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Russian American Immigrants

Free «Russian American Immigrants» Essay Sample


Heritage of Russian Americans’ Culture

As a direct descendant of two empires, i.e. the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, Russian Federation unites numerous nationalities, cultures, and religions under one rule. It is not surprising that such a boiling-pot of a country required a certain level of cultural and political oppression and even direct violence to be kept as a whole in the past. The imperialistic policy of the Russian and Soviet governments created forced linguistic, economic, and cultural connections between states with vague unity of Slavic origin and a number of regions of the Caucasus and the East. This territory gave rise to millions of immigrants who left their homeland in search of wellbeing and political and religious freedom. The majority of these immigrants settled in Israel (mostly Russian Jews) and the USA. Russian-speaking immigrant community is as complex and diverse as Russia itself. Russian immigrants live in relatively closed communities; however, cultural significance of this ethnic group is still impressive. Russian Americans preserve and protect their linguistic, household, and cultural traditions. Many Russian musicians, writers, and scientists continued their distinguished work in the USA, contributing to the culture of their new homeland. The diversity and the closed nature of the Russian American Diaspora along with the cultural heritage of the Soviet past require a diversified approach to the study of this community. Using Purnell’s model for cultural competence provides an effective framework for the analysis of this ethnic group. This model shows how different factors, such as linguistic peculiarities, views on family, health and general worldview in the ethnic group under analysis can affect health care practices within it.

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Literature Review

Russian American Culture

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, immigration of Russian-speaking people in the United States, Israel, and other countries increased, thus creating one of the largest growing ethnic groups called people of Russian heritage. However, considering this group as something holistic would be a simplification as this group consists of different sub-groups depending on their ethnicity and religious views (Aroian, Khatutsky, & Dashevskaya, 2012). While Russian-speaking immigrants include not only Russians, but also Ukrainians, Jews, and people of other nationalities, the Soviet policy of forced cultural alignment made most of these people share similar cultural and behavioral features. Immigration from Russia to the USA occurred in four waves, the most numerous of which happened in the first half of the XX-th century with the last one occurring in the 1990s. The peak of immigration from Russia falls on the time span from 1910 to 1930, which were the early years of the Soviet state, the time of the most violent repressions of the Stalin regime. The final wave of immigration was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain (Testa, Nelson 2012). Most of the early immigrants ran from Russia for their lives, however, reasons for the immigration from Russia and former Soviet countries differed throughout the XX-th century, ranging from political and religious reasons (people running from repressions) to the economic ones during the 1990s. Recent statistics demonstrate that after a drop in the late 1990-ies, immigration from Russia drastically increased in 2013. Emigrating consultant Sergei Kuznetsov (As quoted in Semenova, 2015) explains the recent wave of immigration:


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“People want a country with guarantees in the spheres of education and medical care, a culturally close and relatively safe country with different opportunities for themselves and their children. Small business owners choose inexpensive countries that already have Russian-speaking communities where they could easily start their    own business”.

Thus, the recent increase of the number of Russian Immigrants should be taken into the consideration. The latest wave of Russian immigrants to the USA is different from those that happened in the XX-th century. A lot of new immigrants from post-Soviet countries are young professionals, mostly in IT technologies, while female immigrants find occupations in the fashion and entertainment industries. These young people, unlike earlier immigrants, are much less predisposed to a settled way of living in closed ethnic groups as they are more socially active and mobile.


Dominant Language and Dialects

The question of language and dialects in the Russian-American community is closely connected with the status of the Russian language in post-Soviet territories. Despite the imposition of Russian language in all countries of the Soviet Union, ethnic minorities were able to retain their original languages. However, mutual influences between languages of minorities and dominant Russian gave birth to numerous dialects. It should be noted that ethnic minorities inside of so-called post-Soviet American immigrants also know and use their own native languages. However, Russian, while heavily influenced phonetically and lexically by English, remains dominant in the community. Russian immigrants use Cyrillic writing, often duplicating signs and inscriptions in public places in the two languages (Aroian et al. 2012). Russian immigrants have a good level of education and most of them have a decent enough level of English or quickly learn it. A relatively high level of education in former Soviet states provided linguistic flexibility for these immigrants. Researcher Mihaela Robila points out, that Russian Immigrants are eager to send their children in Russian schools to learn their native language. Children of Russian speaking immigrants, in their turn, show a desire to visiting the historic homeland (Robila, 2013). The “enclave” nature of residence of these immigrants provides them with a possibility to communicate with each other using their native language, which is why most Russian immigrants are bi-lingual or even multi-lingual. Russian speaking community supports creation of newspapers, radio, and TV stations for Russian-speaking people, as well as cultural centers aimed at preservation of Russian culture and maintaining cultural connections with Russia. These “enclaves” of Russian-speaking people help elderly immigrants who struggle with the language barrier to feel more comfortable, while younger Russian immigrants feel that it is easier to integrate this way. However, it is important to understand that a linguistic barrier still exists, especially among elder Russian immigrants.

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Temporality and Touch

Russians have traditionally valued their personal time and the time of others. In business relationships, they are traditionally punctual. In their homeland, Russians are mostly pessimistic about their future, but those who immigrate are set on seeking a happier future, which is why their views are more optimistic and their expectations are raised. While it is in the national nature to respect the past, Russian Americans are future-oriented people who devote most of their time to building their wellbeing and the basis for prosperity of their families (Aroian et al. 2012). Younger generations are willing to take care of their older relatives, which is traditionally expected of them.

Family Roles

Family plays an important role in the lives of Russian immigrants. Most young Russian Americans keep in touch with their families and rely on them for financial and emotional support. Researchers Megan Testa and Todd Nelson point out that:

During the 1990s, many older Russians came to the USA to reunite with children who had immigrated to the country to take professional jobs. After moving to the USA many of these older Russian immigrants felt as though relying on their children to help them settle and assimilate, which would have been a reasonable expectation in       Russia, would be unacceptably burdensome (Testa, Nelson 2013).

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As a result of such immigration, Russian community in the USA consists mostly of multi-generational family constructions, with different levels of social integration and language efficiency. As elderly people in such family units often face linguistic barriers, keeping mutually beneficial relationships are crucial for these families. Elderly people in Russian families are highly respected and their authority is cherished. Grandparents take an active part in taking care of children. Child care is often completely assigned to grandparents, as young mothers continue to pursue career.

This not only makes elderly Russian immigrants more socially protected as they rarely leave the borders of their social circle, but also helps them to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage. The relocation of the elderly in nursing homes is not a common practice. It should be mentioned that Russian women are much more involved in family creation and upbringing of children than Russian men, thus becoming the core of families. While nominally a husband is called the “head of the family”, it is the wife who bears most responsibilities and performs most functions in a Russian family.

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While the problem of single mothers exists in the Russian-speaking immigrant community, family ties are still a strong factor within it. Sexual education can be a problem among children of more traditional Russian immigrants who consider such topics to be inappropriate and evade public discussions of their personal lives. Homosexuality is considered to be a taboo by more than 70% of Russians, according to the latest studies (Poushter, 2014). In the eyes of conservative Russians, homosexuality prevents direct procreation in a family and leads to a decline of the family. Wherein, the same research states that drinking alcohol is considered to be a taboo by fewer Russians despite its obvious detrimental effect on the climate in the family and the gene pool.

Biocultural Ecology

Diseases and Health Conditions

Quantitative research by Janet Purath, Catherine Van Son, and Cynthia F. Corbett provides information that there is a high level of chronic diseases and dangerous health conditions among this ethnic group:

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Slavic immigrants report multiple health problems with higher prevalence rates than their counterparts in the United States. Up to 90% of adult Slavic immigrants are overweight or obese. Many are plagued with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression. Depending on the source, 64–90% report hypertension Depression rates are reported at 31% and as high as 77% among women (2011).

Researchers point out, that these conditions are directly caused by malnutrition, shortage of physical activities and basic mistrust in the health care system. The closed nature of this immigrant community and a general mistrust in doctors complicate the process of gathering information about the subject matter. As Purnell points out, there are differences in the perception of health providers, according in different cultures, and Russian Americans are not an exception (Purnell, 2012). It is common for Russian immigrants to see a doctor only when the illness is obvious, as the notion of “health” is associated with the absence of obvious deceases. Such approach often means that dangerous diseases are discovered at late stages (Testa, Nelson 2013). The latter factor should not be ignored as the health care system in countries that most of these people come from is flawed and corrupt, which is why this distrust is deeply rooted. Overall, the above mentioned factors make Russian immigrants, especially of the elderly age, vulnerable to health problems. The distrust in the institutionalized health care is especially deep in the field of mental health as during the time of the Soviet regime mental health clinics were used as a punitive tool. Placement of a person into a mental hospital was considered to be equal to or even worse than imprisonment. As many Russians define stress as one of the major causes of health issues, their refusal to receive mental health and medication can become a problem.

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Variations in Drug Metabolism

According to Aroian et al. (2012), drug metabolism of Russian Americans is not much different from other Caucasian people, but there is a noteworthy exception that is a genetically inherited predisposition to alcoholism originating from Mongol genes. Thus, the people of the Russian origin can easily get accustomed to heavy drinking and suffer severe consequences of hangover. This tendency does not extend to Russian-speaking Jews who traditionally drink much less alcohol. In modern Russia, alcoholism is named among the key reasons of a rapidly shortening life span and rapid depopulation. Many Russian immigrants cope with stress by abusing alcohol, which can lead to overall substance abuse and passing to heavier drugs.


Historically, the fear of starvation is deeply rooted in post-Soviet people’s culture. Many regions that Russian-speaking people originate from are agricultural; thus, bad crops in these regions could lead to the lack of food supplies. Catastrophic agricultural policies of the Soviet regime in the 1930s caused hunger, which was repeated after WWII. Ukrainians were the ethnic group that suffered from the famine the most, thus treating food with special awe. Forced collectivization, confiscation of belongings crucial for agriculture and food reserves, which lead to famine in rural areas, made not only demographic but also cultural effect on the Soviet population (Bayer, Martyshenko, 2016). These effects are experienced by most immigrants who came to the USA during the XX century. There is an indistinguishable connection between eating and health, food and prosperity within a Russian Immigrant community. Throughout the XX-th century, fruit, meat, and sweets were considered to be delicacies and a subject of deficit by the majority of Russian people. As a result, there are no traditions of healthy eating in Russia. Megan Testa and Todd Nelson write:


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Physical fitness is not a national priority in Russia, nor is the development of healthy eating habits. When Russians immigrate to new countries, they take their unhealthy lifestyles with them. As a result, Russian immigrants have high rates of obesity (Testa, Nelson 2013).

Dishes of the traditional Russian cuisine are mostly high fat and meat-based, which also does not contribute to healthy nutrition. At the same time, Western standards of beauty impose a certain pressure on Russian immigrants, thus forcing them to shift to healthier food. Often, Russian immigrants of younger generations influence their parents by encouraging them to adopt a healthier lifestyle and get personally involved in helping their parents practice sports and eat healthier food.

Pregnancy and Child Bearing Practices

Fertility Practices and Views about Pregnancy

Just like in case of the dominating role of women in the family, decisions about contraception among Russians are mostly a female privilege and a cultural responsibility of women. Chemical contraception does not inspire trust in many Russian immigrant women. Historically, abortion is not considered to be a taboo practice among Russians as it was a common medical practice in the USSR (Aroian et al., 2012). While the ability to give birth is greatly appreciated in the Russian society, commitment of women from this region to labor makes forecasts of the childbirth rate among Russian immigrants unpredictable. A decision on how many children a Russian woman can afford to bear is an individual one. During childbirth, Russian women are cooperative with doctors. Breastfeeding is a traditionally encouraged practice (HealthCare Chaplaincy, 2013).

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Prescriptive and Taboo Practices

Russian culture is centered on the importance of procreation, which is why there is a special attitude towards fertile and pregnant women. Russian women under the age of 30 face a constant pressure in the community as elder members of their families (mothers and grandmothers) consider the childbirth as a woman’s obligation. Thus, women over 20 (which is a cultural marriage and childbirth age among Russians) become objects of such pressure. Giving birth until 30 is expected from women in the Russian community. During the childbearing period, Russian women are prohibited from physical activities as health of the child is of the greatest priority. Pregnant women are also fenced from all physical work and, most importantly, from stress. After birth, a traditional gender distinction is used in dressing boys and girls. Russians also tend to use ethnic names (Aroian et al., 2012).


Meaning of Life and Individual Sources of Strength

Russian immigrants are bearers of conservative values as presented by the Orthodox worldview and years of Soviet oppression of nonconformists. Ideologically, Russian immigrants rarely challenge the authority. Religious affiliation among former-Soviet immigrants differs depending on their region of origin and ethnicity. A dominant religion in Russia and bordering countries is an Orthodox branch of Christianity. This religion in characterized not only by its unique architecture, but also by the usage of Russian language in liturgies and strict adherence to traditional rites. According to the study by Massey and Higgins (2011), 49 % of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants practice this religion, while the level of atheists and non-religious people among both groups is about 27%, which can be explained by years of state-imposed Soviet atheist ideology. It should be noted, that despite the state imposition of atheism, religious people in the Soviet Union continued to practice their faith secretly. Those, who directly suffered from repressions continued “nurturing faith, prayers, and religious holiday celebrations as a kind of support among those who were religious people” (Bayer, Martyshenko, 2016). Another numerous religious group among Russian-speaking immigrants includes Russian Jews, who are culturally closer to Jewish traditions. Regardless of the religion, Russian-speaking immigrants have a relatively high level of spirituality and moral values. Family and friends are the center of life for most Russian Americans as they rely on the support of their close surrounding. Personal wellbeing and wellbeing of relatives and family are their primary orientation in life. The tradition of distancing family from the society is deeply rooted and influences the way Russian Americans address their health issues.

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