Get a new view into your Russian and Ukrainian genealogy

086It’s hard to understand why genealogy is so challenging in the former USSR for many people. Anyone can piece together a few reasons by using Google but that won’t give the full picture.

I thought I knew enough just from the stories from my relatives who were born in Russia and Ukraine. Those stories made me wonder how common these experiences were and how much exaggeration was added into the family stories.

Then, I discovered that these stories weren’t exaggerations nor uncommon by moving away from technology and onto books.

So what is really worth the time and knowledge? Here’s the books I’ve refused to donate nor sell. (And yes, many of these books are available on Kindle.)

Soviet-era Life:

russiansThe Russians by Hendrick Smith

brokenRussia- Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams: A Provocative Look at the Russian People by David K. Shipler

whispThe Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes

World War II (or the Great Patriotic War):

moscowMoscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

Soviet Persecution:

gulagGulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Russia Today:

jorneyRussia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People by Jonathan Dimbleby

lostLost and Found in Russia: Lives in a Post-Soviet Landscape by Susan Richards

reelingReeling in Russia by Fen Montaigne

vodkaVodka, Tears, and Lenin’s Angel: A Young Journalist Discovers the Former Soviet Union by Jennifer Gould

Perception of Americans:

pizzaPizza in Pushkin Square: What Russians Think About Americans and the American Way of Life by Victor Ripp

Collapse of the Soviet Union:

leninLenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Reminick

Comprehensive History:

russiaRussia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

So what’s the point of reading these books? It will give a new understanding why it takes lots of charm to get information from archives, why former USSR-born relatives don’t like talking about the past nor know much about their relatives in the homeland, and why anyone with records saved from the former USSR should feel lucky.

Also, the best part of reading these books is learning how not to put foot in mouth when interacting with potential relatives from the former Soviet Union.

Related posts:

When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality

Top 10 things to never say to potential relatives in the former USSR

Thanks for skimping on your taxes, great-grandpa

borkaIt’s been a challenge to document the life of my great-grandfather until recently. An acquaintance from a forum messaged me out of nowhere with a 1922 census record.

I had to laugh when I realized what I was looking at. My grandmother and mother told me stories of great-grandpa’s stinginess. He went even so far to hide his German marks under his mattress so the “bank couldn’t take his money.”

Luckily for me, he tried to pay as little as possible for his taxes as a tailor in a village outside of Kiev, Ukraine, in 1922.

That census record, showing great-grandpa not paying enough taxes, finally documented that my family really lived in the village where my grandmother was born. It wasn’t just that my great-grandmother was visiting the village when my grandmother was born.

In the last year, the acquaintance looked in the village’s cemetery and couldn’t find any relatives buried there, making me wonder if the family lived there for an extended time. Now that question is answered with the 1922 census record my great-grandpa never thought his great-granddaughter would see 94 years later.

Then the acquaintance poked around in archives and hit the jackpot. He found a document that details my great-grandfather as a leadership member of a Russian Baptist church in the village in 1922. Apparently, it didn’t matter to the Baptist church that great-grandpa wasn’t a loyal taxpayer.

My great-grandparents met in a Baptist church, according to a niece and other relatives. Now I am confident the document finally reveals the name of the church, which still exists in the village that has grown to a town.

By luck, a grand-niece of my grandfather (son-in-law of great-grandpa) lives near this church. I’m awaiting a photo of this church that brought my great-grandparents together.

Getting to this point wasn’t quick and easy. I first met the acquaintance on a forum for the family village, which is now bigger than the town where I live, five years ago. Now that forum is corrupt with malware, according to my computer firewall that blocks me from that forum.

I added the acquaintance as a friend on Russian social network 18 months ago after seeing that he was an active member on, the largest Russian language genealogy forum, and lives in my grandmother’s birthplace.

Then, I asked him to look at the cemeteries in his town for my relatives. Nothing was found but a month ago he sent me a scan of the 1922 census that mentioned my great-grandfather.

The art of success in genealogy is similar to making wine. Rush research in genealogy and the results will be as tasty as overripe grapes shoved in a bottle and poured too quickly.

Old electrical tower leads the way to family graves

blogphotoI was ready to give up hope in finding my great-grandparents’ grave. A friend unsuccessfully attempted three times to find it.

Luckily, a cousin gave me a photo of relatives visiting the grave of my great-grandfather soon after his death. My grandfather couldn’t even attend the funeral after escaping Soviet Ukraine in 1943.

Once my friend I’ll call Valentine analyzed the location of an electrical tower in the photo, he knew he was looking for the grave in the wrong location.

The office that maintains the cemetery in Kiev, Ukraine, was completely useless. With Valentine being an illegal immigrant of Ukraine thanks to him fleeing Russia for political reasons, office staff refused to help him.

Just recently Valentine told me that he temporarily relocated to Kiev. I asked him if he could try to find my great-grandparents’ grave in Baykova Cemetery. I knew their birth and death dates but not their grave’s location in the massive cemetery.

I wasn’t really expecting for Valentine to find the family grave. So many years have passed that I wasn’t sure whether my family maintained the grave.

Valentine realized how challenging the search would be on his first two visits. Then, the third visit brought concern that another family took over the grave site due to the years that have passed. An identical looking grave site with metal fencing and a tall metal cross was found near power lines.

Thanks to analyzing the old and new grave photos on Photoshop, Valentine determined that the discovered grave site was near new power lines but not near the electrical tower standing by my great-grandfather’s grave in the old photo.

That brought a drop of hope that the grave of my great-grandparents could be found under a pile of weeds. Valentine determined that the only possible location was an area of high grass, weeds and bushes. I worried what would be really found.

Just last summer, a granddaughter of my great-grandparents was buried in the cemetery. I assumed the family got another location for the newer family graves and I was making Valentine trek through an overgrown cemetery for a false hope.

With hesitation, I opened my Facebook account in the morning of the fourth visit. I saw Valentine messaged me. I was thinking, here we go again with nothing being found. But then I saw “Вера!!!!!!!!”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Вера я нашёл!!!!!!!!!” (Vera…Vera I found)

I was so excited. Valentine could hardly speak about his emotions on the video he made of the discovery. Not only were the graves of my great-grandparents found, five other relatives were buried at the family grave site, including my great-grandparents’ granddaughter who died last year.

My grandfather was deprived of the right to attend his parents’ funerals but at least I never gave up on finding their resting place. It took some old Soviet-era electrical tower that still stands today to lead me there.

Similar posts:
Message left in a family painting solves a family mystery
An unreal surprise on my birthday

The aftermath of a house fire brings surprising joy

Just four months ago, I was upset to hear that my grandfather’s house burned down to the ground. There went any hope in contacting the current owner to find previous owners who could have known my grandfather, who died 5 years before I was born.

I can’t just jump on a plane and appear in the local property records office to look at records on my grandfather’s property. Grasping onto some hope, I posted a photo of his house on a Facebook page dedicated to his city asking anyone with memories of my grandfather’s house to contact me.

I got a bunch of likes to my post. I wanted to scream, “Stop liking my post. Someone please contact me!”

Three months later, I got more than I wished. A woman living in my grandfather’s city in southern Russia messaged me that her friend’s grandmother bought the house from my grandfather. That came to a complete shock.

He lived in the house until he died. It has been a mystery of what immediately happened to my grandfather’s house after his death. My father, his only child, was living in the USA and would have been arrested for just trying to visit his father. I don’t even want to think about what happened to all of my grandfather’s possessions after his death.

Now, it’s a shock that my grandfather sold his house to two different families in 1960 and stayed in the house as a tenant. Or maybe it shouldn’t be. He was single and 75 years old and most likely overwhelmed by taking care of the house himself.

The woman whose grandmother who was part owner of my grandfather’s house sent me scans of the property sales agreement. This was the last thing I thought I would ever see. Attempting to acquire this document from archives would give chuckles to office staff. Getting communist-era records from Russia is as easy as winning the lottery.

Then, the part owner’s granddaughter told me the truth about the condition of the house my grandfather had so much pride in. The house was so big that it was split into two properties. Only one half of the property burned to the ground.

A half of a house still standing sounds strange but that house has yet to be knocked down for some ugly, modern-looking apartment complex on the city’s main street, a fear of my grandfather.

I still don’t have one photo of this house from the inside. I’ll get my wish to see the inside in 10 days. The granddaughter will send me pictures her mother has been keeping in her home in Ukraine.

She also knows the other half owner of the property who bought it from my grandfather. The man still lives there 56 years later. My grandfather’s house must be quite the home.

With just searching his last name on a Russian online address book, I have found the other owner’s full name and birth date. He is almost 80 years old and will need to receive a charming letter to be inspired to pen me a letter.

This man is the only person alive who could tell me about my grandfather in detail. With the right letter, he could bring more life to my grandfather. Why give up now when I got surprised by just hoping?


An early birthday present for a Russian adoptee- a sister

The best surprises in life come near birthdays. My grandmother’s sister was found alive 66 years after disappearing from her family a few days before my birthday. Photos of my grandfather’s grave in southern Russia arrived by e-mail on my birthday.

Now, I am the giver of a great early birthday present that I wasn’t sure could arrive in time. Two days ago, a woman born in Russia and adopted in the USA asked for my help. I was nervous because her 18th birthday would be in 3 weeks.

Hearing the stories of adoptees on Facebook, I know the 18th birthday is the big day for many adoptees who know of their adoptions to begin searching for their birth families. The adoptee I’ll call Anna said she only knew about her birth family from her adoption papers.

Thankfully, I kept up with my Russian from my childhood so I could absorb everything in her original and translated documents. Sometimes the tiniest details on legal documents are the most important.

Anna was born in a village and that village name repeats throughout Russia. I couldn’t find the region where her birth village exists. That was a major problem for the search until I read the official stamp to certify the documents.

I learned the exact location of her village from the stamp, giving me more hope the birth family could be found. I searched women with Anna’s birth surname who were living in the family village on popular social network

Only three women had active accounts that allowed messages from strangers. I sent a simple message of looking for Anna’s birth mother who had a daughter in 1998 without saying this was an adoption search. I did the same on more popular social network

A 20-year-old woman very quickly responded to my message. I almost didn’t contact her because I thought she would be too young to know anything.

But lo and behold, the woman I’ll call Svetlana was her full-blood sister and only sibling of Anna. Sadly, the mother is very ill and the father died three years ago.

The best advantage of this sisterly reunion is that Svetlana knows English. A common language and Skype will bring Anna and Svetlana back together as siblings.

Now, the countdown begins for Anna’s entrance into adulthood when she turns 18 years old in less than 3 weeks. She has been blessed with a wonderful American family and now she will be blessed with knowing her Russian family.

Two days ago, Anna wondered whether it would be possible to find her family. Now, she gets to look forward to her 18th birthday, knowing the best gifts this birthday will be her sister and the chance to acquaint herself with an armload of relatives.

Svetlana has lived most of her life as an only child. She probably doesn’t remember celebrating a birthday with Anna. Now Svetlana has her sister back and she will have many birthdays to share with her little sister.

Related posts:

On a journey to connect Russian adoptees with their homeland family
Love and Faith reconnect Russian adoptee with birth family after 16 years
Build the best mousetrap to find long-lost family this holiday season

Great-grandpa thought his secrets would never see the light of day

My great-grandfather was given a great name by his parents- Tixon. He was true to the meaning of his name- quiet.

Hardly anyone knew much about his life even though he lived 89 years. He probably thought keeping to himself and not talking much would keep his life and secrets under wraps.

Then me, the nosey great-granddaughter, started questioning his life. Why didn’t he marry a woman from his village? Why did he marry my great-grandmother at 39 years old? It was awfully strange for a man born in the 1880s to wait so long to get married and have kids.

Then his secret marriage and child were finally revealed, thanks to a researcher I’ve known for 5 years in Kursk, Russia. I have pestered him for years to find other records on his family due to many village church records missing from regional archives. Finally, the researcher found duplicate church records.

Out came great-grandpa’s secret marriage to Clavdia in 1905, followed by the birth of his son, Constantin, in 1906.

For years, I have asked older relatives whether my great-grandfather was married before my great-grandmother. He kept this under good wraps. 

My great-grandfather even brought his younger daughter to a small city near his family village before World War II. Does this daughter, who is still living, know that she had a half-brother? Was the topic of another wife and child avoided during that visit? Did the wife and son die young?

These questions can’t be asked of the daughter because talking about the past just raises her blood pressure. This daughter also has the same problems with secrets. She won’t reveal the true identity of her oldest daughter’s father. I’m awaiting DNA test results to put an end to that mystery.

But my great-grandfather wasn’t quiet about everything. He complained his parents had too many children in a letter to his own children. After coming home after a long visit to Siberia to check for business possibilities, his childhood home was filled with more babies.

He wasn’t exaggerating about “this problem”. The last sibling documented in church records was born when my great-grandfather was 28 years old and his mother was in her late 40s. She gave birth to 12 children from 1880-1909.

Now, the assumption was that many of his siblings died young because he only spoke of three brothers and a sister in his letter to his two children in the USA.

Then, my researcher discovered a marriage record for Alexandra, a military record for Nikita and a baptism record with Kosma as a godfather of a nephew, all siblings never mentioned by my great-grandfather.

More information is on its way when my researcher has time later this year to look at more records. I refused to give up on learning about my great-grandpa’s family so soon enough I could be in contact with his family after losing contact during World War II.

Reuniting of two families after 115 years teaches important life lessons

My plans for the usual family gathering for Memorial Day weekend were completely turned around in just one e-mail message.

A great-great-granddaughter of my great-great-grandmother’s sister asked whether her family could come visit mine. She has come many times to the USA from Saint Petersburg, Russia, but we haven’t been able to arrange a visit in the four years we’ve known each other.

Without hesitation, I dropped my plans for a visit from my 4th cousin whom I only know from pictures and e-mail messages. I was excited for many days.

The excitement escalated when my Russian flag arrived in the mail from Then the anxiety kicked in. Will they be comfortable in my home? Will their daughter get along with my kids? What will we do? What will I feed them?

Luckily over the years our families were separated, we have kept similar heritage. My great-great-grandmother married another German Lutheran from current day Poland;  my great-grandmother married a Russian; my grandmother married a Ukrainian and my Ukrainian-born mother married a Russian. My 4th-cousin’s great-great-grandmother’s descendants were all Russians.

So the anxiety about hosting Russian cousins over a weekend could have been worse. There wasn’t a language barrier to stress over. Anything they didn’t know in English was spoken in Russian, a language that I learned as a child and maintained as an adult.

But then I got anxious about making sure everything went well. I forgot to put the Russian flag in the bay window of my living room as promised but my sons welcomed them with the Russian flag. We rushed home from their school after my cousin called to tell me she was in our driveway.

Then everything went the same as many friends with kids who have visited. My 6-year-old son Andy is crying his Russian 3-year-old cousin is taking his toys. She dumped a big box of Legos and my sons acted as if they never do that on a regular basis.

The girl knows Legos, Spiderman, Darth Vader, Mr. Potatohead and the Toy Story movies. She was excited to meet Andy because she knows Andy from the Toy Story movies. She called my sons мальчик (“malchick” boy in Russian), the same habit my oldest son had when he didn’t know a boy’s name.

She doesn’t want to eat much nor go to bed. She’s banging on a door at bedtime because she wants to play with two boys whom can’t speak Russian.

This child is no different from my children even though they live in different countries, speak different languages and are growing up in different cultures. The parents ate the same food as I, used the same technology, learned to speak English and complained about the same problems in life.

We are the same people with some differences, thanks to the Iron Curtain crumbling and many people of the former USSR opening themselves to the world on the Internet. But never forget that even if it’s 90 degrees outside, Russians will still need their hot tea.

I spent more time worrying about things that didn’t matter before their arrival than appreciating the fact that our families haven’t seen each other in 115 years. Even if the clock was turned back to 1900 and the same visit happened, the same feeling of family would be there.

Family always will be family, no matter how much time has passed or what century people are living in. Some people won’t care about their close relatives nor their 4th cousins. Those who do care will be the family worth finding.

Related post:
The mystery of a great-great-grand aunt gets solved