Several years ago, I didn’t have contact with any cousins in Ukraine or Russia. Now, I need all my fingers and toes to count all my “new” cousins.
It takes an art to connect with family you never grew up with and possibly will never meet. Your connection will not magically happen by announcing “Here I am! Our great-grandmothers were sisters.”
So here are my Top 10 tips for connecting with people who you have confirmed as long-lost family or could be related to your family.
1. Create a photo album of your relatives on Picasa. Make sure to post descriptions in Russian using Yandex Translate. It’s not enough to send distant relatives an e-mail message that you are related through a certain ancestor. Offer that person something they can connect with and appreciate. If you are concerned about privacy, you can change the access to anyone with a link to the album on the far right.
2. Open an account on Oдноклассник, a popular Russian-language social network. Use Google Translate for registration if you are not comfortable with Russian. Post friendly and non-political pictures. Put in the green-bordered box on the top middle “looking for relatives of ______________ “in Russian for your status.
3. Put your genealogy research into nicely organized Word documents. Your research can be translated into Russian and Ukrainian best on Yandex Translate. Offer to share your research with your relative if they are interested.
4. Learn about as many relatives as possible from your newly found relative. It is best to find relatives with whom you have similar interests, professions, and life stage, such as travel, technology, new motherhood or grandparenthood, etc. I am closest with cousins who have young children because I am in the same life stage. It’s not enough to be related to someone who lived decades ago.
5. Open an account with mail.ru, which is connected with Oдноклассник. You’ll see how many notifications you have from Oдноклассник when you are logged into mail.ru. I have stopped using my American-based e-mail accounts for interacting with Russian-language cousins because my account put the messages in my spam box or their messages turned into random letters and symbols due to Cyrillic confusing the e-mail program’s platform.
6. Upload a family tree onto My Heritage. There is no point in inviting relatives from Russia and Ukraine to a family tree on Ancestry.com because they need to have paid memberships to view the trees. My Heritage trees can be reviewed by anyone.
7. Collect postal addresses of a few relatives so you can send them birthday and Christmas cards. The simple effort to send cards gives a personal touch to the relationship.
8. If you are writing letters to people in Ukraine or Russia who are much older, provide your e-mail address on mail.ru and address on Oдноклассник. Sometimes older people are not open to answering letters from strangers. Open the door to be in contact with younger relatives by offering your online information.
9. Don’t push too hard to receive family photos or information for the family tree from your newly found relative. It is hard enough to find relatives in the former USSR while it’s also so easy to scare them away.
10. Don’t talk about touchy topics, especially family disputes no matter how long ago they happened and communist-era persecutions. I have cousins who are upset about what their aunts, uncles and cousins did 50 years ago. Some Russians and Ukrainians still avoid discussing relatives who were imprisoned in communist labor camps or killed during the communist era. Leave those topics alone unless your relative brings them up.