Making the most of Russian regional archives

I have learned to keep my expectations for Russian archives low. This is not an insult to Russian archives. It is just reality.

So many records were destroyed intentionally and even more from battles during the world wars. Communists hated the White Russian soldiers so much that many of their records were destroyed. The White Russian soldiers, also known as Cossacks, represented the privileged who did not pay taxes and got the best in life. Russians who did not follow blindly in the communist state were imprisoned or killed while their family records were destroyed. The priests were treated the same horrible way. Lenin was God. Stalin was God.

Not many church records exist after 1919. Churches were demolished and burned. Records of birth, marriage and death were managed by the local government. Archive records up until 1919 are fully open to the public but so many records are missing.

I paid a researcher to study a great-grandfather’s family from the village records in Kursk Region. Only 10 years of records could be found between 1880-1919. I will never know about so many of his relatives because the village records are mostly gone. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather did not pass along much information about his family so I am really stuck in finding his siblings’ families.

Luckily, 27 years of records were found for a village in another neighborhood of Kursk region for another great-grandfather. I felt blessed when so much information was found on his relatives.

I have been required to use a professional researcher in Kursk Region because the archive office requires full names, specific dates and places for birth, baptisms, marriages and deaths. Other regional archives have searched for information on my family without having exact information.

The policy for releasing information from records after 1919 also can vary. My brother was able to visit a relative’s hometown and get records from the 1940s without showing ancestry. We cannot even prove ancestry to Russian archives back to our father because his last name was changed to his half-siblings’ surname when the family escaped Russia during World War II and he did not leave with a Russian birth certificate.

I know other regional archives will require proof of ancestry to release any information after 1919. I got my father’s birth information by e-mailing the city’s website contact person. The archive office for communist-era records will not release any information to me on my father’s siblings or cousins, who are dead.

That is why it is so important to have all the research possible done on your ancestors and relatives. Everyone thinks they know about the family through oral history. Family documents get faded as so does the accuracy of information over time.

If you have the luck of getting a friendly and helpful archive employee who will search records, you better have all the family information accurate on the names, dates, addresses and villages. It is not a good idea to waste archive office staff with inaccurate information. The staff will not go the extra mile for you.

Russian genealogy is a lot more complicated than others, thanks to destruction of so many records. It involves more creativity and less rigid thinking. Records for birth, baptism, marriage and death are not the only resources to research relatives. Records for census, residency, voting, tax, property and schooling and printed directories help fill in the gaps left from missing traditional records.

I have more information on my family from printed directories and residency records than the traditional records. It takes patience and an open mind to have success in Russian genealogy and family searches.

Next blog: How to write to Russian and Ukrainian archives for family records