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

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