Immigration from Russia and the Soviet Union
There are over 2,880,000 people of Russian descent in the United States today, and people from Russia and the former Soviet Union comprise one of the largest immigrant groups in western Massachusetts.
Most Russian immigrants came to the United States during one of four waves. The first group, made up primarily of Jews from the outlying territories of the Russian Empire, came to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century as a result of anti-Semitism and persecution during the Czarist period. The second wave came to the United States in the years following the twin upheavals of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Czar and resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union. The third wave immigrated following the devastation of World War II. Finally, the fourth wave began after the Soviet government loosened emigration restrictions during the mid-1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting social and economic dislocation accelerated emigration from the former Soviet Republics.
Russian immigrants first came to Springfield in the late 1800s to escape political and religious persecution and to seek better economic opportunities. More Russians immigrated to escape the upheaval caused by the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Most came from a rural background with little education and so were limited to work as manual laborers in construction and on railroads. The community settled largely in the north end of Springfield, where the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church (today the St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Orthodox Church) opened on Carew Street in 1916. Some immigrants with plans to return to Russia found those plans dashed by the turmoil surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war.
In the decades following World War I, the Russian community began to assimilate more readily, with better prospects in education and English instruction leading to American citizenship. Legal restrictions in both the Soviet Union and the United States limited the growth of the Russian immigrant population between the World Wars, though some people in places such as Poland and Ukraine did manage to make their way to Europe and eventually to the U.S. Soviet repression in Eastern Europe also forced many to flee during the decades following World War II.
Russian immigration to the Springfield area increased in 1987 after the Soviet government lifted emigration restrictions as part of a reform program initiated by Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and again after economic and political upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The last decades of the twentieth century also saw an increase in the number of non-Orthodox Russians fleeing religious persecution. A sizable evangelical Protestant community of Russian immigrants settled in West Springfield, where Pentecostal churches provided support in finding housing and jobs. Because of the language barrier, many Russian-speaking immigrants were forced to rely upon low-paid temporary work or manual labor despite experience and skills developed in the home country.
About 30,000 immigrants from Russia and other Russian-speaking republics now live in the Greater Springfield area. Both Orthodox and Protestant churches provide English-language classes for Russian immigrants, and the Russian Community Association in West Springfield offers cultural programs, translation assistance, and access to social services. Kalinka, an annual Russian cultural festival, draws thousands every year to Springfield in a celebration of Russian music, dance, food and community.
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