The biggest struggle in genealogy can be as simple as a name. Names get complicated as soon as people leave their homeland.
Immigrants change their name to assimilate in their new homeland or immigration officials misunderstand how to write foreign names and then give whatever letter combinations they see fit.
Then future generations pound their heads into genealogy brickwalls when trying to research their immigrant relatives. Immigrants who filled out form after form somehow vanish from the paper trails that were supposedly left behind.
Thanks to Ancestry.com’s newdatabase-U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, the mystery of name changes is solved if you have the right information. But if your family came from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, you are praying your family didn’t have name changes too impossible to figure out.
So here are some simple rules to follow. Many of these records include first and last names of parents, something that can’t be found on many Russian language birth and marriage records.
1. If you are not familiar with translating names into English, visit this website. Russian names are complicated to spell in English and this website is very detailed about figuring out names for English spellings.
2. The biggest changes in spelling names that will be noticed are switching v’s to w’s or ff’s and y’s to j’s and unnecessary use of iy combinations, i.e. Romanow for Romanov; Borisoff for Borisov; and Petrovskiy for Petrovsky. Even names of birthplaces will be found with strange English spellings.
3. If relatives cannot be found by using last names, use different spellings of first names with the birth years or spouses’ first names as keywords. Some Russian first names are not as common and will bring up fewer results to make the search easier.
4. If relatives are not found by using birthplaces by appropriate spellings, be open to misspelled places. My grand uncle’s birthplace of Kiev was spelled Kesin when he knew to spell it as Kiew from living briefly in Germany.
5. If good matches do not appear, reconsider the matches that have birthplaces of the closest city. Sometimes it was easier to spell the closest city for immigrants struggling to learn English than the actual village where they were born.
6. Remember that names of towns have changed over the years. Search for Leningrad, not Saint Petersburg or St. Petersburg; and Stalingrad, not Volgograd. Here is a Wikipedia page that lists town and city name changes in the former USSR.
7. If birth dates seem later than from what is known in the family, consider that your relatives may have changed their immigration records to appear younger and more attractive for employment and immigration approval.
Once you collect the information you need, I highly recommend reading this post- Nothing like a good chuckle from ancestry.com– on the U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 database. Information from that database and ancestry.com’s newest database are a great combination for trucking past the brickwalls and onto discovering new cousins.