Three times lucky

I was told that I would never find my relatives. It would be too hard. Too much time has passed. The family name is too common.

My relative was a great person, but he never used the Internet. I have been using the Internet since 1995. It has taken years to figure out how to find relatives living in the former USSR on the Internet.

The best website for finding living family and ancestors is forum.vgd.ru. I have found relatives from two family lines on this website.

I first found my mother’s father’s family, Tyunin, on the message board for surnames in 2009. I had been on the website for a few years but I never bothered to look up my family’s surnames. I am kicking myself for doing so.

The man looking for my maternal grandfather died two years before I had a friend from Moscow call his house. I found his phone number on Nomer.org. He was so determined to find his uncle’s family.

Luckily, his daughter and son have been wonderful to me. My maternal grandfather had four sisters and one brother.  I have found all of their families through my grandfather’s nephew’s children. I have many old family photos, which include the family home where my grandfather grew up.

My next stroke of luck on forum.vgd.ru was a complete shock. A guy wrote to me convinced he was related to me. He sent me a picture of a man who he thought was my great-grandfather, father of my paternal grandmother. I looked at the picture and said he doesn’t look like anyone in my grandmother’s family.

Then, he sent me a family tree with more than 100 people back to the early 1700s. The guy had all the names of my grandmother’s siblings and their spouses correct. I was stunned. I was so excited that I called my grandmother’s niece at 6 a.m. on a Sunday in Utah.

Since then, the family has been wonderful. They would love for me to visit them in Moscow. One cousin, my third cousin, has translated several documents archives in Rostov region sent me and e-mailed me old family photos of my great-grandfather’s brother’s family. I even have a family photo of my grandmother as a two-year-old with four of her five brothers, her father and grandfather from 1904.

Thanks to this connection, I found another cousin from the Kirsanov family tree I received from my third cousin. A cousin from this family tree posted information on his grandmother’s family on forum.vgd.ru and it matched everything on the family tree.

These distant cousins, sixth cousins, live in Ohio and the family researched the Don Cossack ancestry of our Kirsanov family. So, now I have more information on my paternal grandmother’s family than what my own grandmother even knew.

It took awhile for me to figure out how to register and use forum.vgd.ru. It is real simple if you use Google Translate. Here is the link using Google Translate.

Please don’t get discouraged if you don’t see a possible connection on your family’s surname page. Post your family’s information and maybe a relative will e-mail you.

If you need any help in figuring out this website, please e-mail me at bepa.  miller  @  mail.  ru.

Documents that open doors to information

I always wondered where are all the documents the federal government collected on immigrants. Coming to this country as an immigrant involves constant filing of paperwork.

No one will find the gem of information on ancestry.com, which only has some passenger lists and naturalization records. Many of the records of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) have not been posted online nor on ancestry.com.

The biggest gem of genealogy research on immigrant relatives are Alien Files. These files are filled with information on residency, employment, family members and life in the old country. Some files even have marriage and birth certificates, which are almost impossible to obtain from Russia and Ukraine archives.

These gems are the crown jewels for anyone seeking information on Russian or Ukrainian relatives. So many relatives, even my family, did not talk about their relatives or life in the old country under communism. The less everyone knew, the better life would be.

Now, the less you know, the more frustrating genealogy and the search for family become.

That is why these Alien Files are so important. They are available for a reasonable fee. The genealogy program of  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services charges $65 to search for an individual file. It takes a few weeks to determine whether the program has a file. When the file is found, it costs $65 to obtain the entire file. Then, the program will mail the file within three to four months.

So far, Alien Files on my relatives have ranged in 20 to 50 pages. The files can answer so many questions never asked of relatives and satisfy some curiosities. The genealogy program details the information included in the files here.

Not everyone’s Alien File is available in the genealogy program. Files for deceased persons are available, but someone can request her/his file.

It is best to search NARA’s database here before making a search request with the genealogy program. Many Alien Files for individuals born 1910 or earlier can be found in NARA’s database. If the NARA search engine finds a file, the website will list where the file is located and how to contact the office holding the file.

If the NARA database or the genealogy program does not find a file, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request can be made. Information on making that request is here.

I have made three FOIA requests. The process is long, but worthwhile if the files are found. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services posts updates on the status of FOIA requests here several times a week.

My grandfather’s file has not been found, but I am hoping files of my grand uncle and a cousin are found. Right now, the federal government has the Alien Files stored in many locations. A NARA employee told me to wait some time and resubmit my FOIA because my grandfather’s file is somewhere.

The time it takes to touch these file is long, but it is well worth having documented information on relatives. Basing genealogy or a search for relatives on family stories can sometimes waste precious time and money.

Dear village elder,

This is how I started a letter last fall to the village of Putchina in Kursk Oblast. The results have been unreal.

I never expected to really get an answer. I’ve heard on the genealogy forum of Ukraine.com that writing these letters gets results. Well, the result I got was unreal.

The village elder gave my letter to a woman in her mid-20s. Her grandparents had lived in the village. The amount of information my contact has given me has been a blessing.

She has written to me about life now in the village of no more than 50 people. She has sent me pictures of Putchina. The latest help she provided was taking pictures of three graves of people named Trunov in the village where my great-grandfather attended church. One grave could be of a man who was possibly a child of my great-grandfather.

Thanks to a researcher in Kursk, I have some background on my family from the 17th and 18th centuries and a bunch of addresses and phone numbers for people named Trunov who live in the same raiyon (neighborhood area) as did my great-grandfather.

One address and phone number is for a great-grandson of a man who could possibly be a son of my great-grandfather. My contact tried calling the number when I could not figure out why I could not get through. She told me the number does not work.

I will try to find a way to reach this man. I cannot send him a letter because the Russian postal service will not deliver a letter without a street address. I only have a house number for this man’s village.

Even if I never reach this man, I am happy I wrote my Dear village elder letter. It may not work for me every time, but it worked a few days before Christmas 2010. That’s what I call a miracle before Christmas.

Here’s some advice on getting a letter to a village elder:

1. First search for your family’s village on Wikipedia.

2. If the village does not appear in English, try searching the village by its name in Russian or Ukraine.

3. If the village’s population is no more than 1,000, write a dear village elder letter. If the population is larger, search for the village’s council on Google. You will be surprised how many small towns have gone online.

4.  After you write your letter, search for the village’s postal code at http://ukrindex.ru/ or http://www.ruspostindex.ru/.

5. Hopefully after sending the letter, you will receive a response within a few months.

Welcome!

I grew up with hardly any cousins from my own generation. I know so many Americans who grew up with generations of cousins. I felt so alone.

Not many Americans can relate. I am Russian. That is the cause of my problem.

My father and mother immigrated to the USA in the early 1950s. Leaving a communist country means you can never contact your family again until the Iron Curtain is re-opened. Contact with a foreigner, especially family living in the USA, put a target on your back.

The Iron Curtain is gone, but it is hard to find the family left behind in the former USSR. It is hard but not impossible.

I hope to help others in their search to find family. I have learned some much about my family. I have found family I never expected to find. It has been an exciting experience, but it comes with a lot of patience and frustration. I hope to help you because there is hope to find family no matter how long it has been.

Why I have so much hope

I never expected to be so hopeful in finding my missing family.

Everything changed a few days before my birthday this June. I received a call from the local chapter of the American Red Cross. I had sent the chapter a tracing request for my grandmother’s sister, who had been missing for 66 years.

The excited woman on the other line said my grand aunt had been found alive in Russia. I was so shaken up that I almost had to sit down. My first reaction was “Are you sure you have the right person?”

The Red Cross employee was confident the agency found the right person. I gave her my e-mail address so she could e-mail me my grand aunt’s contact information.

I thanked the woman and immediately called my mother when I hung up. I called my mom- “Your aunt is alive in Russia!” My mother was shocked too. Her aunt had been missing since she was 3 years old.

I called the phone numbers the Red Cross gave. No one answered on one line. I got an answer on the other line. My Russian was so rusty and the woman who answered did not speak English. So I had to wait until the next day for my mother to call her aunt. My mother was at a store and it was already 10:30 p.m. in Russia when we got the news.

The next morning, my mother talked to her aunt.

Since then, it has felt so weird that I finally found this woman. I have her professional photo from the 1940s completely memorized- her hair, clothes and smile.

I am in regular contact with one of my grand aunt’s granddaughter. We have exchanged photos and information. I hope to visit the family in the next 10 years. I cannot visit now when I have two young kids.

I am so grateful to the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center. After several requests for tracing my grand aunt, the trace can be marked as a success.

Here is my advice on making your trace request as successful as possible.

1. Provide all possible names for your relative, even nicknames. My grand aunt changed her first name to her known nickname.

2. Ask relatives for any details they remember on the missing person. The old addresses of my grand aunt helped find her.

3. Make sure all the information you provide to the center is accurate.

4. Be patient. My request almost took two years to complete.