Finding the truth about great-grandpa’s plot to kill Czar Alexander III

One mystery I always wanted to solve was my great-grandfather’s supposed plot to kill Russian Czar Alexander III. I thought it was just another story from my grandmother that was so far from the truth.

But the joke is on me. Great-grandpa really did plot to kill the czar as a member of the People’s Will Movement, which included Lenin’s brother as a leader. These people weren’t just a bunch of unorganized and unhappy peasants. The original People’s Will Movement was responsible for killing Czar Alexander II.

Putting together the pieces of this mystery has taken years. I didn’t think this “rumor” could ever be proven true until my aunt’s apartment was cleaned out.

I found her grandfather’s patent records. Having no idea of what type of patents great-grandpa obtained, I had a friend in Moscow translate some of the records. She uncovered that the patents were granted for explosive devices.

So there went off the light bulb in my head. Maybe it was true he built a bomb to help kill the czar.

I mentioned this rumor to a cousin. She recalled that our great-grandfather was imprisoned in a tower in St. Petersburg  for his involvement with the People’s Will Movement.

I unsuccessfully tried to find information on my great-grandfather on Google by using keywords in English. Once I translated my keywords into Russian on Google Translate, I found so much information, including that he was sentenced to 4 months in prison.

Then I gave that information to a researcher in St. Petersburg to find records on my great-grandfather in Russian State Historical Archives, one of the world’s largest archives.

One record showed he served time in the Trubetskoy Bastion of the famous Peter and Paul Tower in St. Petersburg. I learned that my great-grandfather built 11 bombs for a mere 20 rubles, the value of $14 American dollars in 1885, from another record.

Luckily, those bombs didn’t get near Czar Alexander III and my great-grandfather used his naive age as an advantage when he was prosecuted. He was a 21-year-old  graduate from a mining school when he decided to get busy for 6 weeks in an unmarried woman’s apartment to make the bombs in the city where his family lived.

The remaining unanswered question is what happened to his bombs. For now, I have pieced together his life after prison. I learned my great-grandfather married into a noble family in Kharkov, where the People’s Will Movement tried to kill government officials.

Then my great-grandfather moved to the village where he was approached to build the bombs. His first son was born there and my family quickly moved to another eastern Ukrainian village.

What a surprise that my great-grandfather’s stay in the village was short-lived. Who would want a bomb-making terrorist as a neighbor or employee? He eventually left Ukraine and moved to southern Russia.

There, he made the news in the local newspaper for accidentally setting off an explosion that shook up neighbors near his business. Neighbors protested his explosive-making business as would anyone from any time period.

Soon afterwards, he died from a heart attack. It was best that his life ended prematurely at 46 years old because six years later the Russian Revolution started with the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family.

My great-grandfather would have been easily killed in the Russian Revolution with being a Don Cossack and Russian nobleman. It would have been an interesting fight for his life. “But I tried to kill the czar!” would have been his argument for his life. Thankfully, his heart attack allowed him to avoid seeing the heartache and bloodshed the Russian Revolution brought to his family.



Don’t blink in a cemetery

Eight months ago, I posted on a Russian forum for help to find my great-grandparents’ graves in southern Russia. I got several responses with photos of graves for random people carrying my family’s surnames.

I sighed when I got a message that a woman found my paternal great-grandparents’ grave this week. When I clicked on the link to the image, I was stunned. The woman really found the grave.

Back in November, she sent me a picture of another Ivanov family grave. Without knowing it, she missed my great-grandparents’ grave by a few steps then. She apparently went back to the cemetery and found their grave right next to the other Ivanov grave found in November.

Finding this grave is just a miracle. This doesn’t sound like a great feat unless you know all the factors that were against me.

First of all, my great-grandparents most likely died during World War II in a city that was choked by a violent Nazi-occupation and battle between the German and Soviet armies.

My grandfather, who died in 1971, was the last person who maintained the grave. To continue standing today after decades of neglect from lack of relatives to maintain the grave is a miracle.

The grave sits in a massive cemetery that  is estimated to have several thousand graves. When I posted on another Russian genealogy forum for help, several people told me it would be as easy as finding a needle in a haystack due to the cemetery’s size, vandalism and lack of maintenance.

I didn’t care what those people had to say. The miracles that have come through in the past four years have been stunning. I have learned that posting in the right forums gets the right results. Thankfully, someone directed me to a ВКонтакте group that has been documenting the cemetery.

My expectations were that there was a chance someone would care enough to look and find at least one grave. However, I never expected that to happen in less than a year.

My only disappointment in finding this grave is that my grandfather did not have his parents’ death years placed on their gravestone. The local registry office cannot find their death records. It would have been great to know how long they lived and whether they saw the Soviet Army end the Nazi occupation of their city.

Now, I wonder how much longer it will be when the last three family graves will be found. The graves of my other paternal great-grandparents and the stillborn brother of my father’s first cousin are still waiting to be found.

It was only six months ago since my grandfather’s grave was found in the newer cemetery on my birthday. That of course was thanks to another stranger on a forum for the city.

I can credit only one success to Facebook. Anyone who wants to repeat my success needs to get comfortable with using Google Translate to write in Ukrainian and Russian and find the Cyrillic language genealogy forums.

Success is awaiting for those who challenge themselves….


Curiosity of an old family letter reconnects two families decades later

The curiosity about the contents of a Russian letter got to an Australian woman. She was hoping I could help her translate the letter. Neither I nor a close friend in Moscow could understand the handwritten letter.

With some teamwork on North America, Australia and Europe, the families in Australia and Russia are exchanging information and photos for the first time in 50 years.

The process of connecting the families took three months. Luckily, the letter filled with family information was written by the Australian’s great-grandfather’s sister only about 30 years ago, when it is most likely that the letter wasn’t given a response.

In that time, I had hoped a younger generation of the family would continue to live at the same address. That wasn’t my luck.

I found a woman on Odnoklassniki, a popular Russian social network, who carried the family surname and lived in the same town. She was not related to the family but she was kind enough to visit the address of the woman who wrote the letter.

The family living there today didn’t know the letter writer. So I had to rethink about how to find this family. Thankfully, I was not dealing with a very common surname.

I contacted most of the people with the same surname on Odnoklassniki and VKontakte, the most popular Russian social network, in the same region of Russia. Most people either didn’t answer my message or responded that they were unrelated.

One woman responded within 24 hours that her husband was son of a brother of the Australian woman’s great-grandfather. Luckily, I waited to send the “are you related” messages after the Russian letter was translated to ensure accurate information was used to find the family.

I revealed in the messages to random people only a few details that the Australian woman knew so anyone who is truly related to her family would provide the other undisclosed details. The first woman did provide other known details that ensured this wasn’t just a luck of in common first and last names.

That relative on Odnoklassniki got the Australian woman in contact with another Russian relative who sent a family photo that completely confirmed I matched the correct families together.

I am hoping they will stay in contact for a while. The Australian woman opened an account on Odnoklassniki, posted some friendly pictures of herself and some old family photos and posted her status on the search for her family.

With so many years that have passed since these families have been in contact, exchanging faceless e-mail messages will not keep the connection going for long. Russians, like many English-speaking people, connect on social networks.

Long lost family can be found in the former USSR when the right steps are taken. It takes time and patience but dreams of reconnecting with family can become a reality to anyone.

Empty-handed search but warmed by open doors of Ukrainian Secret Service

I didn’t know what to expect when I asked the Ukrainian Secret Service to check  its archives for records on my maternal grandmother’s family. Would it be a good thing if records were found? Would it be wonderful if records didn’t exist?

My luck, of course, was records were not found. It was a disappointment at first but I also felt grateful that my grandmother’s family did not suffer from political persecution during a painful time in the communist era.

My grandparents told my mother that my family escaped war-torn Kiev in winter 1943 during the night. Only what was needed made it into suitcases. Thanks to my maternal grandmother’s German ancestry from her mother in current day eastern Poland, my family got permission to immigrate to Germany.

My family lived a quiet life in southern Germany. It wasn’t easy for my grandfather to live in the land of his torturers. My grandfather was a POW of the German army in a prison near Kiev and my grandmother walked for a long time every day to bring him food.

My grandfather talked his way out of that prison and got back to my grandmother and mother. My grandmother’s family found a way to escape bombed-out Kiev, which had little food and hope for those who waited for the war to end.

My grandmother probably wondered whether her father’s family suffered when she and several family members escaped Soviet Ukraine. Proof of persecution against her family doesn’t exist. Records from the secret service’s archives would have helped me find my grandmother’s paternal relatives.

I am grateful the records are not there. I am even more grateful for the professionalism and openness of Ukrainian Secret Service.

My request was acknowledged by e-mail less than 48 hours later. Then, 13 days later, I received a letter, stating archive records do not include my family.

The letter included information on a man carrying my grandmother’s maiden name who died as a POW of the Germans and addresses for Ukrainian and Russian military archives and Kursk Regional archives. The secret service just didn’t send me a cold one-paragraph letter that nothing was found.

Anyone who is curious about whether their family suffered from communist persecution should take action now. Requests are free and simple. I posted my proof of ancestry and identity records to a private Google Picasa album and sent secret service archives a link to the album.

I will make two more requests with the secret service archives. At any time politics of Ukraine could change the openness of these records. Timing is everything, especially when closure is desired on Ukraine’s painful political past.

Related website: Secret Service of Ukraine archives

Related post: Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives