Russian Ohioans

From Ohio History Central

Numerous Ohioans are descended from Russian ancestors. Today, Russian Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States of America, hoping to live the American Dream. Before the American Civil War, most immigrants arrived in the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. By the 1880s, the home countries of immigrants began to change. Many of the new immigrants to arrive in the United States came from Eastern European countries, like Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, and Czechoslovakia, rather than from Western European countries, like Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

In 1860, 328,249 immigrants lived in Ohio. These people accounted for fourteen percent of the state's population. By 1900, the number of immigrants in Ohio rose to 458,734, but the percentage of the population that was foreign-born declined to eleven percent. Most of these immigrants in 1900 came from Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland, yet a growing number of Eastern Europeans were also migrating to the state.

The first Russians to immigrate to Ohio arrived during the late nineteenth century. By 1900, approximately two thousand Russians lived in Ohio. During this period, other ethnic groups, including the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians, and the Carpatho-Russians, were sometimes listed as Russians in population statistics, making it difficult to ascertain the exact number of true Russians in Ohio and in the United States. Most of these Russians settled along Lake Erie, especially in Cleveland, where they found low-paying jobs in factories or worked as day laborers. Immigrants who were more successful established businesses that supplied their fellow migrants with traditional Russian products. Most of these earliest immigrants came to the United States seeking a better life and to flee the repressive tsarist regime in their native country.

The earliest Russian immigrants tended to settle in their own communities, preferring to live among people who shared similar cultural beliefs and spoke the same language as they did. They congregated together partly out of camaraderie but also out of fear. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. The leaders of this movement were the Progressives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. To accomplish their goals, the Progressives implemented numerous reforms, including settlement houses, which taught foreigners American practices. The Progressives also called for laws that would either limit or ban the cultural practices of recently arrived immigrants. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white Ohioans.

Ohio's Russians established numerous organizations to preserve their traditional customs and beliefs. By the 1910s, Cleveland Russians had formed the Russian Workingman's Club and also established a Russian Circle at the local YWCA. By the 1930s, additional organizations, including the Friends of the Soviet Union and the Russian American Institute, existed. While Russians appeared to have founded these later groups, in actuality, pro-communism Americans created and were the principal members of these organizations.

While many Russian immigrants arrived in the United States prior to 1917, an additional large wave of Russian migrants eventually reached this country after World War I. Following the communist takeover of Russia in 1917, many Russians fled to the United States. These migrants came principally for political reasons, but unlike earlier Russian immigrants, they supported the deposed tsar. By 1932, approximately five thousand Russians resided in Cleveland, with an additional fifteen thousand of these migrants residing in other Ohio communities. These new immigrants tended to be well-educated and found better paying jobs than earlier migrants in offices and various businesses. White Ohioans tended to be more receptive to these new Russian migrants. Because of this tolerance, the newer immigrants did not usually have to settle in the same neighborhood for safety reasons.

Eventually, the Soviet Union ended the migration of their citizens to other nations. However, facing international pressure, the Soviet Union did allow Russian Jews to seek asylum in other nations beginning in the 1970s. With the Soviet Union's downfall in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, an increase in Russian immigration to the United States, including to Ohio, occurred, but the number of immigrants and their influence on Ohio life was not nearly as great as that of earlier migrants. Still, Russian Ohioans continue to participate in various social and cultural groups that serve to promote Russian beliefs and customs.

See Also


  1. Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.