The Russian (Jews) Are Coming: Immigration To the United States Then… and Now
October 30, 2022

This is a guest post from author Alina Adams. Thank you Alina!

Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t offer the year when it’s supposed to be taking place, but references to a major pogrom in a nearby city suggest it’s 1905, and the pogrom is the one in Kishinev. Or maybe Odessa. Or Kiev. Or Simferopol. Take your pick—1905 was a very popular year for anti-Jewish riots and mass murders.

At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, all the villagers of Anatevka are expelled. Many head out for the United States.

Almost a million and a half Jews from Russia, Ukraine, and other Eastern European territories that would become either the Soviet Union or its satellites, like Poland, arrived in America between 1881 and 1910. They’re the ones who you think of as settling in New York City’s Lower East Side, the tenement peddlers and the factory workers, the teachers and the trade unionists, the founders of the schmatta business, and the movie business.

The flood slowed to a trickle in 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act replaced unlimited immigration with a quota consisting of “two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.” The act was primarily passed in order to favor immigrants from Western Europe, and to keep out Italians and Eastern European Jews.


The post-World War II years didn’t bring in as many Eastern European Jews as one would expect, as those from Communist-controlled countries, including the newly overrun Baltic States, Hungary, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, etc… all but forbade immigration, leading to the creation of a new word, “refusnik.”

It wasn’t until almost thirty years later that the situation changed. In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment tied the Soviet Union’s “favored nations” status with the US to their lifting some emigration restrictions on various ethnic groups, Jews among them.

My family arriving in the US

My family was one of those who benefited. We arrived in San Francisco, CA in 1977. I like to say that we were traded for wheat. (Why the Soviet Union, then in possession of Ukraine, once known as The Breadbasket of Europe, needed to import wheat from America, is a topic for a whole other post.

In my upcoming book, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, the heroine, Lena, also grew up in San Francisco. She is the daughter of one of those rare Soviet Jewish immigrants who somehow made it to America in the 1940s. Exactly how that happened is the thrust of Lena’s dive into all the secrets her mother has kept for over 40 years.

Lena’s husband, Vadik, on the other hand, is a 1970s immigrant, like me. He and Lena, as well as Lena’s mother, view the world – and the Soviet Union – through very different lenses. The same way that those who immigrated from the USSR in the 1970s see it differently from those who came in the early 1990s, after the republic collapsed, and the same way that those who came in the late 20th century see it differently from those who are arriving now.

Russian President Vladmir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has triggered yet another wave of refugees from the areas which first saw mass immigration starting in the 1880s.

While, for over 100 years, those fleeing persecution were primarily Jews tyrannized first by the Czars, then by the Communists, including Josef Stalin’s infamous Doctors’ Plot, those arriving now are a multitude of ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. (Under the Soviet Union, families like mine, Russian-speakers who’d been living in Ukraine for numerous generations were, nonetheless, categorized not as Russians, not as Ukrainians, but, under the internal passport category of Nationality: Jew. Which is why when actress Mila Kunis, who was born in Ukraine and came to the US as a Jewish refugee at roughly the same time as I did, proudly declared that she was teaching her children they were half-Ukrainian, my oldest son remarked, “That must come as such a surprise to her parents!”)

Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure skating mysteries, and romance novels. Her first historical fiction, The Nesting Dolls, followed three generations of a Soviet-Jewish family from Odessa, USSR, to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her November 2022 release, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region shines a spotlight on a little-known aspect of history. The first independent Jewish state of the 20th century was located on the border between Russia and China, established by Joseph Stalin, and predating the state of Israel by almost 20 years!
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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.