Unsealed records unveil the bigger story behind a family’s persecution

For years, relatives have repeated the story that my grandmother’s five brothers were sent to prison during the communist era for possessing a foreign technical journal on a train.

But that is so far from the possible truth. My grandmother’s brothers were really accused of making an invention that was possibly sold to the Germans, according to files removed from an archive’s volt.

A cell companion of my oldest grand-uncle said he repeatedly heard from other prisoners that my relative said the People’s Commissar of the Navy requested him to make the invention. The signed statement of the cell companion doesn’t say who sold the invention to the Germans.

An accusation that my grand-uncle made an invention worth selling isn’t far-fetched. My researcher carefully looked at the records that were fading and crumbling. The information is a bit shocking.

My researcher found drawings and documentation of nine inventions made by my three grand-uncles. All the writing was in German. These inventions could have helped the military in wartime.

The shocking part isn’t that my grand-uncles had the knowledge and ability to make these inventions. Their father had several inventions for explosives, which were used in mining.

It is hard to understand why they chose to write everything in German. Maybe that was the order from the People’s Commissar of the Navy. I wonder if my grand-uncles even had a choice when this order came to them.

But what is the real truth?  Did their invention really get into the hands of the Germans? Their 57-year-old widowed mother wasn’t afraid to stand up for her sons to Andrei Vyshinsky, the prosecutor of the USSR.

“I beg you to treat fairly the business of my sons. Do not allow certain careerists and overcautious persons to cast a black shadow on the great and awesome name of People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs which is not needing at all those actions which are applied to my sons, the gone too far careerists and actually the Trotskyists who addressed in great People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs for data of the personal scores and for commission of the dirty Trotskyist work,” she wrote to Vyshinsky in 1938.

She was inspired to write Vyshinsky because her oldest son sneaked out a letter written on toilet paper to her. My grand-uncle hid his letter in a saucepan to tell his mother that he and his brother haven’t eaten edible food in six months, were punished by being held in a hot cell for a month and have been beaten terribly for not signing confessions.

Soon after my great-grandmother sent this letter, her other three sons were charged with unknown crimes. This only left a daughter as her only child who was not in prison. Not until my researcher dove into these records, I didn’t understand why the grand-uncles were arrested at different times.

The five brothers were thrown into a stream after being severally beaten and aging much more than the three years that were taken away from them. They saved their lives by not signing any confessions. They returned to their families and made a successful plan to escape the USSR three years later.

The details of this story ends here because the archive is hesitating to release any more records on this case. But the fight to fully tell this story will continue at the archives of a regional Federal Security Service office, where my researcher will open more files on this case.

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Determination to get one record leads to a pile of records on family mysteries

Once I learned that a burial record of my great-grandfather existed at archives, I was determined to see the record. But it wasn’t as simple as making a request to archives.

My great-grandfather died in 1946 in the former USSR. Getting Soviet-era records is a complicated process. A contact in the city was too shy to ask whether he could get a scan of the record.

Then I decided to have my researcher visit the city archives after checking for real estate records at another archive in the same city. Soon after my researcher arrived at the city archive to get a scan of the burial record, she had the luck of finding three files on three brothers of my grandmother from the communist-era. I am curious about how this all happened but I am more thrilled for one more miracle.

My father’s half-sister bragged that her favorite uncle was just like his father- an inventor with patents. Over 10 years, I hadn’t been able to figure out where records could exist to prove that story true. My aunt had a habit of telling grand stories. She inherited her uncle’s possessions but only documents of my great-grandfather’s inventions and patents were found in my aunt’s apartment.

The documents showing inventions of my grand uncle do exist as my researcher just found them at archives. A file with his technical drawings and correspondence with the agencies in Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) about his inventions are sitting at city archives.

Then a burning question has been in my head for the 10 years that I have researched my paternal grandmother’s family, “Why was my grandmother’s family targeted for Soviet persecution?” My family tried to have quiet lives even though they were more financially comfortable than other families during the communist era.

Once my researcher discovered that the oldest brother of my grandmother made an appeal to the court for the return of his apartment taken by the communists, I realized that would be enough to get the communist government’s interest to track my family.

The file on my three grand uncles is dated 1918-1943, showing that my family was tracked by the communist government for 25 years. The tracking ended in 1943, when the three brothers and the rest of my grandmother’s family escaped the USSR.

I am so grateful that these files are finally being opened. The pages total to more than 350 pages on my family, making it the largest discovery of records in my 10-year genealogy journey into Russia.

It took the curiosity into one burial record to discover these files. This shows the importance of documenting research and staying determined on the genealogy journey.

Now, the researcher needs to open these files to review them page by page. What will be found? I don’t know what will be coming my way but it has been worth the wait.

Follow this blog to see this journey unfold by clicking on the top right button.

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10 Mythbusters for making breakthroughs in Russian genealogy

Too many people ignore the Russian side of their family tree due to myths about Russian genealogy. The biggest fear is all the efforts will result in nothing.

I once believed the myths but wanted to know whether discovering my Russian ancestry could be possible. Growing up first-generation American made me wonder about my ancestors and whether relatives could be found in Russia.

My family didn’t come to the USA until the 1950s so working on the family tree has been challenging with the limited amount of American records to start the research. But now I can brag about my family tree having more than 4,000 people, knowing several distant cousins in Russia and Ukraine and finding information never imagined when I started my journey.

Here are the myths that are discouraging people from beginning their incredible journeys.

MYTH 1: Too many records were destroyed during the communist era and two world wars to even consider looking for records.

Many archive records were destroyed during these time periods but the Russian Empire collected a vast amount of records on its people. The variety of records available at Russian archives is comparable to any modern country.

MYTH 2: Russian archives are too disorganized to even find much information.

Archives are getting more organized and ready for 21st century genealogy. Some archives are digitizing their records.

MYTH 3: It will take too long for Russian archives to receive a letter.

Many Russian archives have websites and respond to requests by e-mail.

MYTH 4: Russian archives will ask for proof of ancestry to release documents.

Archives will not ask for documents to prove ancestry to obtain records dated 1917 and earlier.

MYTH 5: I will have to pay bribes to get records.

I have never paid one in 8 years. Russian archives are monitored government offices. I pay bills through Western Union, which allows money to be sent directly to Russian bank accounts or stores where archive staff pick up the money. Western Union sends e-mail messages when money has been picked up.

MYTH 6: I don’t know Russian so I can’t write to archives nor read the letters from archives.

Google Translate does a sufficient job of translating English to Russian and the reverse. If the archives sends a letter as an attachment, it can be uploaded here for a free translation. If archives sends a response as text in an e-mail message, the text can be copied and pasted for translation here.

MYTH 7: If I don’t have enough information, archives won’t do a search and it’s too hard to find researchers. Genealogy isn’t popular in Russia.

Genealogy is a growing hobby in Russia. It’s not as popular as it is in the English-speaking world but it is still possible to find researchers when archives cannot complete research requests.

MYTH 8: Once I get the records from archives, it will be expensive to have the records translated.

There are plenty of eager helpers who can translate Russian documents. Just check out these Facebook genealogy groups for help with translations.

MYTH 9: There aren’t any websites comparable to Ancestry to post my Russian family tree that could be seen by other Russians.

MyHeritage and Geni are popular among Russians.

MYTH 10: There isn’t a comprehensive forum for Russian genealogy. It will be hard to go far in Russian genealogy.

The most comprehensive forum is Всероссийское генеалогическое древо. It is in Russian but can be easily translated into English with Google Translate. Here is a look at the forum in English. This is the forum where I had found Russian and Ukrainian relatives several times and received lots of help to research my family tree. Those who are not brave enough to try this Russian forum, can try these Facebook genealogy groups.

Anyone excited to move forward in their Russian genealogy can read these posts to get ready for their journey:

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
The complete guide to charming Russian archives for church records
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs
Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!