Presentations (Communicative Events)

Third and Fourth Waves of Russophone Immigration to the USA

Beyer, Thomas R.

In 1972 Joseph Brodsky left the Soviet Union. With the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Trade Act of 1974 and increased scrutiny to human rights called for in the so-called “Helsinki Final Act” of 1975, the Soviet Union after some delay permitted the emigration of some 500,000 Jews to the United States before the perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev and the 1986 publication of Brodsky in his own country. This constituted what has been called “The Third Wave” of Russian emigration in the Twentieth century. The complete collapse of the Soviet Union clearly marked a new period and a new reality for Russians and their ability to cross frontiers and national boundaries freely now referred to as “The Fourth Wave.” “The Third Wave” in fact one could argue was two emigrations, largely separate and distinct. There was the arrival and settlement of thousands of Russians who could claim Jewish ancestry and who came to begin a new life, to pursue freedom and material well-being for themselves and their families. They were true immigrants, in the sense that they had left the Soviet Union forever, with little thought of ever returning. Most settled with the help of Jewish relief organizations in and around major metropolitan areas in the United States. The largest group settled in the New York area, and many of those in Queens and the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. This group of immigrants was characterized by a generally high level of education and literacy. Even as they struggled with language and a search for employment equal to their professional qualifications, their children began integrating into the melting pot of American society. There was a second group of intellectuals, primarily writers or human rights advocates, some expelled from the Soviet Union, such as Joseph Brodsky, Valery Chalidze, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Scholars who have focused on this group date the real beginning to 1966 with the departure of Valery Tarsis. A significant group of writers settled in America, where they continued to write almost exclusively in Russian for their countrymen, primarily behind the borders of the Soviet Union, but also for those in the West. This group as a whole never embraced the West or its culture, dreamed and hoped for a return of themselves or their works to their native Russia, and with time those who survived did indeed return. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s the cream of the crop of Russian literary and intellectual life was in the West, writing and publishing prodigiously in newspapers, journals and books. “The Fourth Wave” came for different reasons and under different circumstances. Ties to the homeland could be maintained, and so preserving language for the younger generation became more important. Integration into American life did not require abandoning Russian culture and traditions. Nor was there a need to use literature to assail the system in post-Soviet Russia that was itself in development. English has become for many the literary language of choice. To unite with family, to prosper financially, to participate fully in the “land of opportunity. They too are informed by an active local press, but also share in the 21st century ability to obtain Russian literature and films as readily in Manhattan as in Moscow. Technology brings them instantaneous access to events back home.


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Harriman Institute
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September 20, 2013