On a journey to connect Russian adoptees with their homeland family

Today, I am learning about what is involved for a Russian adoptee to connect with his/her birth family.

The journey started simple. The fiancée of a guy who was adopted from southern Russia in the 1980s asked for my help to find his birth parents. Luckily, the guy has an official birth certificate with the parents’ full names.

So I went onto Odnoklassniki, a Russian version of Facebook, and e-mailed a few people with the same surname who are living in the guy’s birthplace. I am grateful that the surname is not too common in the city of more than 1 million people.

Within four days, I got a response from a very excited man who called himself the guy’s uncle. Russians who are older cousins call themselves uncles/aunts to their younger cousins.

The Russian cousin knew the name of the American adoptee’s sister without me mentioning the sibling who was also adopted in the USA. For me, this is a good sign that he really is related to the American-raised brother and sister.

The amount of enthusiasm coming from the cousin and his wife makes me hopeful that this could be a successful reunion. There are a lot of questions to ask and more relatives to find.

It was quite a task to instant message two women on Facebook  in English and the cousin on Odnoklassniki in Russian at the same time. I was using Google Translate to write to the Russian cousin, then I had to translate his messages, pass on the information to the two women on Facebook and then I passed on their questions after using Google Translate to the Russian cousin. It was an intense two hours.

This journey with this family will teach me a lot about what it takes for Russian adoptees to find their families and how helpful local and regional government will be in providing information to their former Russian citizens.

I am so excited to see to where this journey will lead me and the American-raised brother and sister.

Battle with federal government ends after 10 months

I am pleased that I have won my first battle with the U.S. Department of Citizen and Immigration Services  (USCIS).

My step-grandfather was born in the same Russian region as my grandmother so it made me curious whether they had known each other before they separately immigrated to the USA. I thought the USCIS Genealogy Program would have his Alien File, the biggest gem in researching any immigrant, but staff couldn’t find his file for many months.

So, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I naively put down genealogy as the reason for my request, a bad move. The FOIA office sent me a letter, stating my request should be sent to the genealogy program.

Then, I appealed the office’s denial by sending copies of the e-mail messages from the genealogy program that the file cannot be found in its database. I also sent a print out of a genealogy program webpage that reads files not available through that program could be acquired with a FOIA request.

My appeal also included a promise to not make any more FOIA requests for a while. Right now, I do not have two deceased relatives’ Alien Files. I can wait on those files.

So the lesson learned is not to put down genealogy as the reason for requesting Alien Files on this form.

My grandmother didn’t have children with her second husband but the information in the file will help me determine whether photos in my grandmother’s boxes are of a brother or her second husband. His file details his life in Russia, France, Germany and the USA, making it an interesting read.

In the three years of annoying the FOIA office of the USCIS, I have yet to pay anything for the Alien Files, nicely scanned onto CDs. The best things in genealogy are free even if I have to annoy Uncle Sam.

Related posts:

Seven months worth waiting

Documents that open doors to information

60 years later, a family story starts to come together

Guide for making the best choices in DNA testing

Updated Sept. 13, 2019

People who want to try DNA testing for genealogy have different reasons and interests. The cost of DNA testing has really gone down since I last bought my first kit 9 years ago for $298.

Even though DNA tests have gotten cheaper, customers still want their waiting time for the results to be well worth it.

Here are my suggestions, based on more than 8 years of DNA testing with the 4 big companies, for those with Russian and/or Ukrainian ancestry to get the best possible results. (Links to reviews of the big four DNA testing companies are listed at the bottom of this post.)

1. I want to confirm my Russian and/or Ukrainian ancestry.

So far, only 23andme has specifically broken down my ethnicity to Russian, with 5 regions where my ancestors could have lived. Only one region has been documented by research. Ancestry has an ethnic group called “Eastern Europe and Russia” but it has not broken down to Russian for me even with my documented and extensive Russian ancestry.

2. I am looking to find DNA relatives who live in Russia and/or Ukraine.

Test with Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage, the only companies of the big four that send DNA tests to Russia and Ukraine.

3. My Russian relatives immigrated to the USA, Canada, England and/or Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am looking for descendants of those relatives.

Test with Ancestry and then transfer your DNA file to Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage. If DNA matches are too distant, give 23andme a chance, too.

4. My family escaped the USSR in the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t know whether my other relatives stayed in the USSR or emigrated. 

Test first with Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage to find matches living in Russia, Ukraine and other former areas of the Russian Empire. Some people from the former USSR are sneaking Ancestry and 23andme  tests out of their countries. There are possibilities for matches from Ancestry and 23andme.

5. I have a relative from my family who wants to confirm that we are related.

Test with Family Tree DNA. I prefer the tools of Family Tree DNA. It will give  you the most details and best tools for your curiosity. I actually did this for my father’s first cousin, who was falsely rumored to be unrelated for decades. All four DNA companies can confirm a relationship, depending on the closeness. Ancestry still doesn’t provide a chromosome browser, unlike the other three companies.

6. I am an adoptee from Russia looking for my birth family.

Test with 23andme  and then transfer to MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA. Then consider Ancestry if close matches don’t appear.

7. I was adopted from Ukraine and wondering whether my siblings, who were adopted by another family, have tested.

Test with AncestryDNA first and then transfer to MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch. If possible, also test with 23andme.

8. I could have some Jewish ancestry. Which company would give me the best ethnicity breakdown for possible Jewish ancestry?

Test with 23andme, due to its advances in ethnicity breakdown, and then transfer to Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage to get some comparisons.

9. I am a beginner in understanding DNA genealogy testing and need the best tools for figuring out my connections with my matches.

Test with Family Tree DNA, where you can learn the common matches of each person with whom you are matched and can use a chromosome browser to see which matches have the same ancestors. The company also offers great filtering of matches.

10. I am taking one chance with DNA testing. I am looking for the company that gives the most information on matches and have customers who are the most eager to figure out the connections to matches.

Test with Family Tree DNA.

11. I am looking for the database with customers who are the most serious about their genealogy.

Test with Family Tree DNA and then transfer to MyHeritage. A large portion of 23andme customers are interested in health data from their DNA tests. A lot of people on Ancestry DNA do not know much about their ancestry in Russia and Ukraine.

12. I want to take a stab at the largest DNA database that has worldwide reach.

Test with Ancestry.

13. I only can afford to take one test. How can I get matches from people who tested from all four companies?

Test with Ancestry, then download your DNA file and transfer the file to Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and Gedmatch for free.

14. I am testing a much older relative. Which test could be easier to do for them?

Either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage would work best. 23andme and Ancestry require spitting into test tubes. The other two have customers swab their inner checks.

15. I am interested in learning about the haplogroups of my mother and father.

Test with 23andme or Family Tree DNA. 23andme gives maternal and paternal haplogroups for its autosomal test. More specific haplogroups can be obtained through Family Tree DNA with its Y-DNA and MtDNA tests but these tests are more expensive. Men can get their paternal and maternal haplogroups. Women only can get their maternal haplogroups.

16. I would like to join projects for my haplogroups and ancestry after I get my results.

Test with Family Tree DNA, the only company that offers projects.

17. I have a bunch of male relatives willing to take the Y-DNA test (paternal line testing) and we want to find matches related directly to our paternal lines.

Get the Y-67 DNA test from Family Tree DNA.

18. I would rather like to make my decision based on the facts, ma’am.

Visit this page for statistics on Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and 23andme‘s autosomal tests.

Related posts:
A Russian-American’s inside view of the new AncestryDNA test
A Russian-American’s insider view of the MyHeritage DNA test
A Russian-American’s insider view of the 23andme Autosomal Test
A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test
A Russian-American view into 23andme’s new country regional ethnicity breakdown
FAQ- DNA testing for Russians and Ukrainians