Massive Soviet Army WWII database tells the story of millions of soldiers

The Russian government is sharing the joy of the 70th anniversary for the Soviet Army’s victory over the German army with the world. This anniversary is being celebrated with the opening of an impressive database.

Memory of a Nation 1941-1945 has more than 50 million records on Soviet Army WWII soldiers and that includes 2 million records on locations of soldiers’ burial sites.

The cherry on top of this tasty Russian torte is that paths of individual soldiers are shown on maps with details on their unit’s activities. It is so thrilling to look up my grandfather’s brother on this database and see the path he took with his unit through Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany and learn the medals he earned on his way to the Soviet Army’s victory.

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I do not have the luck of finding records of my grandfather in this database. He was a “traitor” for getting captured by the German army, then escaping a German POW camp and finding a way out of the Soviet Ukraine during the war.

Every effort to find his records have failed after contacting military archives in Ukraine and Russia. Now that effort to contact military archives is no longer needed, thanks to this database.

The only caveat in using this database is that only keywords in Russian can be used in the search engine. Names and other keywords can be easily translated on Google Translate. This website can be viewed through Google Translate here.

To easily work through the website, here are some simple translations: фамилия: last name; имя: first name; отчество: patronymic name (middle name from the father, i.e. Ivanovich); год рождения: birth year; место рождения: place of birth; and дата выбытия: date of service ending.

Out of curiosity, I searched my great-grandfather’s Russian birth village to see who would appear in the database. This may be an easier way to find relatives in the database if it is easier to translate names of villages and small towns than complicated Russian surnames.

If people who are uncomfortable with Russian websites still aren’t convinced of the database’s value, here is an article in English, explaining the database in detail.

The effort to use this database will prove to be well-worth it in results for many people.

Top 10 tips for charming the guardians of communist-era records

I didn’t know birth, marriage and death records were open records in Russia and Ukraine for the communist-era until a few years ago. It takes more than saying “Please, give me information on grandpa.” to get a peek at these records.

Some registry offices that possess these records have friendly  and helpful staff while other offices have staff who find every excuse to block your efforts to get information.

So here’s how to charm the keepers of these records:

1. Make sure you have complete and accurate information on your relatives. Don’t ruin your chances with getting information by providing “I’m kind of sure” information on your relatives.

2. Do research the place of birth, marriage and death of your relatives. You can search for the places on Google and see what details webpages give on the area. This is highly recommended to make sure you send your request to the correct registry office. Simply use Google to search загс (Russian and Ukrainian for registry office) and the town or city of your relatives in Russian or Ukrainian.

2. Get your records proving ancestry to your relative together, scan them and post them to Google + Photo Albums, with the album set as share privately. Make sure to write small descriptions of each record and  include a scan of your passport or driver’s license to prove identity in the album. Provide a link to the album in your written request.

3. Never, ever mention the word genealogy or any word related to genealogy when you e-mail or mail your request. The office could reject your request.

4. Don’t ask for official copies of records. You will be sent to the Consulate General of Ukraine or Russia. If you need official reprints of records, make a request for information at the registry office to confirm the record exists first.

5. Make sure your e-mail account can handle Cyrillic. I had to open an account on mail.ru because my American e-mail account turned Russian into random letters and symbols. Copy and paste any random Russian or Ukrainian page of information into an e-mail message to yourself and see how it comes back to you.

6. Avoid using words such as want and need. It is best to use sentences that show gratitude such as “I would be so grateful if you could search for_________________. ” “Your efforts are greatly appreciated.” “Any information you could provide would be appreciated.”

7. Do not advertise you are a foreigner with an e-mail subject line such as “Request from USA” in English nor Russian. It is best to state you are unable to visit the office personally to avoid invitations to make your request in person.

8. It is highly recommended to send your e-mail message or letter in Russian or Ukrainian. Many offices still do not work in English. Ask for help on a Facebook genealogy page, visit a Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church or high school or college that teaches the languages to find help with translation.

9. Do not give the registry office a time limit to respond to your request even if it sounds innocent such as “I look forward to hearing from you in the next few weeks.”

10. Show gratitude no matter what were the results of the search. Send a thank note by postal mail or e-mail after the results are sent. You never know when you will have to deal with that office again.

Good luck!

Getting one record from the 1930s can be like a box of chocolates

Dealing with the Russian and Ukrainian registry offices that guard the communist-era birth, marriage and death records is like a box of chocolates. The chocolates may look the same but you never know what you’ll get until you bite.

That’s a great summary of what I just experienced over three e-mail messages with a small registry office in central Russia. I was so excited when I got a response to my request for my great-great-grandmother’s death record in 2 business days but it turned out biting in that chocolate gave me zero satisfaction.

I received a scanned letter I could hardly read, due to the technical Russian language. Thanks to my friend in Moscow, I learned I needed to fill out the attached form. I retyped any words I didn’t know into this Russian online keyboard and then translated those words on Google Translate.

I printed the form and filled out the form in Russian, thinking this would be a simple process. Then came the second e-mail message.

I learned the registry office thought I was a Russian citizen living in the USA so the office told me to make my request with the Russian Consulate General (the office that reports to the Russian Embassy), thanks to help from a member on Facebook group Genealogy Translations.

It was quite comical that the staff at the registry office were convinced I was a true Russian. I was told that Google Translate butchers the Russian language. Couldn’t the staff tell that I was an American who couldn’t write proper Russian?

So off I went to call the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of Russia in New York City. No one was answering the phone but I won’t complain. The Russian Embassy has forwarded responses from Russian government offices without a charge for years.

Frustrated I sent one final e-mail message that I am not a Russian citizen but an American. I told the registry office that I would like to know if the record exists before I make a request with the Consulate General.

Quickly an e-mail message came back from the registry office the next day, explaining the proper procedure for applying for civil records and telling me the record doesn’t exist.

I don’t know who I should be mad at, my great-grandfather who couldn’t remember his mother’s death year or the person who supposedly lost the record.

My last experience with a registry office was in eastern Ukraine, a comical experience. A regional archive office told me my great-grandparents’ marriage record from 1890 was sitting in a registry office.

Just imagine going to an American registry office for a marriage record from 1890. The staff immediately will start coughing to cover their laughing or will run to the manager’s office to laugh their heads off.

I got information from the marriage record unofficially for a price I didn’t enjoy from a researcher to avoid the strict requirements to prove ancestry and identity.

This is the former USSR, where birth, marriage and death records are somehow government secrets to protect national security. In the past four years, I have yet to get  a copy of my family’s communist-era civil records.

Still I am happy with the information I have obtained over the years from registry offices. Communist-era records are open with the right charm that hasn’t involved a bribe yet. Just maybe I know what I am doing.

Next post: How to make successful requests to registry offices

Find Long-Lost Relatives from the Former USSR Simply in English

Most of the English-speaking world knows about Facebook but where are the social people of the former USSR? Don’t jump to answer Facebook because it ranks a shocking 4th for social networks in Russia.

The most popular network for Russians, Ukrainians and others from the former USSR has one great advantage for the English-speaking world: great search capabilities in English. I didn’t know this great resource existed until my newly discovered and long-lost family asked me to join the network.

I feel so lucky to know about this network simply called VK. Just a month ago, a Russian woman on VK from my father’s southern Russia birthplace found my paternal great-grandparents’ grave from the 1940s, hardly a simple task in the massive and overgrown cemetery. She is now looking for graves of my other great-grandparents and my father’s cousin’s brother, all out of the kindness of her heart.

The search capabilities are beyond what is offered on Facebook. Users of VK can be searched by country, city, town, village, gender, selected age bracket, political views, military service, universities attended and places lived.

The best search capability for those looking for long-lost family is being able to type names of small towns and villages and see the places pop up in Russian with their regions and neighborhoods. Names of towns and villages duplicate throughout the former USSR so it is great to know the right place is being searched.

Users can find everyone living in certain towns and villages with the results provided in English. Most users on VK have photos, status updates, and lists of their friends and family available to view by anyone on VK. Search results even tell whether the users are currently online.

If trying out this social network hasn’t tempted you, here are the numbers by country: Russia: 111,443,494; Ukraine: 30,393,517; Belarus: 5,762,155; Latvia: 407,229 people ;  Lithuania: 213,390; Estonia: 283,168;  and Moldova: 964,464.

In all, the social network has a total of 280 million accounts worldwide. VK has become so popular that it is the second most visited website in Russia.

Start your search here even without a VK account. Here’s to finding long-lost family from the former USSR in the easiest format online.

Google Translate helps reveal important communist-era records

I was ready to spend 250 Euros for research on my great-grandfather’s family until poor translations from Google Translate forced a researcher to reveal lesser known communist-era records.

The researcher sent me scans of a sample census record from World War II for my great-grandfather’s central Russian region. Then I noticed that the name of the record sounded familiar. That’s because a municipal archive already checked the same records for my relatives in their longtime family village.

Now, my 250 Euros are still sitting in my bank account because the researcher killed any chance I would need him to research my family. Being organized keeps you sane and financially wise in genealogy.

Now, I am getting another letter to municipal archives ready to research my family in a nearby small city. I recalled a granddaughter of my grandmother’s sister telling me that her grandmother and our great-grandfather visited our great-great-grandmother at her new residence.

So I am hoping that children of my great-great-grandmother moved with their mother to the same city. This family has been so difficult to research past the early 1900s that it is a perfect example of a brickwall.

Now, this frustrating and funny situation  with the researcher has inspired me. I have found an e-mail address for the registry office that should have the death record for my great-great-grandmother. I posted documents proving ancestry securely on a Google album.

It’s a miracle to find such a small Russian registry office with an e-mail account that works. So many times my messages to Russian archives have bounced back to me.

Now, my circus performance will be getting my letter to the municipal archives that has the World War II census records for my great-great-grandmother’s small city. The archive office’s address doesn’t have a street address.

Thanks to technology of the U.S. Postal Service, my letters to Russia that don’t have street addresses get returned to me. I have an e-mail address for a government office in that area that could help me but I’ll have to charm every inch of their soul.

I hope the story from my grand aunt’s granddaughter will help get information on my great-grandfather’s family. These census records called похозяйственной книги, which translates to household books, are the only Soviet Era records that could crumble this brickwall.

Other archives may have the same communist-era census records as переписи населения, which translates to backyard census. The communist government loved to track their citizens and that comes with great benefits for Russian genealogy.

These records are mostly at local archives, which report to the regional archives. Information on contacting these smaller archives are usually listed on regional archive websites.

Use the Russian phrases of похозяйственной книги and переписи населения and you will get the attention of archive staff. Then you may get surprised by what can be found in these records.

Last time, I got full names and birth dates of my great-grandfather’s favorite sister, husband and three children. Now, I am hoping to hit the jackpot one more time to avoid the restrictions at Russian registry offices for communist-era records.

Roll in hay in 1830s adds a big gap to the family tree

I was so thrilled when I discovered my great-great-grandmother’s maiden name after piecing together information after a few years. But thanks to her grandfather’s indiscretion in a barn or a field when he was 50 years old, the family tree always will be incomplete.

A few years ago, I asked a researcher to study my great-great-grandmother’s surname in the family village from 1880-1919. Nothing exciting was discovered. Her siblings nor her father’s siblings were found in church records.

I just assumed records went missing and were damaged over the years. Now I finally have the answer why I will never know about my great-great-grandmother’s siblings and her paternal aunts and uncles.

The out-of-wedlock birth of her father in 1835 resulted in the Russian Orthodox Church not acknowledging his birth nor his children’s births. Don’t mess with the laws of the Russian Orthodox Church, which still looks down on women who wear pants to church.  Too bad great-great-great-great-grandpa wouldn’t marry the nameless woman he got pregnant.

Thanks to the open mind of the father of my great-great-grandmother, I was able to learn about her ancestors, sadly with the horrible two-generation gap of information. My great-great-grandmother inherited land of her paternal grandfather from her father, giving information to help connect the family tree back to the 1640s.

It is disappointing that I will not ever find descendants of my great-great-grandmother’s close relatives. But I am grateful for having a professional researcher in Kursk Region who knows how to get around the challenges of religious politics of Russian genealogy.

Another researcher would have laughed his way to the bank with my money after telling me the research couldn’t be completed with missing records.

The silver lining on this cloud was learning that my Korostelev family came from Voronezh. There goes another pin on the map of Russia for my ancestral roots.

Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

It has taken me years to figure out how to search the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian even though I grew up in a Russian-speaking home. Now, I finally feel I can search the Internet like a native speaker, of course with the help of Google Translate as my aid.

Here are some tips that will eliminate the aggravations of searching in Russian and Ukrainian for non-native speakers and maybe find the hidden gems.

1. If you are not getting good results by searching people in this format: Ivan Vasilievich Ivanov (Russian: Иван Васильевич Иванов and Ukrainian: Іван Васильович Іванов), then search for Ivanov Ivan Vasilievich (Russian: Иванов Иван Васильевич and Ukrainian: Іванов Іван Васильович). This doesn’t make any sense to most people but a lot of times Russians and Ukrainians are referred by their last name, then first name and patronymic name on websites.

2. The same reverse situation is true for addresses. Russians and Ukrainians put street and lane before the chosen street name. If you search for “Lenin Street, Smolensk” the results will be limited compared to “Street Lenin, Smolensk”.

3. Don’t assume you have found information on a family village unless you see the place referred as село or деревня (Ukrainian: селище, містечко and селище).  I assumed at times I was looking at information on my family village until I noticed the place was referred as a город (city). A lot of villages are written as c., м. or дер. and then the village name.

4. Don’t let Russian grammar confuse you. My family village of  Ивановское will be also written as ИвановскогоThe end spellings of peoples’ names and places will change depending on the grammar case. That’s why Moscow (Russian: Москвa) will be written as Москве sometimes.

5. Don’t ever use letters from English-language keyboards to search in Russian. My first name is written as Bepa in Russian. When I write this using my English-language keyboard, I get zero results in Russian. In the Russian language, the print letters e, y, o, p, a, k, x,c, E, T and M are very similar to Cyrillic letters but search engines will pick up that these are not Cyrillic letters.

6. If you have found a website that appears to have a lot of information on your family or topic, narrow down your searches to that website by using your “Russian keywords” site: http://_________________________.

7. If you would rather find information through pictures before clicking on link after link after link, search Google Images. Each picture is linked to the websites from where Google lifted them. This may be the easiest way to search if seeing everything in Cyrillic would make you crazy.

8. At times, the website you are viewing may turn into nonsense symbols. So read this post-  Say goodbye to Оплата получена– before you start getting aggressive in searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian.

9. If you click on the Google Translate link next to search results, don’t forget to edit webpage names when you bookmark. You’ll get a list of bookmarks named Google Translate, otherwise.

10. I highly suggest having a firewall and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware installed on your computer and/or devices before you go click crazy on Russian and Ukrainian websites. These websites seemed to be filled with malware and viruses.

I hope your searches are fun and filled with surprising gems of information.