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Russian Migration to Pittsburgh

Russian Migration to Pittsburgh

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


Prior to 1880, 75-percent of western Pennsylvania's immigrants came from northern Europe, the rest from eastern and southern Europe. But 1882 started the "new immigration", reversing previous migration patterns. Between 1890 and 1900, the number of immigrants coming from Slavic countries more than doubled.

The new immigrants were the Poles, Austrians, Italians, Russians and other Slavic races. But of all the Slavic immigrants who came to the Steel Valley, the Russians–often incorrectly categorized with Ukrainians and other ethnic groups from the Austro-Hungarian empire–are the hardest to document historically.

Until the U.S. government in 1899 started keeping census figures based on nationality, all who came from territory controlled by the Czar's government, with the exception of the Poles, were considered "Russians," wrote Jerome Davis in The Russian Immigrant. The majority of these (43%) were Jews and under 5-percent of these actual Russians, according to Davis.

Being Russian, by definition, meant coming from one of three specific geographic regions in Europe: the "Great Russian" inhabited central Russia; the "White Russian" resided between Poland and Russia, and the "Little Russian" came from what was once South Russia. But boundaries aside, "the experience of the Russian Slav is the experience of all the races from southeastern Europe," wrote Davis.

Like many other Slavs, Russian immigrants came to America in poverty–less than six-percent of Russian immigrants brought more than $50 with them. The first task–like that of their Slavic counterparts–was to find work. The majority of Russians chose New York or Pennsylvania to settle. In 1920, 20,000 Russians were reported living in Pittsburgh.

New Castle, north of Pittsburgh, saw a number of Russian immigrants during the early 20th century come to work the area's steel and tin mills. Like the Slavs in Pittsburgh, they struggled for years before stabilizing their community by reuniting families, building churches and forming fraternal groups.