I have previously blogged about the massive impact that Ayn Rand had as the leading modern popularizer of libertarianism and the recent controversy over whether she is an asset or liability for free market advocates today. An interesting question (at least to me) is whether Rand was the most influential Russian immigrant to the United States. To my mind, her only serious competitors for the title are aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, who designed the first mass-produced helicopter, among other achievements, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov. I exclude cultural figures like composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who came to the US late in life, but did most of their important work elsewhere. Like Rand, Nabokov and Sikorsky left Russia in large part because of ideological opposition to the communist regime. Interestingly, Sikorsky was precisely the type of anti-communist inventor and entrepreneur who could have been the hero of an Ayn Rand novel, but for the fact that he was a very religious Orthodox Christian. Nabokov has far more “high culture” cache than Rand and his novels have greater technical merit. But I think it’s clear that Rand has influenced the world views of far more people; she certainly has had many more readers. Even among those who have read Nabokov, I doubt that many have significantly changed their views on any important moral or political issues as a result.
Google founder Sergei Brin is a dark horse candidate. But I think that internet search engine technology was likely to develop in a roughly google-like direction even without Brin’s distinctive contributions.
Are there any other candidates I’m missing – besides Senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh, of course?
UPDATE: Commenters reasonably point out that I omitted some important candidates, such as Irving Berlin, primarily because I had not bothered to check whether these people (mostly Russian Jews) were born in Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. I think it’s fairly clear that some of the others mentioned (e.g. – Isaac Asimov), had a lot less influence than Rand. Asimov was a great science fiction writer, but his influence was largely limited to that field (he did write many non-SF books, but they had little lasting impact). Still others (e.g. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Golda Meir) fall under my category of people who made their major achievements outside the US.
Finally, I tend to attribute greater individual influence to those who fundamentally changed the world views of large numbers of people than to innovators in the arts or in technology (except in the rare cases where it can be shown that the technology in question would not have been developed in similar form within a few years anyway). In my view, great influence is a matter of unique impact, rather than contributions that were likely to be interchangeable with those of other similarly situated people. Obviously, other theories of influence are possible, and I’m not going to argue for my approach in detail – at least not in this post.