I have learned to admire my grandfather Pavel from his letters to my father. He had the courage to write to my father during communist times when it was dangerous to have contact abroad. After I finished reading his letters, I wondered how long he lived with cancer. The letters stopped arriving and no one in my family knew when he actually died.
My mother remembers my grandfather died while my father was studying for final exams in graduate school. I had a general idea when my grandfather died so I thought getting the death date would be easy.
But nothing is simple in Russian archives, especially when requesting information from the registry offices that manage communist-era records. I sent three letters to a registry office asking for two dozen birth, marriage, divorce and death dates for cousins, grand uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents.
My first letter written in March 2011 was never answered so I sent the second letter three months later. I waited a few months after I sent my second letter and asked my contact, who strangely has my grandfather’s first and last name, to visit the registry office with another copy of my letter.
The employee who spoke to my friend said my letters never arrived at the office, the number of requests in my letter would take months to complete and the office could not handle the work when an audit would be done soon. So it is obvious my second letter was never answered.
My determination continued and I sent my third letter five months after my second letter. That letter was not answered, either. So I realized my approach needed to change. I gave up on requesting birth information on my aunt, uncle and cousins and marriage and divorce information on my grand uncles.
I knocked down my letter just to death information of my grandfather, his parents and my two other great-grandparents. Then I copied every birth, marriage and death record to prove my ancestry and then copied my license to prove my identity.
I actually cannot prove with Russian records I am daughter of my father. My grandmother changed my father’s surname to the surname of his two half-siblings so it would be easier to move through Europe with children who appear to have the same father. I gave the registry office a copy of my father’s falsified birth record from Warsaw, Poland, to confirm my story.
I mailed my last request in mid-April and got an answer from the registry office a few days ago. The only information that could be found was the death date of my grandfather Pavel. Naturally, I wanted all the information I requested but I was happy to learn when my grandfather died.
Each of my letters stated in several ways how grateful I would be to receive information. But that is not enough when dealing with the communist era. Anyone who wants civil records after 1917 needs to prove ancestry with family records and their identity with a passport or driver’s license.
Some people have told me communist-era records are closed or mostly lost. A combination of documented ancestry and identity with showing appreciation for information increases the chances of being successful with communist-era records.