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The first Russians to come to U.S. territory didn’t even have to leave Russia to do so. In the 18th century, Russian explorers traveling east from Siberia discovered Alaska and claimed it as a possession of their emperor, or czar. The Aleutian island of Kodiak became the first Russian settlement in 1784, and traders and fur hunters founded trading posts throughout the territory. Eventually, Russia’s possessions ranged far down the Pacific coast, reaching all the way to Fort Ross in California, a mere 100 miles north of San Francisco.
The czar never planned to hold onto Alaska and sold the territory to the U.S. in 1867. Russian cultural influences persisted long afterwards however. The Russian Orthodox religion had arrived with the first traders, and missionaries continued to found primary schools and seminaries for generations to come. Many Native Aleuts and Eskimos converted to the new faith, and Russian Orthodox churches can still be found in Alaska today.
The next great wave of emigration from the Russian Empire came in the late 19th century—but the Russians were barely included in it. In the 1880s, the Russian countryside was strained by severe land shortages. Facing poverty and starvation, farmers and peasants from across the Empire sought a brighter future overseas, and millions set sail for the United States. Ethnic Russians, however, could not share in this hope; the imperial government barred them from leaving the country. Over the next few decades, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Lithuanians, and Poles arrived at Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands. Russians, however, made the journey only a few at a time, and only by braving many hazards. The U.S. census of 1910 found only 65,000 Russians in the country.
The Russians who did make the journey formed small communities and took work where they could find it. Some took advantage of the Homestead Act and headed west to found new family farms on the seemingly endless American plains. A number of pacifist sects, such as the Dukhobors and Molokans, settled in California and Oregon, where they maintained their traditional practices—and distinctive music—well into the 21st century. Many Russians went to work in the growing industries of the 19th century, toiling in the mines, mills, and sweatshops of the East Coast and Great Lakes.
Some of these early Russians were circular immigrants—they planned to stay only long enough to save some money and then to return home to Russia. Many of those who did return, however, found their homeland in the midst of the greatest turmoil in its history.
In 1917 the imperial government of Russia was overthrown by socialist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks, and all the lands of the Empire were convulsed by four years of civil war. As the Russian Empire died and the communist Soviet Union came into being, tens of millions of people were caught up in anarchy, bloodshed, and widespread property destruction, and more than 2 million fled the country. More than 30,000 made their way to the United States.
These new Russian immigrants had mostly been prominent citizens of the Empire—aristocrats, professionals, and former imperial officials—and were called “White Russians” because of their opposition to the “red” Soviet state. The White Russians were welcomed by the U.S. government, which was concerned about the spread of socialism, and quickly formed organizations to provide aid to their homeland. In the meanwhile, though, they had to find ways to support themselves in America. Many took up manual labor for the first time in their lives, and tales spread of former princes working as headwaiters and generals driving taxis. At the same time, they had to learn to live with the older generation of Russian immigrants. Many of these farmers and laborers had suffered terribly at the hands of the imperial aristocracy, and the White Russians did not always find a warm welcome when they asked the Russian American community for help.