The priceless value of a sixth cousin

I have been eager to find the closest cousins as possible but the cousins with the most information have been those who needed to be identified by pulling out the family tree.

I was excited to seeing a posting by a distant cousin on a genealogy forum. The man’s paternal grandmother was born into the same family as my paternal grandmother. Our grandmothers were 4th cousins, leaving our common ancestor as our 5th great-grandpa.

The effort it took to track down my Russian-American 6th cousin was quite the feat. He posted his message on the most popular Russian genealogy forum 10  years ago so the postal and e-mail addresses he posted were out-of- date.

I had to research him on Google and find information on him on  Intellius before I called the right house. I knew this was worth all the effort when I uncovered he wrote a book on his southern Russian ancestry in ENGLISH.

Anytime I can find documented research on my Russian ancestors in English, it is a happy dance marathon. This is the first time ever that I had the luck of finding information on my ancestors in English.

The details that my sixth cousin found by visiting archives in St. Petersburg on my direct ancestors, starting from my great-grandfather’s generation, was beyond words. I never thought a sixth cousin would be so resourceful.

The cherry on top of this cake was that my cousin uncovered the full names of 3rd and 4th great-grandmothers, a task that is hardly easy to accomplish in Russian genealogy. Uncovering these surnames proved we are cousins twice, through our 5th great-grandfather and my 4th great-grandmother.

This all opened another door I never expected. Thanks to our Don Cossack ancestry, I was able to find information on my 4th great-grandmother’s family in  a genealogy book written by Sergei Koryagin.

So, now I have information on more than 30 relatives of my 4th great-grandmother. Koryagin details the service of the Don Cossacks in my 4th great-grandmother’s family in his genealogy book.

All due to the efforts of finding a 6th cousin, I have more than names and dates on relatives of my grandmother and 4th great-grandmother. This would have costed me thousands of dollars on my own.

Not all distant cousins are filled with family information but it is worth the effort to say hello to cousins who are connected to those great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. The information awaiting you to break down some brick walls could be just an e-mail message away.

Related post:

Discovering Don Cossack ancestry the easy way

Massive Soviet Army WWII database tells the story of millions of soldiers

The Russian government is sharing the joy of the 70th anniversary for the Soviet Army’s victory over the German army with the world. This anniversary is being celebrated with the opening of an impressive database.

Memory of a Nation 1941-1945 has more than 50 million records on Soviet Army WWII soldiers and that includes 2 million records on locations of soldiers’ burial sites.

The cherry on top of this tasty Russian torte is that paths of individual soldiers are shown on maps with details on their unit’s activities. It is so thrilling to look up my grandfather’s brother on this database and see the path he took with his unit through Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany and learn the medals he earned on his way to the Soviet Army’s victory.

mapvalentin

I do not have the luck of finding records of my grandfather in this database. He was a “traitor” for getting captured by the German army, then escaping a German POW camp and finding a way out of the Soviet Ukraine during the war.

Every effort to find his records have failed after contacting military archives in Ukraine and Russia. Now that effort to contact military archives is no longer needed, thanks to this database.

The only caveat in using this database is that only keywords in Russian can be used in the search engine. Names and other keywords can be easily translated on Google Translate. This website can be viewed through Google Translate here.

To easily work through the website, here are some simple translations: фамилия: last name; имя: first name; отчество: patronymic name (middle name from the father, i.e. Ivanovich); год рождения: birth year; место рождения: place of birth; and дата выбытия: date of service ending.

Out of curiosity, I searched my great-grandfather’s Russian birth village to see who would appear in the database. This may be an easier way to find relatives in the database if it is easier to translate names of villages and small towns than complicated Russian surnames.

If people who are uncomfortable with Russian websites still aren’t convinced of the database’s value, here is an article in English, explaining the database in detail.

The effort to use this database will prove to be well-worth it in results for many people.

Top 10 tips for charming the guardians of communist-era records

I didn’t know birth, marriage and death records were open records in Russia and Ukraine for the communist-era until a few years ago. It takes more than saying “Please, give me information on grandpa.” to get a peek at these records.

Some registry offices that possess these records have friendly  and helpful staff while other offices have staff who find every excuse to block your efforts to get information.

So here’s how to charm the keepers of these records:

1. Make sure you have complete and accurate information on your relatives. Don’t ruin your chances with getting information by providing “I’m kind of sure” information on your relatives.

2. Do research the place of birth, marriage and death of your relatives. You can search for the places on Google and see what details webpages give on the area. This is highly recommended to make sure you send your request to the correct registry office. Simply use Google to search загс (Russian and Ukrainian for registry office) and the town or city of your relatives in Russian or Ukrainian.

2. Get your records proving ancestry to your relative together, scan them and post them to Google + Photo Albums, with the album set as share privately. Make sure to write small descriptions of each record and  include a scan of your passport or driver’s license to prove identity in the album. Provide a link to the album in your written request.

3. Never, ever mention the word genealogy or any word related to genealogy when you e-mail or mail your request. The office could reject your request.

4. Don’t ask for official copies of records. You will be sent to the Consulate General of Ukraine or Russia. If you need official reprints of records, make a request for information at the registry office to confirm the record exists first.

5. Make sure your e-mail account can handle Cyrillic. I had to open an account on mail.ru because my American e-mail account turned Russian into random letters and symbols. Copy and paste any random Russian or Ukrainian page of information into an e-mail message to yourself and see how it comes back to you.

6. Avoid using words such as want and need. It is best to use sentences that show gratitude such as “I would be so grateful if you could search for_________________. ” “Your efforts are greatly appreciated.” “Any information you could provide would be appreciated.”

7. Do not advertise you are a foreigner with an e-mail subject line such as “Request from USA” in English nor Russian. It is best to state you are unable to visit the office personally to avoid invitations to make your request in person.

8. It is highly recommended to send your e-mail message or letter in Russian or Ukrainian. Many offices still do not work in English. Ask for help on a Facebook genealogy page, visit a Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church or high school or college that teaches the languages to find help with translation.

9. Do not give the registry office a time limit to respond to your request even if it sounds innocent such as “I look forward to hearing from you in the next few weeks.”

10. Show gratitude no matter what were the results of the search. Send a thank note by postal mail or e-mail after the results are sent. You never know when you will have to deal with that office again.

Good luck!

Getting one record from the 1930s can be like a box of chocolates

Dealing with the Russian and Ukrainian registry offices that guard the communist-era birth, marriage and death records is like a box of chocolates. The chocolates may look the same but you never know what you’ll get until you bite.

That’s a great summary of what I just experienced over three e-mail messages with a small registry office in central Russia. I was so excited when I got a response to my request for my great-great-grandmother’s death record in 2 business days but it turned out biting in that chocolate gave me zero satisfaction.

I received a scanned letter I could hardly read, due to the technical Russian language. Thanks to my friend in Moscow, I learned I needed to fill out the attached form. I retyped any words I didn’t know into this Russian online keyboard and then translated those words on Google Translate.

I printed the form and filled out the form in Russian, thinking this would be a simple process. Then came the second e-mail message.

I learned the registry office thought I was a Russian citizen living in the USA so the office told me to make my request with the Russian Consulate General (the office that reports to the Russian Embassy), thanks to help from a member on Facebook group Genealogy Translations.

It was quite comical that the staff at the registry office were convinced I was a true Russian. I was told that Google Translate butchers the Russian language. Couldn’t the staff tell that I was an American who couldn’t write proper Russian?

So off I went to call the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of Russia in New York City. No one was answering the phone but I won’t complain. The Russian Embassy has forwarded responses from Russian government offices without a charge for years.

Frustrated I sent one final e-mail message that I am not a Russian citizen but an American. I told the registry office that I would like to know if the record exists before I make a request with the Consulate General.

Quickly an e-mail message came back from the registry office the next day, explaining the proper procedure for applying for civil records and telling me the record doesn’t exist.

I don’t know who I should be mad at, my great-grandfather who couldn’t remember his mother’s death year or the person who supposedly lost the record.

My last experience with a registry office was in eastern Ukraine, a comical experience. A regional archive office told me my great-grandparents’ marriage record from 1890 was sitting in a registry office.

Just imagine going to an American registry office for a marriage record from 1890. The staff immediately will start coughing to cover their laughing or will run to the manager’s office to laugh their heads off.

I got information from the marriage record unofficially for a price I didn’t enjoy from a researcher to avoid the strict requirements to prove ancestry and identity.

This is the former USSR, where birth, marriage and death records are somehow government secrets to protect national security. In the past four years, I have yet to get  a copy of my family’s communist-era civil records.

Still I am happy with the information I have obtained over the years from registry offices. Communist-era records are open with the right charm that hasn’t involved a bribe yet. Just maybe I know what I am doing.

Next post: How to make successful requests to registry offices