Dissecting The Waves Of Russian Emigration

Seeking religious freedom, they fled to the United States of America.

Russian Jews had a challenging time practicing Judaism freely for centuries. From Imperial time to Soviet rule, the Jewish population was constantly subject to antisemitic attacks and religious discrimination. Taking every chance they could, religious minorities tried to immigrate from Russian on multiple different occasions.

First wave (1870-1945)

Moscow 1980s
Moscow 1980s. Image by @Ceri C from Flickr

The first wave of Jewish emigration from Russian began in the late 19th century. Many emigrated to escape religious persecution, as most Russian pogroms were high points of contention for Jews. Pogroms were riots started with the intention of massacring Jews, any act of violent antisemitic with numerous casualties is considered a pogrom.

World War I left Russia in poor economic standing, with Jews being scapegoated for the poverty and starvation resulting from the war.

During the mass emigration in 1910, most found refuge in New York City’s Lower East Side. Immigrants found work in factories with poor working conditions.

Second wave (1916–1922)

Romanov Family Albums
Romanov Family Albums. Image by @Beinecke Library from Flickr

After the Bolshevik Revolution (sometimes referred to as: the October Revolution or the Great October Socialist Revolution,) many wealthy families virtually uprooted. Aristocracy or people of some substantial wealth were forced to leave Russia due to the incoming Socialist/Communist government. Those emigrating during this time significantly contributed to the science and the arts. Among the immigrants were Vladamir Nabokov (author of Lolita,) Igor Sikorsky (inventor of the helicopter,) Vladamir Zworykin, (the “father of television,”) and Yul Brynner (two-time Tony award-winning actor.)

This wave of immigrants found high-paying professional positions rather than their first-wave counterparts working in the factories.

Third Wave (1922–1991)

russian emigration
A crowd watches the hourly changing of the honor guard at Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, c.1986. President Boris Yeltsin ended the honor guard in 1993. Image by @trommelkopf from Unsplash

During the beginnings of total Soviet rule, emigration was prohibited, especially for minority groups. Typically, the only ones leaving the Soviet Union at this time were stripped of their citizenships and deported from the country. If they held a position of political authority, they were defected to another nation for sanctuary. Once someone had left the country, he was barred from contacting anyone who remained in the U.S.S.R. Around this time, the KGB – a Soviet police force – silenced any anti-Communist or religious ideas through means, including: violence. The KGB also relied on “tip-offs” from citizens, practicing any religion would warrant KGB officers banging on your apartment door.

Eventually, the Soviet Union loosened its emigration restrictions by allowing Jews to leave. 1970 saw the first set of regulations opening up. By 1974, the U.S. entered the Jason-Vanik Agreement with the Union, which allowed religious minorities to immigrate to America. There was, however, a cap to how many immigrants could enter each year. As more and more Russian Jews rushed to escape religious discrimination, the Soviet Union began enforcing heavy taxation to make the emigration process difficult. The taxing affected the former military out of fear since they knew too much about the Soviet’s militaristic standpoint. Students were also taxed from leaving, specifically those who studied science or subjects deemed important, as a deterrent for leaving and not staying to use their education to better their homeland.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, roughly 1.8 million Jews emigrated from Russia. Most went to America, while others went to Israel, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Italy.

Fourth Wave (Post Soviet Union)

The Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved officially in December of 1991, creating a rippling effect of mass migration. 1991-2001 saw the immigration of many who wanted to further their careers by escaping the poor job market and a tanking economy. With the rise of immigrants coming for work opportunities, there was a notable surge of scientists, engineers, and those working for high tech companies.

According to U.S. Homeland Security, 51% of Russian migrants obtain residency through an immediate family member already being a U.S citizen, 20% receive residence through Green Card Lottery, 18% through employment, and 5% refugees and asylum seekers.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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