streets paved with gold. Instead he saw blocks of garbage and litter. He was dismayed by the condition of the city. However, with the arrival of these new immigrants, the community began to flourish, and became a draw for Russian speaking individuals from areas all across Russia and Ukraine. Today, if you wander down two of Brighton Beach’s main streets: Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, you will encounter signs in Cryillic lettering and stores selling Russian language books, art, and music. Brighton Beach today is a commercial strip, which is bustling with many Russian nightclubs and restaurants. Joining with the new Russian Americans are immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, so that walking through Brighton Beach is much like viewing a kaleidoscope, which is ever changing, yet ever exciting.
Post-Soviet Russian Immigrants to the Brighton Beach area were a diverse group of people. Some of them were participants in chain migration, connected by family or faith to the late 1980s Soviet era immigrants. Yet others represented new streams of immigration to the East Coast, the result of changing circumstances in their countries of origin. The Post-Soviet immigrant group was not nearly as homogeneous as the Soviet era refugees in terms of government status, religion, ethnicity, or family structure, yet they had the desire for a more stable life in common.
In conclusion, the post-Soviet Russian-speaking immigrant community in Brighton Beach is a diverse and growing population. While the predominant immigrant group is still Protestant Christian, similar to the 1980s-era refugees, the religious profiles represented in these interviews demonstrate the growing diversification of the Russian-speaking community. Also, their reasons for emigration are more diverse than the earlier, Soviet influx of religious refugees. Many immigrants have been arriving to the Brooklyn area in the 1990s and early 2000s because of ongoing social instability and a well-established pattern of chain migration. Primarily through family reunification, the Russian-speaking population in Brooklyn and the East Coast continues to develop and broaden in the first decade of the 21st Century.
[ 1 ]. Anatoli Vishnevsky and Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, “Emigration from the Former Soviet Union: The Fourth Wave,” in European Migration in the Late Twentieth Century: Historical Patterns, Actual Trends, and Social Implications, eds. Heinz Fassmann and Rainer Munz ( Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar Publishing Co., 1994), 239-243. [ 2 ]. Mervyn Matthews, The Passport Society: Controlling Movement in Russia and the USSR (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993), 37-39 [ 3 ]. Bill Frelick, “Hardening the Heart: The Global Refugee Problem in the 1990s,” in Refugees in America in the 1990s: a Reference Handbook, ed. David W. Haines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 373. [ 4 ]. Philip A. Holman, “Refugee Resettlement in the United States,” in Refugees in America in the 1990s: a Reference Handbook, ed. David W Haines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 12. [ 5 ]. Steven J. Gold, “Soviet Jews,” in Refugees in America in the 1990s: a Reference Handbook, ed. David W Haines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 280-283. [ 6 ]. David W. Haines, “Patterns in Refugee Resettlement and Adaptation,” in Refugees in America in the 1990s: a Reference Handbook, ed. David W. Haines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 34. [ 7 ]. James O. Finckenauer and Elin J. Waring, Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 65. [ 8 ]. Gold, “Soviet Jews,” 279-280.
[ 9 ]. Shasha and Shron, Red Blues, viii-ix.
[ 10 ]. Holman, “Refugee Resettlement,” 13.
[ 11 ]. Winter, History of the Matching Grant Program.
[ 12 ]. Matthews, Passport Society, 86.
[ 13 ]. Holman, “Refugee Resettlement,” 15-16.
[ 14 ]. Linda W. Gordon, “The Origins and Initial Resettlement Patterns of Refugees in the United States,” in Refugees in America in the 1990s: a Reference Handbook, ed. David W. Haines (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
1996), 346. [ 15 ]. Gold, “Soviet Jews,” 283.
[ 16 ]. Nicholas Van Hear, New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 1-3. [ 17 ]. Vera Kishinevsky, Russian Immigrants to the United States: Adapting to American Culture (New York:LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2004), 5.