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

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

There is nothing as exciting as finding family lost after many years. In that excitement of finding relatives’ postal addresses, e-mail addresses or social network pages, it is important to think before typing away.

History and politics haven’t been fair in the former USSR. Sensitivity is required to make the first impression that sparks a response of excitement.

A simple comment that seems harmless could end dreams of reconnecting. Here is 10 things to never say when trying to reconnect with family in the former USSR.

  1. “Do you know what happened to Grand Uncle Sergey? We heard he was arrested and sent to Siberia.” It’s been 25 years since communism collapsed but many families still don’t want to talk about how communist persecution affected their lives.
  2. “I heard Grand Uncle Nikolai was captured by the Germans and held in a P.O.W. camp during the war.” People in the former USSR don’t want to be reminded of the pains from the Great Patriotic War (or World War II).
  3. “My grandmother wrote to the family in 1959 and she was upset that no one wrote back to her.” Receiving foreign mail or sending foreign mail was considered highly suspicious and some people were arrested for being foreign spies.
  4. “What happened to the beautiful family home on Red Army Street? The family had the home for many years.” Many families lost their family homes to the government and were moved to much smaller homes.
  5. “Do you have any photos of my grandfathers’ brothers from their service in the White Army?” Many families burned documents and photos proving service in the enemy army of the Red Army. Some families will have great pride in their Cossack ancestry while others don’t want to discuss it.
  6. “We hope the family isn’t still upset over the family fight between Uncle Dimitri and my mother.” After many years, the facts of family fights can become twisted so it is best to avoid mentioning these situations.
  7. “We heard Aunt Tatiana’s daughter worked briefly in the U.S.A. Why didn’t she contact us? She had our address and phone number.” Some USSR citizens were able to work briefly abroad but they knew contacting their families would bring lots of trouble.
  8. “You really should come for a visit. We would love to get to know you.” Many people from the former USSR were taught to be suspicious of strangers so it is best to hold these invitations until the families get much closer. Also, traveling abroad is beyond reality for many families.
  9. “Why can’t I find you on Facebook (or other social networks)?” Some people from the former USSR are suspicious of networks that track their activities, know their friends and store their personal photos. It’s a holdover from the Soviet era.
  10. “I am working on the family tree. Would you mind sharing family documents?” That sounds innocent but relatives who don’t know you could get leery of your interest in the family. Genealogy hasn’t caught on in the former USSR as it has in the English-speaking world. Wait to ask for documents until everyone knows each other better.

Related posts on finding long-lost family:
Memorial Website Opens Door to Find Living Russian Family
Build the best mousetrap to find long-lost family this holiday season
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum

Love and Faith reconnect Russian adoptee with birth family after 16 years

Truth is stranger than fiction, especially in the latest adoption case where I volunteered to help with finding the birth family. Five possible relatives were contacted on two Russian social networks to help give the adoptee information on her life and family in Russia.

No one, except for a woman named Lyubov (Russian for Love) would help the adoptee, I’ll name Sara, get answers about her birth family. My name Vera is Russian for Faith. So it really took Love and Faith to end the mystery of Sara’s adoption.

At a last resort, I contacted Lyubov on popular Russian social network The relatives on weren’t interested in helping Sara. Lyubov‘s pictures showed friendliness and kindness in her face. The truthfulness of her appearance was proven when she responded with so much excitement that Sara was looking for her birth family.

To make Sara’s reconnection with her birth family emotionally safe as possible, I had her create a profile on with her birth name, birth date, birthplace and a photo from her adoption. Her birth family doesn’t know the name she was given by her adoptive family, her e-mail address nor phone number.

Information has been exchanged a few times and the process of completely reconnecting will take time but I made sure this is the correct family. As in the last adoption case I voluntarily helped with, I withheld information to see whether Lyubov would give it up.

Sara knows she has a brother, whose name and birthdate are known. I wrote to Lyubov that Sara knows of a brother and that is it. Lyubov knew the brother’s name immediately. That was the confirmation that Sara needed that Lyubov really was family. She is her aunt but very close in age to Sara.

The final confirmation that proved Sara has found her birth family was the photo Aunt Lyubov share with Sara that shows Sara, her mother and brother. Sadly nothing is known about where are Sara’s parents and her brother.

The brother was adopted in Russia and likely has a new name but there is hope that Sara could reconnect with him. If he remembers her personal details, her profile is on, waiting to be found.

Sara was adopted about 16 years ago and it only took about a few minutes to find her relatives on social networks, thanks to my knowledge of Russian. Finding family in the former USSR is as simple as learning the Russian alphabet from Wikipedia, copy the new name in Russian and paste it into Google or Russian social networks.

Nothing beats the feeling of experiencing the excitement of long-lost family being just as enthusiastic for being found again and told that they were not forgotten.

Related posts:

On a journey to connect Russian adoptees with their homeland family

A bonus find for the adopted Russian brother and sister


When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality

The joke in Russian genealogy is figuring out which family stories are real. But the sad reality is that the craziest stories are really the truth.

Anyone who isn’t familiar with the past realities of life in the USSR will have a hard time believing the below scenarios were real.

Scenario 1: Uncle Vladimir was reading a foreign newspaper on a train. He was arrested for being an enemy of the state and beaten in prison for a confession that he was a spy.

Reality: Possession of anything foreign caused a great stir. Anyone who had foreign items was considered suspicious.

Scenario 2: Aunt Katya got in a fight with her cousin Svetlana. Katya sent a foreigner looking for a place to stay to Svetlana’s apartment. Katya and Svetlana never talked to each other again and Svetlana’s neighbors never trusted her again.

Reality: Talking to a foreigner was a big no-no during the Soviet era.

Scenario 3: Grand Uncle Vasil stole food from a store. He was arrested, sent to Siberia and tried to return to his family after he served his time. His wife Yulia never responded to his letters from prison. When he came home, none of his family nor friends would say they knew him.

Reality: When someone was sent to Siberia, people usually tried to forget about that person. Continuing contact with that person would cause trouble and unwanted attention when people tried to live a quiet life in the USSR.

Scenario 4: Aunt Anna was poor and her brother Simon took pity on her. While Simon was living in Germany, he sent Anna packages of clothing. She was arrested and questioned by police about whether she was a foreign spy.

Reality: Getting foreign mail raised a red flag. Contact with foreigners (by phone, mail or in person) was forbidden. In some rare situations, getting letters from foreigners was overlooked and didn’t bring trouble.

Scenario 5: Uncle Dimitri and his family immigrated to Germany during World War II. He never wrote or called his parents ever again. His father died a few years after World War II. He wanted to attend his funeral but Uncle Dimitri was afraid to be arrested and sent to Siberia.

Reality: Once you left the USSR, you never returned nor had contact with your family until the Iron Curtain fell.

Scenario 6: Uncle Alex was feeling quite relaxed at a party after a few drinks. He told a joke, making fun of the Soviet government. Alex was arrested and never heard from again.

Reality: Tell a bad joke and you’re a walking dead man.

Scenario 7: Grandma Ludmilla confesses at Christmas dinner that her name is really Yelena Smirnova. She and grandpa lost their identification during the war. They passed an overturned truck with a dead couple. They went in their pockets and took their identity cards. From then on, they took on dead couple’s identity.

Reality: Not every identity card had photos so it was easy to assume new identities. Civil records were lost in bombings. Confirming identities were hard for those using real and fake names.

My reality: 6 of these situations occurred in my family or to those my family knew. Truth is really stranger than fiction, a warning to remember before eliminating a relative who tells “wild stories” as a source.

A kick in the stomach when priorities are lost in genealogy

Today I was thinking about what I haven’t worked on lately. So out of curiosity I googled my grandfather’s address to see what his home looks like today. A few years have passed since I checked on his home.

I saw a towering brick building as wood planks leaned against his entrance. That brick building wasn’t his house. The only portion left of his home was the green wooden gate attached to crumbling brick supporting walls.

That picture was taken in 2013. My heart is going to be crushed when a friend e-mails me pictures of what the property looks like today. I have been meaning to write a letter to the owner to see whether he would send me pictures of the property and tell me whether anything interesting has been found over the years.

I got distracted with other things and never thought I had to worry about the home being demolished anytime soon. With my grandfather being born in 1885 in Russia and I being born in 1976 in the USA, I never had a chance to see the house due to time and finances.

So I am grateful that I had a local man in my grandfather’s southern Russian city take pictures and video of the property from the street 5 1/2 years ago. The guy could not convince the owner to open his gate to take pictures.

Now I appreciate having those photos and video from the street beyond words can say.

I found the friendly guy who took the pictures and video through someone who saw my post on the city’s Facebook page. That opened the door to connect with several people who have helped me with researching my grandparents’ lives.

This discovery of my grandfather’s house being wiped away has changed my priorities. My research needs more focus on the places where my family lived and those places that touched their lives before they are next to be wiped away.

It’s great and important to document the lives of our ancestors but to touch and experience the places of their lives is priceless.