Top 10 things to never say to potential relatives in the former USSR

There is nothing as exciting as finding family lost after many years. In that excitement of finding relatives’ postal addresses, e-mail addresses or social network pages, it is important to think before typing away.

History and politics haven’t been fair in the former USSR. Sensitivity is required to make the first impression that sparks a response of excitement.

A simple comment that seems harmless could end dreams of reconnecting. Here is 10 things to never say when trying to reconnect with family in the former USSR.

  1. “Do you know what happened to Grand Uncle Sergey? We heard he was arrested and sent to Siberia.” It’s been 25 years since communism collapsed but many families still don’t want to talk about how communist persecution affected their lives.
  2. “I heard Grand Uncle Nikolai was captured by the Germans and held in a P.O.W. camp during the war.” People in the former USSR don’t want to be reminded of the pains from the Great Patriotic War (or World War II).
  3. “My grandmother wrote to the family in 1959 and she was upset that no one wrote back to her.” Receiving foreign mail or sending foreign mail was considered highly suspicious and some people were arrested for being foreign spies.
  4. “What happened to the beautiful family home on Red Army Street? The family had the home for many years.” Many families lost their family homes to the government and were moved to much smaller homes.
  5. “Do you have any photos of my grandfathers’ brothers from their service in the White Army?” Many families burned documents and photos proving service in the enemy army of the Red Army. Some families will have great pride in their Cossack ancestry while others don’t want to discuss it.
  6. “We hope the family isn’t still upset over the family fight between Uncle Dimitri and my mother.” After many years, the facts of family fights can become twisted so it is best to avoid mentioning these situations.
  7. “We heard Aunt Tatiana’s daughter worked briefly in the U.S.A. Why didn’t she contact us? She had our address and phone number.” Some USSR citizens were able to work briefly abroad but they knew contacting their families would bring lots of trouble.
  8. “You really should come for a visit. We would love to get to know you.” Many people from the former USSR were taught to be suspicious of strangers so it is best to hold these invitations until the families get much closer. Also, traveling abroad is beyond reality for many families.
  9. “Why can’t I find you on Facebook (or other social networks)?” Some people from the former USSR are suspicious of networks that track their activities, know their friends and store their personal photos. It’s a holdover from the Soviet era.
  10. “I am working on the family tree. Would you mind sharing family documents?” That sounds innocent but relatives who don’t know you could get leery of your interest in the family. Genealogy hasn’t caught on in the former USSR as it has in the English-speaking world. Wait to ask for documents until everyone knows each other better.

Related posts on finding long-lost family:
Memorial Website Opens Door to Find Living Russian Family
Build the best mousetrap to find long-lost family this holiday season
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum

3 thoughts on “Top 10 things to never say to potential relatives in the former USSR

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reads | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  2. Steven Schioldager

    I visited Russia two years ago, armed with photos, letters and information. 1917, I also gave a lecture on American banking systems at the university in Irkutsk. At first much cooperation to find answers. I came home and continued to receive help over the net. then oil prices fell and former helpers went radio silent. The truth is the entire nation is paranoid and help will only come when the Russians are not afraid of the current leadership. Your information is helpful but only valuable if and when, if ever, Russian/US relations normalize.And there are a lot of powerful people in the US whose interest is to prevent this.

    1. I have found a lot of friendly Russians who are willing to help me. I know the Russia/US relations causes some people to not respond to me. From what I am seeing on Russian forums, more Russians are doing genealogy and seeking out their American family.

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