As a Chinese living in the western world, I am a little bit concerned about the next decades where there might be a war or a series of conflicts between the rising Chinese power and the current world order lead by the US. This made me naturally curious about the experiences of the Russians who lived in the US/western world during the cold war era. Were they treated differently? Were they discriminated against? Is there any book/records on their lives?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Dec 19, 2018 at 23:45

5 Answers 5


Because of emigration restrictions from the Soviet Union imposed from at least the 1920's on, there were very few ethnic Russians of recent arrival in the U.S., and the Western world in general, during the 1950's. Those ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians) had mostly arrived during the late 19th, or very early 20th, century. By the 1950's ethnic Slavs were generally third or even fourth generation, fluent in English, and respected members of the community. Other than attending a church with slightly different ritual and architecture, they were virtually indistinguishable from other third and fourth generation immigrants of the same era from other parts of Europe: Italy, Greece, Poland and Germany.

I have no doubts that, especially during the 1950's, there was counter intelligence being run in those communities by the FBI and others. There may have been some discrimination against these ethnic groups in certain sensitive government posts - but on the other hand there was also some favourable hiring for the language and cultural knowledge. I suspect a net wash.

As for treatment by the general population - eyes were so focused on the Civil Rights movement that I doubt many even knew who their Russian neighbours and colleagues were.

This Wikipedia page lists several Russian-American writers of note, including Ayn Rand and Isaac Asimov. This page lists numerous additional notable Russian-Americans, both alphabetically and by selected occupation.

The noted physicist Richard Feynman was subject to quota in his university application, but that was due to his Jewish heritage and not his Russian ancestry. I believe this to be typical of the time.

Hollywood's persistent habit of renaming non-WASP actors and actresses during this time would hide the Eastern European heritage of many famous performers - but I believe this was to sidestep the endemic antisemitism of the age, and not an anti-Slav or anti-Russian sentiment either by the producers or the general public. The major Hollywood moguls were almost all Jewish, and very self-conscious about that fact.

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    @jamesqf: While true today, reality 50 and 60 years ago was the exact opposite of that. The vast majority of the population still worshipped weekly, and lived in ethnic ghettos until the 4th generation. Dec 18, 2018 at 18:35
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    @jamesqf: is that really true? for some reason, I have met a lot of 2nd generation immigrants who speak not a word of english, while their parents speak some.... Dec 18, 2018 at 19:09
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    @sofageneral, for someone in the history SE it seems disingenuous not to remember the discrimination that occurred simply by being catholic as recently as the 70s, regardless of what color one is. While awareness of black discrimination is at an all time high recently, it helps to remember that all ethnic groups have had a turn being the outsider. Dec 18, 2018 at 19:19
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    Those ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians) had mostly arrived during the late 19th, or very early 20th, century. By the 1950's ethnic Slavs were generally third or even fourth generation Your math is wrong. Let's say I'm a russian civil war refugee arriving in the US in 1920 at 20 years old. In the 50s I'd be in my 50s, and first generation immigrant, definitely not "3rd or 4th" like you said. I'd not even be aged enough to retire. I don't think those people were rare.
    – Bregalad
    Dec 19, 2018 at 7:45
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    @rs.29 You cannot easily separate Jewish from the nation of the country they come from. That is not how it works. There was just too much mixing or at least mutual influence. Would you say that Lion Feuchtwanger was not German, that Albert Einstein was not German (well he did denounce his citizensship, so perhaps better take Walter Rathenau or Fritz Haber, who were proud Germans but were of Jewish origin.) What about Trotsky, Zinovev, Kamenev were they also Russian or only Jewish? Dec 19, 2018 at 13:03

I heard from many sources that the fictional 1984 Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson had it pretty well nailed*. Russians didn't really have it significantly worse than any other immigrant group, but that isn't necessarily saying much. People who came to the US expecting life to be all wine and roses were of course in for a shock.

My memory of things was that Russian people were generally looked at as victims of a rather nasty brutish government, and immigrants were not only not looked down upon, but if anything encouraged. They were essentially living proof that our way was better (and most would happily tell you so).

I will say I had a job in the early 1990's that required an extensive security clearance, due to it handling the infrastructure software and hardware for classified military communications. Once I got in there, I discovered to my surprise that a good third of my co-workers were born in Communist countries (One Russian, and two Vietnamese). These are highly-paid engineering jobs, and clearly being an immigrant from a Communist country not only wasn't preventing them from getting those jobs, but they seemed over-represented in them.

* - According to its IMDB page, the writers did extensive interviews with actual Soviet defectors, and the writer/director was himself a grandson of Russian defectors

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    When the movie Mad Max came out in 1979, Mel Gibson's character was dubbed over with an American accent in case American audiences would be uncomfortable with a foreign (Australian) accent. As late as the 1990s Scottjsh accents were sometimes treated as foreign languages and subtitles provided, this included Billy Connolly and an old tv series called Taggart.
    – Daniel
    Dec 20, 2018 at 20:33
  • @Daniel Any proof it was for "comfort"? Also, plenty of Americans have a difficult time understanding Scottish, Irish, and Australian (or even Liverpudlian) accents. Even some southern English people I know can struggle with some of the more "unique" accents. That's not to say it was all "wine and roses" (as T.E.D. puts it), but there was often a practical purpose as well.
    – cmw
    Jul 25, 2022 at 22:45
  • @cmw - Can vouch. In the mid-70's I found Monty Python on our local PBS channel, but that was the first non-AmE I'd ever heard, and I was watching it for months before I could reliably make out what was being said. There was a skit where they were pretending to be Aussies (and making cracks about American Beer) that was particularly impenetrable. Had a similar experience working with the Vietnamese guys above. It takes time with someone's accent to be able to understand it well, and perhaps in the modern era where oceans are no real barrier to communications we've forgotten what that was like.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 26, 2022 at 14:00

I've never heard of "Russians" discriminated in the USA in any way. I mean here all nationalities of former Soviet Union; they are commonly (and incorrectly) called "Russians" in the United states. But the analogy between "Russians" and Chinese is incomplete because in the case of "Russians" racial bias plays no role.

Most "Russians" living in the US during the Cold war were either descendants of old immigrants, which were undistinguished from most Americans in any way, or the refugees from Soviet Union. There was absolutely no reason to suspect these refugees in any sympathy to the Soviet regime. This is not the case nowadays, when Soviet Union does not exist anymore, and modern US "Russians" may have some sympathies to modern Russia.

Anyway, I wanted to make two points: a) that "Russians" were never discriminated, and b) the case differs much from the Chinese c) the number of "Russians" in the US is insignificant.

Also notice that Germans were never discriminated against in the US, and this includes the WWII period.

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    German-Americans were most definitely treated with suspicion during WWII. This was the reason that many German-speaking communities in the Midwest, which had conducted business and worship in German for generations, switched en masse to English. Dec 18, 2018 at 20:35
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    My grandmother would disagree with your last sentence. Born before WW1, and speaking German at home, she distinctly remembers the treatment they received as "German", particularly post US entry into the war (but also before). This was in St. Louis, a heavily German-American city at the time, but that was no protection. Ultimately they moved to a farm in West Texas and then to Oregon, and spoke only English ever after.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 18, 2018 at 20:37
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    Googling 'world war 1 anti-german sentiment usa' leads to any number of descriptions. My grandmother did not want to talk about it much, but name calling and threats were definitely a part of it. At that time there were many German-language newspapers throughout the Midwest (think of beer brewing cities). They all shut down or switched to English.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 18, 2018 at 21:49
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    @Alex, during World War I, non-citizen Germans in the US had to register as "enemy aliens", were restricted in where they could go and what they could do, were generally regarded with suspicion, and risked being arrested on suspicion of sabotage (sometimes without cause). Source: the past four years of "on this day" articles in my local paper.
    – Mark
    Dec 18, 2018 at 22:04
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    @Alex: Not in the U.S., but the town of Berlin, Ontario, changed it's name in 1917 to Kitchener because of anti-German sentiment; and King George V of the U.K. changed his family name from Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha to Windsor for the same reason. Anti- German sentiment in all English speaking countries was quite significant during WW1. Dec 18, 2018 at 22:13

I was discriminated against since arriving in the U.S. My life was hell. Hate crimes are common. I think the system doesn't care about people because if they wanted Orthodox or Russian people to benefit American society, they would protect us from harm. The law is not on our side. The system is more Darwinism and Marx's isle or money monopoly game. It has no value for human life. They have long hated the Russians, because the American system is anti-orthodox, so you would see all kinds of bad people running the society, or people who will destroy the good morals of all the next generations. These bad people paid by anti-orthodox or other cruel investors to destroy society. People might think I was bad, etc. Yes, I had no dowry. But my husband was forced to divorce me right away because he understood the tone of society; it was a great disadvantage for him to be married to a Russian in the United States.

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    To be honest, I don't think that that the US is generally anti-orthodox. There are always people somewhere who are anti almost anything. Mar 16, 2021 at 0:16

No because

1) they weren't brown

2) they were largely White (anti-Bolshevik) émigrés, or the descendants thereof.

You could say they were safe because they were White and white: with and without a capital.

Whiter than white?

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    I'm sure this was a factor, but it's not the only one. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, among many others, were primarily white, and still faced varying levels of discrimination. Or, of course, during the Second World War, identifiably German people were treated with suspicion. Of course these groups faced less discrimination in many cases by virtue of being European and white, but they still weren't precisely "safe." So I'm not sure we can conclude right off the bat that there wouldn't be any discrimination against Russian immigrants or Russian Americans because of that.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 19, 2018 at 8:16
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    On the broader scale, I'd say that the Holocaust of ethnic Germans against Jews and Slavs, the genocide of Hutu against Tutsi, and the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, among others, show us that people can go right past discriminating against people of similar appearance and descent and straight to actual violence. So, in the case at hand, while Russian immigrants benefited from being white and European, if they really weren't discriminated against at all (compared to Italians, Irish, etc), I suspect there probably were other factors at play as well (even if purely temporal).
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 19, 2018 at 8:25
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    I'm gonna go out on a limb, and assume a lot of the flaggers didn't understand what "White" (with a capital W) means in this context. I've added some clarification.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 19, 2018 at 17:25
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    Yes, that's exactly what I meant. Sometimes I get away with being lazy, but apparently not this time
    – Ne Mo
    Dec 19, 2018 at 22:14
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    I think it still needs a bit more clarification for anyone popping by without much knowledge of history, so I'll put it here: The White faction was the major faction opposing the Reds during the communist revolution in Russia. They were loyal to the tsar. Naturally, when the revolution started, when they lost or it became clear that they would lose, many of them would rather leave Russia than live under communist rule and/or risk being prosecuted as political opponents.
    – Kapten-N
    Dec 20, 2018 at 10:48

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