Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/November 1903/The Bright Side of Russian Immigration

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A LARGE proportion of the immigrants giving Russia as their birthplace crowd into the tenements of the east side of New York City and furnish operatives for the sweat shops and material for all the charitable organizations in the city.

These immigrants are so prominently in the public eye that we hear a great deal about the alarming and deplorable increase in Russian immigration. The casual newspaper reader does not find out that from Russia we receive five distinct racial elements and that only one of the five races tends to congregate in New York City, the other four being distributed among the mines, farms and factories in nearly every state in the union. So much is published about the sweat shop and the tenement that the reader is apt to lose sight of the fact that we receive a great many very desirable immigrants from Russia.

Fifty years ago the question of what constituted a desirable immigrant was a vexed one and many claimed that no such thing as a desirable immigrant existed. Time has modified the views of the extremist and proved that an immigrant with a good physique, willing to work and obey the law, has a definite economic value. This is especially true if he is between the ages of fifteen and forty-five years and is an unskilled laborer. Three races stand out preeminently among the races of Russia as furnishing a very large proportion of desirable immigrants. They are the Russian-German, Lithuanian and Finn.

The following table shows the immigration from Russia during 1902, arranged by races, and shows the relative standing of these races in some of the essential factors of desirability:

Race. Number Landed. Per Cent. Between Ages of 14 and 45. Per Cent. Unskilled Laborers. Per Cent. Remaining in New York.
Russian-German 8,542 75 90 5
Finn 13,854 90 86 15
Lithuanian 9,975 91 86 15
Pole 33,859 88 82 20
Hebrew 37,846 67 13 68


The term 'Russian-German' sounds paradoxical, but it in reality describes the racial status of this people more accurately than any other designation.

Germans have been landlords in the Russian Baltic provinces since the days of the old German order of crusaders, The Sword Brothers of Livonia. German artisans were imported and enjoyed the favor of the Great Peter, and German farmers took advantage of the breaking up of the large Polish estates after the insurrection of 1863 to establish themselves upon much of the best farming land in Poland. But none of these different divisions of the German race in Russia concerns us in our consideration of the Russian-German immigrant. He has a history entirely his own and has no more connection with other isolated colonies of Germans in Russia than he has with the Russian, from whom he holds himself religiously aloof.

Anne, daughter of Peter the Great, married the Duke of Holstein Gottorp, a German prince, and their son, who was crowned Peter III., was thus half German. Peter III. married a German princess, Sophia, of Anhalt Zerbst, who later deposed him and became sole ruler of the country, taking the name of Catherine II. The Ukraine, or country north of the Black Sea, which was the most fertile part of Russia, had never been consistently cultivated. This magnificent 'black mold belt,' one of the finest wheat-raising regions in the world, could only be kept from the Tartar hordes by the employment of the Cossacks as a protection. The Cossacks effectually prevented further Tartar raids, but were not farmers; and to develop this fine country Catherine offered special inducements to German settlers.

These inducements included the use of their own schools and the practise of their own religion, exemption from military service and some other special privileges. Many Germans took advantage of their countrywoman's liberal offer. As a result there are to-day in southern Russia in the governments immediately north of the Black Sea thousands of Germans who speak only German, who are in religion Lutherans and who are by far the most prosperous agricultural class in Russia.

The present Tsar has withdrawn the privileges granted by the Empress Catherine, has sought to replace the German schools by Russian, and the Lutheran religion by the Greek orthodox church; but he has only succeeded in exiling from Russia thousands of these German farmers, who come as immigrants to America with the proceeds of their Russian farms in their pockets and the courage of the pioneer in their hearts.

The Finns.

The Finns belong to the Ugro-Finnic or Uralo-Altaic stock and are akin to the Magyar and Laplander. About a dozen different tribes of this Ugro-Finnic stock are recognized; they are scattered over northern and central Russia and Siberia.

It must be remembered that the classification of Finnic peoples is made from a philological view-point, without regard to the influence great or slight which surrounding races may have exerted on the racial type. Otherwise it would often be hard to believe that the Finnish immigrant was of the same race as the Lapp, Magyar or Volga Finn. The Finns are said to have lived on the Volga in the seventh century and to have been driven north in the eighth century to their present home. They were conquered and christianized in the twelfth century by the Swedes, who occupied and ruled the country for more than five hundred years. In the wars between Sweden and Russia, Finland was often the battleground, and finally by treaty in 1809 Sweden ceded the grand duchy of Finland to Russia.

The Finnish constitution of 1772 afforded ample protection to the liberties of the people. It insured practical autonomy in internal affairs and provided that the Finnish army could not be required to serve outside of Finland. Alexander I. guaranteed to Finland the preservation of its laws, constitution and religion, and this pledge has been renewed by each succeeding ruler, including the present Tsar, Nicholas II., who however has broken his pledge. The condition of the Finns under their own constitution has been much better than that of any other subjects of the Tsar. Serfdom never existed in their country and five ninths of the land was owned by peasants. The policy of Russianization pursued by Tsar Nicholas II. since 1898 has practically set aside the constitution and reduced the grand duchy of Finland to the status of an ordinary Russian province.

Since 1863 Russia has attempted to eliminate Swedish influence by fostering the growth of the native language and literature. Now, however, the Finnish language is placed under the ban and the removal of high officials of Finland's educational system and the substitution of Russians in their places at Helsingfors and other educational centers may be considered an indication of the coming suppression of the Finnish language in the schools.

The majority of our Finnish immigrants come from near the coast, and in this locality the Swedish influence upon the people is shown most markedly by the frequent great variation from the recognized Finnish type. It is difficult in some cases to differentiate them from the Swedes and it is rare to find among these immigrants the broad head, flat features, yellow skin, obliquely set eyes, or other characteristics of the Ugro-Finnic type. They are tall and well proportioned, sometimes with fair complexions, sometimes with a queer combination of the characteristics of Finn and Swede. Eighty per cent, of the Finns are engaged in agricultural pursuits. They are honest, industrious and energetic; and it is a very rare occurrence to find an illiterate Finn.


The Lithuanian people, according to their traditions and the researches of some eminent ethnologists, were probably the first of the Aryan race to settle in Europe. Their first European home seems to have been in the valley of the Danube in the country now known as Bulgaria. The valley of the Danube was the natural highway of invasion used by the fierce Asiatic tribes in their incursions westward. Wars of the Romans against the Dacians and successive invasions of Goth and Hun forced the Lithuanians to seek a new home out of the path of invasion and conflict.

They migrated northward, probably during the third and fourth centuries, and following the valley of the Vistula spread out over territory extending from the mouth of the Vistula to the shore of Lake Peipus and southward to the great marshes of Pinsk. Their early history is necessarily hazy, depending upon tradition and scientific deduction. From the tenth century their history is fairly clear and about this time we find the Lithuanian nation divided into three main branches, viz., Borussians, Letts and Samoghitians.

The Borussians, who occupied territory in the vicinity of Königsberg, East Prussia, soon fell under German influence and lost their political existence, leaving only their name corrupted into Prussia.

The Letts occupied the country now known as the Baltic provinces of Russia. They mixed with and dominated the Livs and Esths (Finnish tribes occupying Livonia and Esthonia) and with these tribes became subject to a German religious order with a military organization known as the Sword Brothers of Livonia.

The Samoghitians, or Lithuanians proper, occupied territory south of the Baltic provinces. There they formed an independent state and resisted successfully all efforts of German crusader, Slav and Tartar to subjugate them. In the fourteenth century the king of Lithuania ruled the country occupied to-day by Poles, Lithuanians and white Russians. In 1386 Yagello, king of Lithuania, married Yadviga, queen of Poland, was baptized into the Latin church and crowned king of Poland. Lithuania during this reign reached the zenith of her power and extended her dominions to the River Moskwa on the east and to the Black Sea on the south. The union with Poland was nominal at this time, but a real union took place in 1569 when, by the treaty of Lublin, Lithuania ceased to exist politically. From that time to the present the history of Lithuania has been that of Poland.

The absorption of the Livs and other Finnish elements by the Letts has made that branch of the Lithuanian race more or less of a mixed type. The Borussians, or Lithuanians of Prussia, rarely emigrate.

The uninviting nature of the country occupied by the Samoghitians or Lithuanians proper and its inaccessibility, owing to vast tracts of marsh and forest land, helped to preserve the racial characteristics, and the Samoghitian is to-day a distinct type bearing no resemblance to surrounding races. A typical Lithuanian has the features of a Greek and the complexion of a Norseman. They are tall and splendidly proportioned, towering over their Slavic neighbors. The stature and fine physique of the Russian Imperial Guard are due to the fact that it is recruited almost entirely in the Lithuanian provinces. Their fair complexion, long face and clear-cut features make them readily distinguishable from the Slavs, whose squat figures and wide faces are accentuated by the contrast. Their language is very old and primitive and is said to resemble Sanskrit so closely that Lithuanian peasants can understand Sanskrit phrases. Their written literature is very scanty, but their unwritten popular folk-lore is rich in idyllic and lyric songs and poetry of a pastoral variety and melancholy tone. They are very proud of their ancestry and resent being considered Slavs. They claim with pride that most of Poland's great men, Kosciusko, Chodkiewicz, Sienkewicz and others were Lithuanians. Their occupation is agriculture. The land owners have always been Polish or German and business is carried on by Jews and Germans.

Few words are necessary to convince one of the desirability of the Russian-German. He has the industry, thrift and sterling honesty that have made his brother Germans from the Fatherland welcome and successful in this country. He is a picturesque figure clad in sheepskin garments, which add to his appearance of splendid physique. He represents the best type of the agricultural immigrant who comes here to make a home in the far west with the necessary money in his pocket to buy land and give him his start.

The Finns are also an agricultural or pastoral people, and if they possess less money than the Russian-Germans their sturdy physique and willingness to work make their success certain in this country. They work on farms in the northern central states and have been valuable as laborers in the development of the mines of northern Michigan and Wisconsin. The ability of the Finns to withstand the rigors of a northern climate, and their well-known thrift and industry, have suggested the possibility of their being valuable in the agricultural and mining development of Alaska. A colony of Finns in Canada has been very successful in wheat raising on the shores of Great Slave Lake, a latitude once considered scarcely habitable for white men.

The Lithuanians are also agricultural or pastoral in occupation, but in this country are largely employed as laborers in the mines of Pennsylvania and other mining states. Their rugged physique fits them for this rough work, and so long as the industrial demand for unskilled labor keeps up so long will the Lithuanian be valuable as the best type of this class of immigrants.

A careful study of the statistics of immigration and of economic and social conditions in this country will convince any one that there is little to fear from such races as the Russian-German, Finn and Lithuanian properly inspected under our present laws; and that future legislation aiming to cut down the number of undesirable immigrants must be directed toward debarring the competitive and parasitic classes which now crowd our great cities.