Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

Once many people learn their relatives came from the Soviet Union, the excitement of researching their past seems to be reduced to anxiety. The challenges feared chill the thrill of what can be learned.

But the thrill is allowing curiosity overtake the anxiety. The search is still possible even if relatives didn’t leave behind many documents from the old country.

Just knowing names, birth years and birth countries of Ukraine, Russia or Belarus, plenty of potential exists to research their lives. The approach just needs to be flipped with starting with what is known and collecting all possible records.

1. Obtain the death and marriage records.

2. If your relatives collected Social Security, search for them in the Social Security Death Index here. Don’t worry if they can’t be found in the database.

3. Apply for photocopies of their original Social Security applications here. The fee is $21. Proving death with death records, obituaries or Social Security Death Index listings is required for anyone who would be less than 120 years old today.

On an application of a friend’s great-grandfather who was born in the early 1900s, the man provided his birth date, birth village, both parents’ names, date
of arrival and previously used names.

4. Search for naturalization records. If they can’t be found online, go to the U.S. National Archives website and e-mail the regional office closest to their residence for the first 5 years in the USA. The office will typically search for their records for free.

5. Find the passenger records online or order reproductions here for $10. (If they arrived at Ellis Island, try this free database.) This may seem like duplicating information already found on other documents, but passenger records may include other unknown relatives. Every piece of information is important.

6. Search for Alien Case Files (the golden gem of information) on your relatives for free here. If your relatives’ surnames are uncommon, just search the surnames. The ordering information is listed on the bottom of the clicked link.

7. If your relatives weren’t found in that database and arrived between July 1, 1924 and 1975, the U.S. Department of Citizen and Immigration Services Genealogy Program may have files on them. Click here for more information on  its records. The search is $65 per person and each file costs another $65. If you can afford the fees, it’s worth checking whether records are available on your relatives.

8. Make sure to download or print out any new information. Even if a document says your relatives came from a different place than noted on other documents,  it’s important to keep that information. Your relatives may have struggled with spelling their birthplace in English.

Once you have collected all the documents, use the new information to search online databases.  If you weren’t as successful as hoped on one relative, try the first six steps on siblings. Don’t give up.

The final step is joining Facebook genealogy groups and be ready to be amazed by the amount of advice and resources that will come pouring in.

Related posts:
Top 13 tips for making Facebook the best genealogy networking tool
Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems
Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Great-grandpa’s arrest record helps breakdown a brickwall

It’s been quite frustrating to not know the full name of my great-great-grandmother. No one passed on information more than her first and middle name and archives lost her marriage record.

I thought hope was lost in knowing who was my great-great-grandmother. Then luck again happened once again on the most popular Russian genealogy forum.

A woman who previously worked for the regional archives in the same area of my family village offered her services to research records. I didn’t have much hope records could be found but this woman would know archives better than anyone else I could hire to dig through archives.

By luck, she knew another resource for marriage information. My great-great-grandfather had to ask permission from a military board for his marriage to be approved, with him being a Don Cossack, soldier of the Russian czar’s army.

Thank you Don Cossacks for having such rules. The researcher found a document that revealed the month and year of marriage, the full name of my great-great-grandmother and her father’s title of captain and engineer.

The maiden surname sounded familiar. An investigation record of my great-grandfather’s arrest from his college days mentioned him staying with an uncle in Lugansk, Ukraine, with the same last name.

My grandmother gave my father an oral history of the family. That family surname was supposed to be connected to a maternal aunt’s husband, not her paternal grandmother.

Thanks to connecting my great-grandfather’s arrest document from St. Petersburg archives with his father’s marriage request record, the man in Lugansk is confirmed as my great-grandfather’s uncle, not just an older family friend. This explains why my great-grandfather attended college in Lugansk, so far away from the family Cossack village in southern Russia.

And thanks to Russian culture, I also know the first name of my great-great-great-grandfather. Once a full name is known of an ancestor such as given name, patronymic name (in honor of the father’s given name) and surname, the father’s first and last name are known. It’s a two-for-one deal in Russian genealogy.

The profession of my great-great-great-grandfather was hardly a surprise. His grandson, some great-grandsons and a great-great-grandson were engineers. After all these years of researching, I finally discovered a family profession comes from an ancestor.

Learning about my great-great-grandmother’s family didn’t seem realistic, with my past luck in southern Russian archives. My researcher got lucky with finding my great-grandfather’s death record so my curiosity was peaked whether his parents’ marriage record could be found.

The birth records of my great-grandfather and his brother vanished from archives. Thanks to connecting with my cousins from my great-grandfather’s brother on the most popular Russian genealogy forum, I guessed when the parents could have married, based on their great-grandfather’s birth year, and hit the jackpot.

In Russian genealogy, you can either be bitter about what can’t be found or be delighted with surprises after constant resilience.

For more inspiration:

An overlooked record opens a door to finding long-lost family from WWII
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (includes a video guide in English)