Breaking through the communist era wall

I’ve heard it too many times- “Communist-era records are closed.” With the right charm and approach, success can be possible.

Russian archives are fully open until around 1919 and probably the case is the same in Ukraine.  Then, obtaining records gets a little complicated.

Records after 1919 are located in the registry office. Some areas have more than one registry office- one for more recent times such as the 1970s to the current time and then the early communist era to the latter period.

I’ve had luck on three occasions. I e-mailed the contact person listed on the website for my father’s hometown. That person passed along my request for my father’s birth record to the registry office. I received my father’s birthdate, address of birth and his parents’ names. The parents’ names told me they were not married. I tried to get more information but nothing worked out.

Two and a half years later, my oldest brother visited our father’s hometown of about 258,000 people in southern Russia. I was hoping that a personal visit would be more successful. He visited a registry office for the early communist period. My brother explained that we did not have family records and would appreciate any records. The registry office released three documents- the residency records for three family homes during the Nazi-occupation time.

The residency record for my grandfather was such a gift. From letters I knew the area of Kostroma Region where he was born. My grandfather never mentioned the village where he was born in his letters. Luckily that information was included in his residency record. His parents were living with him so the residency record also included the area where they grew up.

Other information on the residency record was his year of arrival to the city, the different towns where he lived since his birth and the birth years for himself and his parents. The other residency records shared the same type of information for my other relatives.

Residency records are gem. I had a lot of the information already that was provided but the new information opened doors for me. I can one day visit the village where my grandfather was born and raised. I will not probably ever find relatives in the village because my grandfather was born in 1885  (no joke!) when I was born in 1976, his surname was Ivanov (what luck!) and my grandfather and great-grandfather were both only children. Other people will have better luck than me.

Since my brother’s visit, I have tried to obtain record information from the office that provided me with my father’s birth record information. First, I sent a letter and no one wrote back after several months. Then, I met someone on Facebook who lived in the city and asked him to deliver a second copy of the letter. An unfriendly employee said the office never received my first letter, the office will be reviewed by an audit soon and the office would need months to fulfill my request. I sent a long list, hoping I would get something back.

My third stroke of luck was unexpected. I submitted a request by postal mail to a registry office in central Russian to see whether any information would be released on my great-grandfather’s siblings. My great-grandfather was born in 1881 but he had siblings born as late as 1909.  In a letter, he wrote to a son and daughter in the 1960s that he had a dozen siblings but many had died as children.

I was hoping the registry office in central Russia would give me a bunch of information that would confirm which siblings had survived childhood and provide their families’ information. But instead the office picked one sibling’s family for releasing information. My great-grandfather had a sister 23 years younger than him whom he wrote a lot about in his letter.

The birthdates for the children of my great-grand aunt range from 1921 to 1939. Sadly, the only son was born in 1921 and likely is no longer alive. It will be hard to find the two daughters because they probably married. I am hoping someone from this family will see my post on, where I have already found three sets of relatives.

In the end, it is worth trying to obtain communist-era records on relatives. The result could be a major break in receiving solid information that will help find relatives.

The best approach in obtaining records on your relatives is a plea that you are seeking information to help find relatives. Do not use the word genealogy. Naturally, the letter will need to be written in Russian. I believe Prompt Translator is the best. The letter only should have relatives’ details that are confirmed through family stories, letters or documents. Here is more information on Russian registry offices and their addresses that is translated into English. Some registry offices are particular about proof of ancestry so I recommend submitting any family documents that could prove ancestry.