The joke in Russian genealogy is figuring out which family stories are real. But the sad reality is that the craziest stories are really the truth.
Anyone who isn’t familiar with the past realities of life in the USSR will have a hard time believing the below scenarios were real.
Scenario 1: Uncle Vladimir was reading a foreign newspaper on a train. He was arrested for being an enemy of the state and beaten in prison for a confession that he was a spy.
Reality: Possession of anything foreign caused a great stir. Anyone who had foreign items was considered suspicious.
Scenario 2: Aunt Katya got in a fight with her cousin Svetlana. Katya sent a foreigner looking for a place to stay to Svetlana’s apartment. Katya and Svetlana never talked to each other again and Svetlana’s neighbors never trusted her again.
Reality: Talking to a foreigner was a big no-no during the Soviet era.
Scenario 3: Grand Uncle Vasil stole food from a store. He was arrested, sent to Siberia and tried to return to his family after he served his time. His wife Yulia never responded to his letters from prison. When he came home, none of his family nor friends would say they knew him.
Reality: When someone was sent to Siberia, people usually tried to forget about that person. Continuing contact with that person would cause trouble and unwanted attention when people tried to live a quiet life in the USSR.
Scenario 4: Aunt Anna was poor and her brother Simon took pity on her. While Simon was living in Germany, he sent Anna packages of clothing. She was arrested and questioned by police about whether she was a foreign spy.
Reality: Getting foreign mail raised a red flag. Contact with foreigners (by phone, mail or in person) was forbidden. In some rare situations, getting letters from foreigners was overlooked and didn’t bring trouble.
Scenario 5: Uncle Dimitri and his family immigrated to Germany during World War II. He never wrote or called his parents ever again. His father died a few years after World War II. He wanted to attend his funeral but Uncle Dimitri was afraid to be arrested and sent to Siberia.
Reality: Once you left the USSR, you never returned nor had contact with your family until the Iron Curtain fell.
Scenario 6: Uncle Alex was feeling quite relaxed at a party after a few drinks. He told a joke, making fun of the Soviet government. Alex was arrested and never heard from again.
Reality: Tell a bad joke and you’re a walking dead man.
Scenario 7: Grandma Ludmilla confesses at Christmas dinner that her name is really Yelena Smirnova. She and grandpa lost their identification during the war. They passed an overturned truck with a dead couple. They went in their pockets and took their identity cards. From then on, they took on dead couple’s identity.
Reality: Not every identity card had photos so it was easy to assume new identities. Civil records were lost in bombings. Confirming identities were hard for those using real and fake names.
My reality: 6 of these situations occurred in my family or to those my family knew. Truth is really stranger than fiction, a warning to remember before eliminating a relative who tells “wild stories” as a source.