Russian Research Tips
9/28/2009
Family history's iron curtain is lifting, and roots research in the former Soviet Union is now a reality.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of roots research in the former Soviet Union is limited access to records. Miriam Weiner, president of Routes to Roots, has been conducting archive research there since 1991 and warns the work isn't easy: Records aren't fully microfilmed, organized or digitized as they are here, and finding aids are scarce. "It's very often difficult to determine what records exist for a specific town," she says. Worse, some records have been destroyed, which means your family tree might be stunted by gaps in the archives' collections.

Available Records

Record-keeping in the Russian Empire mostly resembled the practices elsewhere in Europe. Vital records were the purview of the church before the government stepped in. Older parish registers are usually held by an archive, while more recent ones (within the last 75 years) are in civil registration offices, says Kahlile Mehr, an FHL collection development specialist. The government took 10 poll-tax censuses, referred to as revision lists (revizskie skazki), between 1719 and 1859. They're organized by place, then by social class, such as nobility (dvorianstvo), peasants (krest'iane), Cossacks (kazaki) and Jews (yevreyski). Surviving revision lists are in regional and historical archives, as are remaining copies of the 1897 census of the entire empire.

Some records have been microfilmed by the FHL. Its Estonian records represent the most complete film collection for any Eastern European country. But that's the exception—the library has several thousand church books for Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, close to 25,000 for Ukraine and 45,000 for fewer than a dozen Russian provinces, plus assorted tax, census and other records. To see exactly which records are available, try a place search of the FHL catalog. You'll also find a good rundown of available Jewish records at www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/eefaq.html.

Writing to Archives

Another option is to write to the archives—success on this front is increasing. Some national archives, including Belarus and Ukraine, have even put instructions and fees on their Web sites. But responses from the archives vary. Weiner says your level of success will depend on the archives' location, facilities, equipment and communications. You also have to provide detailed information about the searches you want and send the fees (nonrefundable, of course) in advance. Your best bet, when possible, is to determine whether the records you want exist before you request archive research. You'll find some inventories on archives' Web sites and through the FHL. Jewish researchers have an excellent resource in the Routes to Roots Foundation's Eastern European Archival Database: It catalogs surviving archival records in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine.

Hiring a Researcher

When microfilmed records are unavailable and the archives' response is dubious, your wisest choice is probably to hire a professional. But Weiner urges caution. "It's like the Wild West with people setting up research services," she says. Some researchers are seizing a moneymaking opportunity, peddling services to foreigners regardless of the researchers' experience or qualifications. You should always get references from previous clients and a written agreement that outlines costs, the method of payment, a time frame for completing the research and the format of the researcher's report.

Research Travel

The final option, now that the doors to your ancestral homeland are finally open, is traveling there to research yourself. If that's your plan, however, Weiner warns that you might not get the results you hope for. The archives' staff likely won't speak English, and they don't work at the speed we're accustomed to. You might travel those thousands of miles only to be told that the archives will send you an answer later.

But if you do decide to go, preparation is key. Contact the archives well in advance to find out the facility's hours, policies and holdings. Bring a translator with you—it's tedious work, and you'll want to accomplish as much as possible in the time you have.

Still, these challenges are little cause for disappointment or discouragement. Today's maybe is better than yesterday's nyet. "Who ever dreamed we could even do this?" says Weiner. Indeed, many Americans with roots in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could barely imagine these new family history possibilities, or the chance to walk in their ancestors' footsteps. The iron curtain is history—and you can finally reclaim your family's past for the future.

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