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Russians aren’t the villains of this high-tech immigrant story

From left to right: Authors Daniel Satinsky, Sheila Puffer, and Daniel McCarthy. Their new book casts light on immigrants from the former Soviet Union who made significant contributions to the U.S. technology sector. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In American popular culture, Russians and former Soviets are often thought of as villains, spies, or hackers. Ivan Drago in the 1985 film Rocky IV, the main characters on the FX series The Americans, and the computer technician in the 1995 James Bond flick Goldeneye come to mind.

A new book written by three scholars of Russian studies from Northeastern presents an entirely different picture, one that casts light on immigrants from the former Soviet Union who made significant contributions to the U.S. technology sector.

“We wanted to portray people as they really are, rather than as stereotypes that often appear,” co-author Daniel Satinsky, who earned his law degree at Northeastern, said at an event on Northeastern’s Boston campus earlier this semester.

The book, Hammer and Silicon, chronicles the personal and professional experiences of more than 150 highly educated people who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States over the past four decades. It serves not as a statistical study of these immigrants’ contributions to the U.S. technology sector, but rather as a vast collection of anecdotal evidence that demonstrates their impact—largely in the immigrants’ own words.

“Immigrants from the former Soviet Union contributed significantly to the U.S. innovation economy, but those contributions have been undiscovered, unrecognized, and unpublicized,” said Daniel McCarthy, co-author and an Emeritus University Distinguished Professor. “This book is an attempt to bring those contributions to light.”

Who were these immigrants?

The authors interviewed 157 people for the book, the title of which is a reference to both the bygone symbol of the USSR, the hammer and sickle, and the silicon chip, which symbolizes the United States’ high-tech industry. Interviewees included Russian scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who settled in either the Boston area or Silicon Valley in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The authors conducted the interviews from January 2015 to March 2016.

Some worked at technology giants Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. Others paved their own entrepreneurial paths by launching startups in the high-tech sector.  

Kira Makagon, an entrepreneur from Ukraine, co-founded a software company called Octane that was acquired for $3.2 billion. David Yang, who is originally from Armenia, founded nine companies including ABBYY, which provides artificial-intelligence based technology services for businesses. The book brings to light scientists in the Boston area who have contributed to path-breaking research and discovery at universities, hospitals, and medical schools, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies.   

The book also highlights the experiences and contributions of four Northeastern faculty members: Slava Epstein, Vladimir Torchilin, Dmitri Krioukov, and the late Alexander Gorlov, who died in 2016. Epstein discovered a new antibiotic with the ability to combat drug-resistant pathogens, research that gained international attention. Gorlov invented a dam-free water turbine, which won the 2001 American Society of Mechanical Engineers Thomas A. Edison Patent Award and is now being used to power more than 500 homes on the Korean island of Jindo.

“We have ample evidence in our book of immigrants getting the job done,” said Sheila Puffer, co-author and University Distinguished Professor, whose sentiment echoed a line from the hit Broadway play Hamilton: The Musical.

Three waves of emigration

Russian intellectuals and their families emigrated from the former Soviet Union in three waves following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. The law abolished a system that set quotas for the number of immigrants based on their countries, and introduced a new system that placed caps on the number of visas for immigrants based on their hemispheres. The new system gave preference to reuniting families and led to the United States’ recruitment of many more highly-skilled professionals.

The first wave, from 1972 to 1986, included many Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitic sentiment in their homeland. The second wave, from 1987 to 1999, coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rocky transition from a planned economy to a free market, and included researchers who left as government support for research plummeted. The third wave, from 2000 to 2015, came amid the expansion of exchange programs and opportunities for people with technical training from the former Soviet Union to work and study in the United States.

Challenges and triumph

Immigrants interviewed for the book shared the difficulties they faced in adapting to U.S. culture and workplaces, as well as the joy they felt from having more freedom to pursue their personal and professional interests.

How immigrants adapted to the United States varied based on the wave in which they arrived. For example, the first wave of immigrants included Jewish refugees who could depend on their family members and social service agencies for support when they arrived. The students and researchers in the second wave who immigrated alone didn’t have this same support.

Some immigrants who arrived in the first and second waves  didn’t have a strong command of the English language or American culture, nor were they familiar with making everyday decisions such as going to the supermarket and opening bank accounts.

“The whole process of making choices and being a consumer was difficult for many people,” Satinsky said.

Because private businesses were illegal in the Soviet Union, Russian intellectuals who arrived to the United States before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 had no experience working for such companies. Many worked at large institutions and research labs, but most were assigned to those positions, so they didn’t have much experience job-hunting or promoting themselves to employers. Many adapted quickly to this culture in the United States because they were inventive and motivating, the co-author said, but it was still new to them when they arrived. Researchers who arrived in the second wave after the fall of the Soviet Union faced cultural barriers, too, and learned much about U.S. culture from their academic environments.

“For many, the idea of a scientist becoming an entrepreneur was entirely new,” Satinsky said.

Many interviewees described having to develop communication and teamwork skills to adapt to working in the United States, but acquiring these abilities was easier for later immigrants who were more familiar with U.S. business culture and who had worked in their home countries for U.S. and multinational firms.

“This is the most sophisticated work I’ve seen on the experience of highly educated immigrants making the transition between such different worlds,” AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in the book’s foreword.

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