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.

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