Declassified file reveals relative’s full story on journey to the gulags

So far, I’ve had a general idea about the experience of my grandmother’s first husband being sent to the gulag from family stories, books on the gulag and an extraction of information from the regional Office of the Federal Security Service.

A researcher who has been visiting archives in southern Russia told me so much more can be uncovered on his case since 75 years have passed. The researcher herself viewed her own relatives’ cases and was willing to do the same for me.

Nothing shocks me after what I have read about the gulag but the file read as if it came from Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum. The first husband of my grandmother, Vladimir, was arrested with his half-brother, Ivan, in 1932.

Here’s how the investigators got the husband’s confession:

Vladimir: I did not conduct anti-Soviet activities.
Ivan: My brother is hostile to the Soviets and, like me, conducted anti-Soviet agitation.
Vladimir: My brother is lying.
Ivan: Vladimir, I am your half-brother and I have confessed everything. I am your brother and cannot lie to you and you must confess everything.
Vladimir: Yes, now I plead guilty. I conducted anti-Soviet agitation. I was in a counter-revolutionary organization. Before, I gave false testimony, but now I will tell the truth.
Letters from abroad really came to me. In 1926, there was a letter from Bulgaria from a former white officer with the rank of ensign, Stefan Ivanovich Stublienko. He wrote that he lives badly, where his brother and father are missing.

The crimes of these brothers were being possession of 1,000 rubles of the gold currency from tsarist minting, expressing to acquaintances their intention to flee abroad and communicating through the postal mail to a foreign-living relative.

It didn’t help Vladimir that my grandmother didn’t support him, a typical situation during the Stalin era, when he was father of her two kids.

“I can hide the ends in the water. I have always secretly told my bank director, Vasiliy, about upcoming strikes, meetings among bank employees, and the latter was always warned about it in due time and, however, no one until this day knows anything about it,” my grandmother told investigators about an alleged conversation with her then ex-husband (who isn’t my grandfather).

For their crimes, the brothers were sentenced to three years at Lodeynoye Pole in St. Petersburg Region, one of the worst camps. Luckily, Vladimir was released a year early at age 56 after spending two years chopping trees down for firewood and other products. He made the hall of fame for productivity in the camp.

Then three years later, he was arrested again. This time, he confessed: “I carried on my counter-revolutionary activities more actively, spreading rumors about a quick war and the destruction of Soviet power.”

Vladimir also confessed that he expressed regret about the Soviet government killing of Chief of General Staff Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky.

Those confessions cost Vladimir another 10 years of his life to a gulag in Siberia  near the border of China. He was forced to build the Baikal–Amur Mainline of the Trans-Siberian Railway. A year later, he wrote a letter, begging to review his case, but a confession was a confession.

Sadly, nothing in Vladimir’s file reveals whether he survived his last sentence. He would have been 68 years old if he served the full sentence.

My researcher contacted the Federal Penitentiary Service in Moscow for more information. The office responded only relatives who can prove ancestry with documents can receive the information. That means I can’t learn more about him until the law changes.

His story is not forgotten for his family. I found Sergey, a great-grandson of Vladimir and Ivan’s brother, Vasiliy, on social network ok.ru. Sergey is thrilled to learn the details of the cases and all the biographical information collected by the NKVD on his great-great-uncles.

Thanks to this project for the photo of the Lodeynoye Pole gulag.

Related posts:
Declassified records reveal details of a family secret
Unsealed records unveil the bigger story behind a family’s persecution
Database of political terror victims in the USSR explodes past 3 million

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Major updates to Cemetery Databases and Best Genealogy Forums pages

Thanks to the surge of interest in genealogy in Russia and Ukraine, more resources are appearing online. That results in many new additions to the Cemetery Databases and Best Genealogy Forums pages.

I really didn’t expect to find many new databases for the Cemetery Databases page but a trend is spreading in Russia and other former USSR countries. Cemetery databases are appearing more online to build up cemetery maintenance businesses as more interest develops in genealogy.

It is a complete blessing to be able to find cemeteries documented online in Russia, Ukraine and other former USSR countries. Death records cannot be obtained in Russia until 100 years have passed and in Ukraine until 75 years have passed.

Many of the databases are in Russian but I explain on the Cemetery Databases page on how to use the websites with browser translators such as Google Translate.

The same is the case for the Best Genealogy Forums page. Those who truly want to make breakthroughs in their genealogy research need to try to use these forums in Russian and Ukrainian. Apps for browser translation really open opportunities to find relatives in the former USSR and fellow genealogy enthusiasts who will be eager to help you.

I repeatedly say this on my blog because one major mistake I made. Sixteen years ago, I found the All Russia Family Tree forum. I refused to try to learn how to use the forum, the largest genealogy forum for the Russian-speaking world.

When I realized years later I could combine my basic Russian language skills from my childhood and Google Translate to use this forum, I found that my grandfather’s nephew in Kyiv, Ukraine, was looking for my family. By the time I found his phone number online and had a friend in Moscow call his house, he was dead for two years already.

Thankfully, I connected with his daughter and she is visiting my house in July. We already met two years ago in Washington, D.C., but had I not been so stubborn I could have met her family and an army of cousins in Kyiv, my mother’s and her parents’ birthplace, a long time ago.

Now a war between Russia and Ukraine is preventing me to see my paternal grandmother’s brothers’ birthplaces in Luhansk and fear of terrorism is stopping me from visiting other areas of Ukraine.

Jump on any chance to use the resources on this blog. Challenging yourself will put you on a journey that cannot be imagined as I have shown in my blog posts. Stubbornness in genealogy only solidifies the cement holding up the brickwalls.

Follow this blog with the top right button to learn about other major updates to resources.

Related posts:
10 Mythbusters for making breakthroughs in Russian genealogy
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (with a video guide)

10 million records added to WWII victims database

Researching relatives and ancestors who were victims of WWII as concentration camp victims, forced laborers or displaced persons just got easier.

This week, Arolsen Archives (formerly known as International Tracing Service) posted 10 million records online for free downloading here. The database, which has more than 13 million records, doesn’t involve any registration so it is straight to searching.

The best part of this database is that it can be searched in English. Since the database had so many records uploaded quickly, the search abilities are limited to names and topics for now.

These records are in German but some records have English written along the German. Anyone who lacks German language skills could try Google Translate to switch the typed German into English.

Also, plenty of German genealogy groups on Facebook have members who are willing to translate documents. The Genealogy Translations group is a popular group for this type of help.

This database was last updated in November, when I found more documents on my grandparents. Three more important records were just posted on my grandparents, who were displaced persons from Soviet Ukraine living in southern Germany during the war.

I hope to post soon about the information the new records reveal about my grandparents. This update to the database will be one of many to come.

I will post here when Arolsen Archives has another major update to the database.

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Free database on WWII soldiers grows by more than 5 million records

Anyone researching their relatives and ancestors who served in World War II for the Soviet Union has more hope to find military records online for free.

More than 5 million records recently have been added to the Memorial database for soldiers who died, went missing or became prisoners of war. The website doesn’t require any registration.

Each entry on soldiers can include their full name, birthdate or birth year, place of birth, date and place of recruitment, last place of service, military rank, and reason service ended. The records of soldiers can be saved as jpeg or pdf files. Directions are listed at the end of this post.

Yes, the database is in Russian but there are free online translator programs that can switch the Russian to English (keep on reading). The search page has the keyword box titles in English but the keywords must be in Russian. An English version of the database nor any database on USSR WWII veterans don’t exist anywhere.

Here is an example of results that will be missed for those who don’t want to try a Russian website:

Here’s how to use the database without knowing Russian:

  1. Download the Google Translate web browser application for Chrome here and Firefox here.
  2. If you don’t use that application, open the next browser window into Google Translate for easier switching between windows.
  3. Type your relative’s or ancestor’s name and birthplace into Google Translate and have it translated into Russian. If Google Translate doesn’t work, try this website instead.
  4. Copy and paste the keywords into the proper keyword boxes and then click on search.
  5. The results will appear in Russian for those not using the Google Translate web browser application. Copy and paste the results into Google Translate.
  6. Once you see a potential match, click on the link and then copy and paste the text into Google Translate.
  7. The document below the text providing details on the soldier can be saved as a jpeg file by clicking on the disk symbol or saved as a pdf file by clicking on the file symbol with PDF written in red. The link to the individual soldier’s page can be copied by clicking on the link symbol.

Once that information is downloaded, the next step is to search for relatives and ancestors in the Memory of the People database, which has information and records on recipients of WWII medals and other honors. The same steps taken on the Memorial database can be used for this database, in addition to free databases here.

This all takes some effort but it is well worth the effort when the documents are posted online for free. Getting used to combining language translator programs with Russian military websites is a great skill worth maintaining.

The Russian government is determined to post online as many WWII records and soldiers’ information as possible. The updates to WWII databases will continue on a regular basis to honor the soldiers who made the sacrifices for the USSR.

Follow this blog with the top right button to learn about new and updated databases.

Related posts:
Newly updated database reveals 2 million documents on WWII victims and refugees
Database of political terror victims in the USSR explodes past 3 million
Databases of Soviet Army soldiers as POWs provide wealth of information

Unsealed records unveil the bigger story behind a family’s persecution

For years, relatives have repeated the story that my grandmother’s five brothers were sent to prison during the communist era for possessing a foreign technical journal on a train.

But that is so far from the possible truth. My grandmother’s brothers were really accused of making an invention that was possibly sold to the Germans, according to files removed from an archive’s volt.

A cell companion of my oldest grand-uncle said he repeatedly heard from other prisoners that my relative said the People’s Commissar of the Navy requested him to make the invention. The signed statement of the cell companion doesn’t say who sold the invention to the Germans.

An accusation that my grand-uncle made an invention worth selling isn’t far-fetched. My researcher carefully looked at the records that were fading and crumbling. The information is a bit shocking.

My researcher found drawings and documentation of nine inventions made by my three grand-uncles. All the writing was in German. These inventions could have helped the military in wartime.

The shocking part isn’t that my grand-uncles had the knowledge and ability to make these inventions. Their father had several inventions for explosives, which were used in mining.

It is hard to understand why they chose to write everything in German. Maybe that was the order from the People’s Commissar of the Navy. I wonder if my grand-uncles even had a choice when this order came to them.

But what is the real truth?  Did their invention really get into the hands of the Germans? Their 57-year-old widowed mother wasn’t afraid to stand up for her sons to Andrei Vyshinsky, the prosecutor of the USSR.

“I beg you to treat fairly the business of my sons. Do not allow certain careerists and overcautious persons to cast a black shadow on the great and awesome name of People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs which is not needing at all those actions which are applied to my sons, the gone too far careerists and actually the Trotskyists who addressed in great People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs for data of the personal scores and for commission of the dirty Trotskyist work,” she wrote to Vyshinsky in 1938.

She was inspired to write Vyshinsky because her oldest son sneaked out a letter written on toilet paper to her. My grand-uncle hid his letter in a saucepan to tell his mother that he and his brother haven’t eaten edible food in six months, were punished by being held in a hot cell for a month and have been beaten terribly for not signing confessions.

Soon after my great-grandmother sent this letter, her other three sons were charged with unknown crimes. This only left a daughter as her only child who was not in prison. Not until my researcher dove into these records, I didn’t understand why the grand-uncles were arrested at different times.

The five brothers were thrown into a stream after being severally beaten and aging much more than the three years that were taken away from them. They saved their lives by not signing any confessions. They returned to their families and made a successful plan to escape the USSR three years later.

The details of this story ends here because the archive is hesitating to release any more records on this case. But the fight to fully tell this story will continue at the archives of a regional Federal Security Service office, where my researcher will open more files on this case.

Follow this blog to see this story continue by clicking on the top right button.

Related posts:
Determination to get one record leads to a pile of records on family mysteries
Declassified records reveal details of a family secret
Secret files help complete the life story of five brothers

Determination to get one record leads to a pile of records on family mysteries

Once I learned that a burial record of my great-grandfather existed at archives, I was determined to see the record. But it wasn’t as simple as making a request to archives.

My great-grandfather died in 1946 in the former USSR. Getting Soviet-era records is a complicated process. A contact in the city was too shy to ask whether he could get a scan of the record.

Then I decided to have my researcher visit the city archives after checking for real estate records at another archive in the same city. Soon after my researcher arrived at the city archive to get a scan of the burial record, she had the luck of finding three files on three brothers of my grandmother from the communist-era. I am curious about how this all happened but I am more thrilled for one more miracle.

My father’s half-sister bragged that her favorite uncle was just like his father- an inventor with patents. Over 10 years, I hadn’t been able to figure out where records could exist to prove that story true. My aunt had a habit of telling grand stories. She inherited her uncle’s possessions but only documents of my great-grandfather’s inventions and patents were found in my aunt’s apartment.

The documents showing inventions of my grand uncle do exist as my researcher just found them at archives. A file with his technical drawings and correspondence with the agencies in Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) about his inventions are sitting at city archives.

Then a burning question has been in my head for the 10 years that I have researched my paternal grandmother’s family, “Why was my grandmother’s family targeted for Soviet persecution?” My family tried to have quiet lives even though they were more financially comfortable than other families during the communist era.

Once my researcher discovered that the oldest brother of my grandmother made an appeal to the court for the return of his apartment taken by the communists, I realized that would be enough to get the communist government’s interest to track my family.

The file on my three grand uncles is dated 1918-1943, showing that my family was tracked by the communist government for 25 years. The tracking ended in 1943, when the three brothers and the rest of my grandmother’s family escaped the USSR.

I am so grateful that these files are finally being opened. The pages total to more than 350 pages on my family, making it the largest discovery of records in my 10-year genealogy journey into Russia.

It took the curiosity into one burial record to discover these files. This shows the importance of documenting research and staying determined on the genealogy journey.

Now, the researcher needs to open these files to review them page by page. What will be found? I don’t know what will be coming my way but it has been worth the wait.

Follow this blog to see this journey unfold by clicking on the top right button.

Related posts:
The best surprises come when hope is almost lost
Stranger makes dream of seeing grandpa’s home come true after 8 years
The aftermath of a house fire brings surprising joy

10 Mythbusters for making breakthroughs in Russian genealogy

Too many people ignore the Russian side of their family tree due to myths about Russian genealogy. The biggest fear is all the efforts will result in nothing.

I once believed the myths but wanted to know whether discovering my Russian ancestry could be possible. Growing up first-generation American made me wonder about my ancestors and whether relatives could be found in Russia.

My family didn’t come to the USA until the 1950s so working on the family tree has been challenging with the limited amount of American records to start the research. But now I can brag about my family tree having more than 4,000 people, knowing several distant cousins in Russia and Ukraine and finding information never imagined when I started my journey.

Here are the myths that are discouraging people from beginning their incredible journeys.

MYTH 1: Too many records were destroyed during the communist era and two world wars to even consider looking for records.

Many archive records were destroyed during these time periods but the Russian Empire collected a vast amount of records on its people. The variety of records available at Russian archives is comparable to any modern country.

MYTH 2: Russian archives are too disorganized to even find much information.

Archives are getting more organized and ready for 21st century genealogy. Some archives are digitizing their records.

MYTH 3: It will take too long for Russian archives to receive a letter.

Many Russian archives have websites and respond to requests by e-mail.

MYTH 4: Russian archives will ask for proof of ancestry to release documents.

Archives will not ask for documents to prove ancestry to obtain records dated 1917 and earlier.

MYTH 5: I will have to pay bribes to get records.

I have never paid one in 8 years. Russian archives are monitored government offices. I pay bills through Western Union, which allows money to be sent directly to Russian bank accounts or stores where archive staff pick up the money. Western Union sends e-mail messages when money has been picked up.

MYTH 6: I don’t know Russian so I can’t write to archives nor read the letters from archives.

Google Translate does a sufficient job of translating English to Russian and the reverse. If the archives sends a letter as an attachment, it can be uploaded here for a free translation. If archives sends a response as text in an e-mail message, the text can be copied and pasted for translation here.

MYTH 7: If I don’t have enough information, archives won’t do a search and it’s too hard to find researchers. Genealogy isn’t popular in Russia.

Genealogy is a growing hobby in Russia. It’s not as popular as it is in the English-speaking world but it is still possible to find researchers when archives cannot complete research requests.

MYTH 8: Once I get the records from archives, it will be expensive to have the records translated.

There are plenty of eager helpers who can translate Russian documents. Just check out these Facebook genealogy groups for help with translations.

MYTH 9: There aren’t any websites comparable to Ancestry to post my Russian family tree that could be seen by other Russians.

MyHeritage and Geni are popular among Russians.

MYTH 10: There isn’t a comprehensive forum for Russian genealogy. It will be hard to go far in Russian genealogy.

The most comprehensive forum is Всероссийское генеалогическое древо. It is in Russian but can be easily translated into English with Google Translate. Here is a look at the forum in English. This is the forum where I had found Russian and Ukrainian relatives several times and received lots of help to research my family tree. Those who are not brave enough to try this Russian forum, can try these Facebook genealogy groups.

Anyone excited to move forward in their Russian genealogy can read these posts to get ready for their journey:

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
The complete guide to charming Russian archives for church records
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs
Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!