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by Richard Hobbs

Context for Russian Immigration

History and Government

Slavic tribes migrated into Russia from the west in the 5th century. The first Russian state was established by Scandinavian chieftans in the 9th century at Kiev and Novgorod. Mongols controlled the country from the 12th to 15th centuries. Ivan IV (the Terrible) became the first Czar in 1547, founding the modern Russian state. Russia moved from medieval to capitalist forms under Peter the Great (1689-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796). Serfdom was abolished in 1861 under Alexander II (1855-1881). Revolutionary strikes and defeat by Japan led Czar Nicholas II (1894-1917) to allow a representative Duma in 1906, but corruption and reactionary practices led to the accession of Alexander Kerensky and then the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in 1917.

Communist control of all of Russia took place in 1920. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was set up as a federation on December 30, 1922. When Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin secured power until 1953. The USSR collectivized agriculture and set up large industrial enterprises under a command economy under five-year plans. Stalin disallowed dissent and resorted to purge trials, mass exiles, and executions. With full employment and access to health and education, the standard of living improved considerably. During World War II the USSR stopped German advances and helped free Eastern bloc countries from Hitler’s rule.

Nikita Khrushchev favored peaceful co-existence. However, after arming Cuba with missiles and withdrawing them after a confrontation in 1961 with the U.S., and breaking with China in 1963, Khrushchev was replaced in 1964 by Leonid I. Brezhnev. The USSR provided military support to North Vietnam until its victory and entered Afghanistan in 1979. Brezhnev died in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded him in 1985. Gorbachev proposed reforms such as more open and democrat political processes (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika). In the space of five months in late 1991, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party and of the USSR, leading to the dissolution of the Communist Party and the USSR.

The current government of Russia is a federal republic with a new constitution approved in 1993. There are 21 autonomous republics and 68 autonomous regions and territories. Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Republic under the USSR, continued as President. A tumultuous political decade including Yeltsin’s dissolution of Parliament in 1993, his 8-month absence in 1996-97, and dismissal of his entire government in 1998 led to his resignation on Dec. 31, 1999. He is succeeded by Vladimir Putin, who won the presidential election in March 2000 with 53% of the vote. He has sought to centralize power in Moscow and weaken the influence of extremely wealthy business leaders and regional governors.


The 1998 per capita income of $4,000 accompanied an inflation rate of 84%, an unemployment rate of 12% with more underemployment, and negative growth of the economy. Income is supplemented by public welfare funds from the state budget, enterprises, and trade unions in such areas as free medical care, pensions, scholarships, and training. Russian exports exceed imports and its chief trading partners are Germany, the U.S., and China.

In 1992 Russia ended state subsidies for most goods and services and then began privatizing thousands of large and medium-sized state-owned enterprises, causing soaring prices with low salaries and a downward spiral in the standard of living of Russia’s labor force, estimated at 66 million. Policies to curb monopolies in natural gas, electricity, and railways and to restore control over regional leaders have basically failed. The Russian stock market and ruble have fallen dramatically in recent years. In 1998 Russia defaulted on its foreign debt. Attempts to rein in oligarchs in the media, auto, oil, and metals industries have had limited success.

Russian Immigration

From 1900 to 1914 Christian Orthodox Russians fled Russia seeking religious and political freedom. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, thousands of expropriated wealthy Russians and middle class professionals and army officers fled their homeland. About 20,000 Russian refugees, enslaved workers, or war prisoners from Germany entered the U.S. from 1947 to 1952. From 1971 to 1991 about 181,000 persecuted Russian Jews entered the U.S. for religious and political reasons. Since the 1991 breakup of the USSR, tens of thousands of persecuted Jews and professionals seeking improved opportunities fled to the United States. When Russians receiving public assistance in Santa Clara County were asked why they left their homelands, most declared “to reunite with family members”, followed closely by racial, political, economic, and religious reasons, in that order.

Social Characteristics of the Russian People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

About 82% of Russia’s citizens are of Russian ethnicity, with 4% Tatar, 3% Ukranian, and 11% belonging to smaller ethnic groups. The dominant organized religions are Russian Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish. Religion was prohibited in the USSR, and many immigrants may not practice religion. Russian Jews constitute a majority of immigrants to the U.S.

Family Life

Russians consider their family commitments and responsibilities above all else. Multi-generational families and extended family households are common. Extreme importance is placed on respect for one’s elders. Although the primary decision maker may be the father, mother, or eldest son or daughter, the role is typically held by the strongest personality.

In general children are taught to behave, be obedient, and respect elders. Grandparents are expected to care for their grandchildren when parents work. Elders are family-oriented and are active in Santa Clara County as part-time volunteers and workers, ESL students, and participants in field trips and sociocultural activities. Russian public benefits recipients in the county report that mothers, grandparents, and fathers are most likely to take care of children under 12.

Health Care Practices

Life expectancy in Russia is 59 years for men and 72 years for women. In 1998, there was one hospital bed per 85 persons and 1 doctor per 215 persons. Infant mortality is about 20 per 1,000 births.

The mental health system in Russia is underdeveloped. Seeking mental health care is stigmatized. Persecution, non-acceptance, and moving into new environments are the most common causes of strain. Culturally it is inappropriate to discuss mental illness casually.

Adults are expected to care for or find solutions to care for the infirm, and to accept their parents into their home should the need arise. Russian public benefits recipients stated they prefer in-home care of home-bound seniors and disabled family members by a trained care giver at twice the rate of their next preference, in-home care by a family member. Institutional care is not favored at all. Children and grandparents are also expected to care for ill family members. Frequently terminally ill patients are not told about their condition, to leave the patient in peace. Rabbis or other religious leaders should be allowed to visit patients.

Russians have a high pain threshold and may not ask for pain medications. Many Russians believe drugs poison the body, and won’t accept sleeping pills or medications for depression. Home and folk remedies are relatively common, including the rubbing of oils or ointments, enemas, light exercise with fresh air, mud and steam baths, mineral water, herbal teas, hot soups, and sweet liquor. Russians usually believe that illnesses come from poor nutrition, too many drugs, not dressing warmly, family history, stress, or a pregnant woman not caring for herself.

Pregnant women typically don’t expect prenatal care unless something feels wrong. However, their prenatal ritual is extremely thorough. Women are encouraged to walk when contractions begin (to promote dilation) and discouraged from taking any pain medication such as epidurals. During birthing women follow the orders of the doctor or midwife, and generally the husband is not present. Very close female family members are allowed. Breast feeding is expected of all Russian mothers until milk is gone, even until toddler years. The average maternity leave in Russia is 25 months. Babies are to stay warm in all instances. Female and male circumcision is never performed, with the exception of some Jewish parents who may prefer male circumcision.

Educational System

The Russian educational system is highly centralized. Preschool is quite developed and education is free and compulsory for ages 7 to 17. Non-Russian children are taught in their own language, but by secondary school Russian language is required. The literacy and high school graduation rates are 99%, some of the highest in the world. High school used to be a 10-year program in the USSR but now it is 12 years. Most Russians receive a college education, although it is a highly selective and competitive process. First degrees usually take five years. Teachers and professors are highly respected but paid very little.

Most recent Russian immigrants are highly educated and many speak English. The learning style in the former USSR was relatively rigid. English was not emphasized in the USSR and it is not dominant in Russia today. It is a significant barrier for many Russian elderly.

Russians in Santa Clara County


Of the Russian public assistance recipients who answered the survey, 65% are female and 35% are male. Russian is the language most often used by 91% of the respondents. The average age is 51. Russians are recent immigrants, only averaging 2.8 years in the county and the U.S. as of the spring of 2000. Most Russians live in San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale. Almost every Russian public assistance recipient has finished high school, and the vast majority enjoys a college education. Russians are among the most educated persons in the county and many possess advanced degrees. Russians receiving public assistance have the smallest number of family members of any immigrant group, averaging 2.39 persons per family. They live in households that average 2.55 members. Of this public assistance group, the annual household income for 60% of families is less than $10,000 and for 28% of families is $10,000 to $30,000.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Russians use direct eye-to-eye contact. They nod for approval. They touch freely with close friends and relatives. Personal space varies with the degree of familiarity or friendship. Greetings—shaking hands or kisses on the cheeks if a close relationship—are important and vary depending on gender and status. Shaking hands with an unknown woman is considered inappropriate. Elders are highly respected and greeted with titles (such as Mr., Mrs., Aunt, Grandfather) even in the absence of a blood relationship. Most Russians try to be on time for appointments, or even arrive a little early.

Emotional Support

When asked whom they talk to for emotional support, Russian public assistance recipients in Santa Clara County replied spouses, relatives, friends, or no one. They tend to trust resettlement agencies like Jewish Family Service that help them resettle, but expressed little reliance upon religious advisors, teachers, mental health specialists, or community leaders, and only some willingness to talk to doctors. The community expressed a need for more bilingual mental health providers in Santa Clara County.


Russians generally dress similarly to Americans.


Russians eat three meals a day, with lunch being the biggest meal. Often there is extensive ritual and ceremony surrounding food and meals in the home. In Russia it is common to have snacks in between with chai (hot tea) or fruit. The typical diet is high in fat, starch, and salt. Preferred drinks are chai, lukewarm water, and fruit juices, with no ice. Some Jews prefer no pork and various shellfish. When ill, Russians prefer hot soups, such as borscht, a vegetable, beet and cabbage soup; broth soups; bland foods such as oatmeal, boiled chicken, baked and mashed potatoes, fresh fruit, vegetables, and plain yogurt; and chai with lemon and honey or hot milk and honey.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

Most Russians in Santa Clara County are Jewish and they tend to celebrate Jewish holidays such as Passover, Rosh Hashah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah. Those who are Russian Orthodox celebrate their holy days. For many Russians, Easter is important. Three other major holidays are celebrated: May 9 Victory Day, celebrating victory in WWII (celebrated in conjunction with Mother’s Day the same weekend), U.S. Veterans’ Day in early November, and U.S. Thanksgiving Day, a day emotionally close to Jewish Harvest Day. In death, family members may want to wash the body and dress the person in special clothing. Most Russians believe the body is sacred and thus disfavor organ donation and autopsies.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

When asked to identify major needs, over 70% of Russian public benefits recipients indicated they need help with dental care, ESL, and medical care; over 50% said they need help with housing, citizenship, and eye care; and about 1/3 had needs in the areas of food, job training, help finding a job, immigration legal assistance, and help with emotional problems.

Similarly, in the Russian focus group of 11 seniors, the #1 issue was insufficient income, especially SSI. These seniors suggested reducing utility costs for seniors, improving affordable transportation and escort services, developing job search for seniors, providing bilingual information regarding benefits and community resources, lowering immigration legal fees and INS costs, and adjusting the levels of SSI and other cash aid to the cost of living in the county.

The #2 issue was housing, particularly the high cost and the lack of accurate information regarding Section 8 programs. These Russian seniors felt that providing clear Section 8 information, rent control, and more affordable housing are solutions.

The #3 issue was access to learning English and, in the interim, receiving information in Russian. Solutions included more ESL classes with more community education, classes closer to senior housing, bilingual phrase books covering day-to-day situations, and better public transportation.

The #4 and #5 issues in the Russian community are access to medical and dental care and access to citizenship and immigration legal services. Russian seniors expressed deep concern that Russian interpreters at major hospitals do not exist and that the waiting periods and billing systems are inefficient. They also concluded that dental care under MediCal focuses too much on dentures without replacing teeth. Citizenship is an issue because for seniors, the INS process with lost files, lost fingerprints, long delays, and high costs are extremely painful to endure. One idea is to integrate the history and government requirements of citizenship into ESL curriculum early on.


Most Russian respondents did not feel discriminated against. But some Russians felt discriminated against by eligibility workers, social workers, and landlords and to a lesser extent by job interviewers, the INS, and in civil court. When stopped by police, 83% of Russians said they felt respected, and 33% said they had communication problems.

Barriers to Services, Education, and Benefits

Russian public benefits recipients indicated that their greatest barriers are insufficient English (83%), lack of information in a language they understand (37%), child care (17%), fear of government (15%), lack of time (13%), and the high cost of programs or services (11%).

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data and Barriers

The main occupations of employed Russian public assistance recipients in the county are in computer science/software engineering, retail, elderly care, child care, and education. More than half are homemakers, students, or not formally employed. In their home country they all worked – primarily in engineering, math, or computer science (35%), in education (16%), in other professions (14%), in industry as assemblers (9%), in unskilled service work (7%), or in finance or accounting (6%). The main barriers to working in their same occupation were identified as lack of English (73%), the lack of a license or credential in the U.S. (36%), and different occupational requirements in the U.S. (27%).

Working Conditions

On average, Russians on public assistance work about 27 hours per week. About 54% of the families have one member working, and 27% have two working family members. About 85% have a single employer. These Russians report that 57% of their jobs have no medical benefits, 48% no sick leave, 48% no pension or retirement plan and 44% no paid vacation. Forty percent are employed by companies with fewer than 25 employees. About 96% have no union. Approximately three in 10 work the swing shift, graveyard shift, or weekends, two in 10 work for an immigrant employer, and one in 10 report doing piecework.

Small Businesses

About 1/3 of these Russians report having a small business or being self-employed. The biggest barriers to starting or managing a business were identified as not knowing enough English (69%), not knowing legal and permit requirements (51%), lack of information on how to get started (46%), getting a loan (43%), and not having help (34%).

Public Benefits in the Russian Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

The percentage of Russian public assistance recipients aware of the requirements for Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI) was 24%; for CalWORKs, 33%; for SSI, 45%; for General Assistance (GA), 54%; for MediCal, 73%; and for food stamps, 87%. Only 6 in 10 Russians believe that SSI, food stamps, MediCal, and CAPI assistance levels are sufficient, and only 36% think CalWORKs or G.A. is adequate.

Among Russians receiving CalWORKs, 50% felt that 5 years is not enough time to prepare for self-sufficiency, and 58% felt that the amount of time permitted to complete job training to become self-sufficient is inadequate. Of this latter group, 100% indicated that learning English before taking job training is the most pressing problem.

Culturally Competent Services

About 5 of 8 Russians indicated they received an orientation to food stamps in a language they understood, compared to 6 of 10 for MediCal orientations and 7 of 8 CalWORKs orientations. About 2 of 3 Russians said they receive phone calls related to food stamps in a language they understand, compared to 1 of 2 for phone calls related to MediCal and 3 of 4 phone calls related to CalWORKs. About 2 of 3 Russians stated they receive written materials related to food stamps in a language they understand, compared to about 1 of 2 for materials related to MediCal and 6 of 10 for materials related to CalWORKs. While Russians feel they are treated with respect by county CalWORKs, MediCal, and food stamp workers, only about one-half feel that these employees know their cultural background.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

Of Russian public assistance recipients, 41% reported having children under 18 in school. Of these parents, 69% preferred having their children taught bilingually in English and Russian (or English and another language) and 31% preferred the teaching in English only. Of school services, only 32% of these Russian parents reported receiving information in a language they understand, while 47% attend parent meetings. About 42% of the children of Russian public benefits recipients receive school lunch and breakfast programs, and about 11% of the kids receive tutoring or participate in after school activities. Only 5% receive transportation or use on-site child care, and none of these parents say their children receive counseling, health programs, Healthy Start, or special education.

Employment Training

Russian public assistance recipients report receiving training in the U.S. in three main areas: as office workers and receptionists, as professionals in the areas of finance, accounting, and computer science, and as semi-skilled service workers. Most receive training at community colleges, and to a lesser extent at community agencies or private institutes.


Of Russians receiving public assistance, only 6% identify their English skills as excellent or good, 31% as average, 41% as poor, and 22% as nonexistent. The most important needs for English are for continuing education, daily living situations, reading literature, and employment. They stated that they can learn English most quickly by having English-speaking friends (61%), by TV (44%), by audio cassette tapes (42%), and by tutoring (33%).


About 5% of Russian public assistance recipients have naturalized. About one fourth said they need help to fill out the citizenship application, to pay or waive the $250 INS fee, or to inquire about their delayed cases. One in three need citizenship classes and 1 in 5 need legal advice. Very few need help with the disability waiver.

Communication & Outreach in the Russian Community

Russian public assistance recipients rely upon the following to get important information, in this order: newspapers in Russian, friends, TV in English, family members, and the internet. Of these Russians, nearly all have a TV and telephone; 8 of 10 have a VCR; 7 of 10 have a computer; 6 of 10 have a radio; 5 of 10 have internet access; and over 1 in 3 have an email account. Less than 2 in 10 subscribe to any newspaper. Many elderly Russians lack conversational English and need interpreters in health, legal, and other situations.

Novay Zizn (New Life) is a monthly publication from San Francisco that covers Santa Clara County. Novoye Russkoye Slovo (New Russian Word), Kstatie (By the Way), and Vzglyad (Glance) are all well-known weekly newspapers. The Jewish Family Service of Silicon Valley in Los Gatos and the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto have monthly newsletters in Russian. There are also regular two-hour programs in Russian on Channel 26 broadcast from Cupertino, and TV and radio programs broadcast from New York City.

Russians In Action: Alex Spivak

Russians have made valuable contributions in Santa Clara County in areas such as technology, social services, education, law, and the arts. Involved in many religious groups and community service organizations, they express a strong desire to become citizens and vote. The number of Russian voters in the county increased from 253 in 1990 to 1,009 in 2000, and the total number of Russians registered to vote was 2,476 as of December 2000.

One professional who has made impressive contributions to the entire community is Alex Spivak, a Russian concert pianist who is the owner and director of the Almaden School of Music, Art and Dance in Almaden Plaza. Alex holds a master’s degree in piano performance and has over 25 years experience teaching piano. In Russia he made several commercial recordings, edited two piano books, was Professor of the Culture of Music, and performed throughout Europe. He and his wife Maryana and two daughters arrived in San Jose as refugees in 1991. They were helped by Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Los Gatos.

The Spivaks opened their own business in 1995 when more than 100 students were taking piano lessons at their home. Their 10,000 square foot school now has over 400 students, 35 teachers, and classes in dance, art, gymnastics, chess, singing, and musical instruments as diverse as the piano, violin, drums, saxophone, guitar, and clarinet. Students range in age from 3 to 17 but also include many adults. About 10% of the students are Russian.

Alex arrived with very little knowledge of English. He declares: “My biggest issue is time”. He works seven days a week from 10 a.m. in the morning until 10 p.m. at night, except on Christmas. In addition to managing the business side and supervising instructors, Alex personally teaches piano to 50 students. Many of them compete in regional contests and donate time for volunteer causes. Alex still finds the time to tend to his favorite hobby, cultivating fruit trees and roses at home.

Says Vlada Gelfond, Director of Social Services at JFS, “Alex is a man who has had to overcome many personal barriers. His talents, personal drive, compassion, and many contributions make him a model for the entire community.”