A shocking sign that some people in the former USSR aren’t scared anymore

I have wondered for years when will people in the former USSR stop being scared of talking openly about life under communism. I have read several books of people talking about the repression their families faced but they hide their identities or withhold their last names.

The latest development on this topic is beyond shocking and something I never imagined would ever happen in the former USSR.

Memorial, the Russian-based organization that researches the atrocities of Soviet times, is pounding in signs on houses in Russia and Ukraine that announce residents who faced death for fake crimes during the Soviet Era. This is the choice of relatives who aren’t afraid to speak up about the family secrets.

I have relatives from Russia in their 40s who were upset that I talked about a relative who was killed during the communist era over e-mail. The idea of someone nailing down plaques and announcing former residents of a particular house died from communist persecution is a bit shocking.

I can imagine elderly neighbors seeing these plaques, gasping at the sight of these plaques and muttering, “What the hell are they thinking? Keep these matters within the family, not within the community and for everyone who walks by.”

This project, started in March 2017, already has had about 40 signs put on homes. It doesn’t look like much but this is a sign of change in the former USSR. (Watch this project grow each month here. Copy and paste text into Google Translate if you don’t know Russian.)

Researchers disagree about how many people died from persecution in Soviet times but about 2.5 million persecution deaths have been documented during Stalin’s reign, according to this Wikipedia article.

These signs that show people aren’t afraid to speak openly about their family’s persecutions could lead to larger online databases on the repressed and more people posting online about their family’s secrets. Finding long-lost family could become easier soon as people talk more about their “secret” relatives.

Too many people who have relatives from the former Soviet Union know how hard it is to have their family talk about life in the former homeland. More information will be coming as the fear of talking about the past decreases in the former USSR.

Memorial has already posted an online database of people from the former USSR who were persecuted during Soviet times here. The database can be searched here.  (Use this website to translate names into Russian.)

The organization is working on a database of USSR citizens who were forced labors of Germany during WWII. I can’t imagine the closure so many people will have when this information is revealed, giving them a new understanding as to why some relatives want to keep the past secret. (Follow this blog with the top black right button to learn when the database is available.)

Related posts:

Secret files help complete the life story of five brothers

Doors are open on “secret files”

Database reveals names of secret agents for the Soviet Great Terror

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

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An inside look into a FBI investigation of a Soviet immigrant

Many people who have relatives who escaped the USSR know the feeling of having closed-off relatives. Making them talk about their lives in the USSR and how they managed to escape the USSR is a conversation that goes nowhere.

After getting my hands on a FBI file on a Soviet immigrant who came to the USA after WWII, I have a better understanding of why some Soviet immigrants are so reclusive.

A friend of mine, who left Russia for Ukraine, asked me to find information on his Ukrainian great-grandfather. I obtained his great-grandfather’s Alien File (see below for more information) from the U.S. Department of Citizen and Immigration Services. For some reason, several pages were blank and stamped with CONFIDENTIAL.

That got my curiosity peaked. I appealed the USCIS’ decision to deny me access to the pages by sending an appeal in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI. (My personal file at the FBI must be growing from my curiosity.)

A few weeks later, an envelope from the FBI came in the mail. The “secrets” of a man I’ll call Vladimir Ivanov were revealed.

He got the attention of the FBI for visiting the Soviet Mission to the United Nations in New York City. In simple terms, Vladimir visited the office representing the Soviet Union for the United Nations.

Like in the movies, they detailed in the FBI file Vladimir’s appearance from his hair to clothes. Obviously, a FBI agent was watching who was visiting this office. The report goes on “Upon departing the SMUN this unknown male boarded an IRT subway train and repeatedly asked directions of other individuals in the car. He was observed to speak in a heavy accent and on one occasion was overheard to advise another subway passenger that he was from Lithuania.”

I can imagine a FBI agent in a trench coat, sitting in the subway train with his newspaper covering his face. Then the agent followed Vladimir onto a bus to Patterson, N.J., where Vladimir visited Manpower to look for temp jobs. The agent gets a Manpower employee to reveal his identity and activities as an employee.

The FBI agent contacts the Immigration and Naturalization Service to learn more about Vladimir’s immigration process and life in the USA and then a bank for his credit records, which didn’t exist. The final stop was the Patterson Police Department to check for any criminal activity. Vladimir only had paid a $100 fine for drunkenness.

Even though there isn’t any evidence that he could be a Soviet spy, the investigation runs from February to June 1966, all because he visited that office.

All of this makes me wonder about how many Soviet immigrants were investigated and documented by the FBI. The fear of Soviet immigrants must have spread from FBI agents doing these investigations.

Soviet immigrants came to this country for freedom and a better life, but who was being watched as if they were still in the Soviet Union? Only the FBI knows.

Related posts:
Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

Meet your friendly Soviet repatriation officer

60 years later, a family story starts to come together

Guide to finding family in Ukraine like a native expert

It’s taken years to figure out how to use the best-known database for searching out Ukrainian family. Then, the improved search abilities at the two most popular social networks in Ukraine have made it incredibly easy to find relatives.

With following these guidelines, finding family will be easier than could be imagined. These tips even have been useful in finding birth families of adoptees, who usually know so little about their families.

Here’s how to find long-lost family in Ukraine. A laptop or desktop computer is highly recommended.

1. Create profiles on vk.com and ok.ru, the most popular social networks in Ukraine. They are available in English.

2. Have relatives’ names and hometowns translated on Google Translate. If Google Translate doesn’t work well, try this website for Russian translations. Then translate on Google Translate from Russian to Ukrainian.

3. Visit Google Maps and search for your relatives’ hometowns, make a list of surrounding villages, towns and cities and then have them translated into Russian and Ukrainian. (Of course, keep all the translated names and places in a Word document or a similar program.)

4. Then, go to this database of Ukrainian residents. Don’t worry if you don’t know a word of Russian. Here are the translations of each search box from left to right: фамилия (last name); имя (first name);  отчество (patronymic name, i.e. Nikolaevna, Sergeevich); нас. пункт (location/city/town/village); ул. (street); дом (house number/street number); and кв (apartment number). Here is a sample of how the results will appear.

The sample above shows the full name, birthdate, hometown and street address are given on each person, with some people having phone numbers.

5.  Start the search with only the last name in Russian, unless common last names are being searched. This will give  you a good idea of how common the name is in Ukraine. (Remember that sometimes surnames end differently for men and women. Make sure to search both version of surnames.)

6. This website limits viewing of result pages to 50 pages per day. If the results cover more than 50 pages, then refine the search by hometown.

7. If results no longer appear after searching by surname and hometown in Russian, try the Ukrainian versions. Also search for the surnames in the surrounding cities, towns and villages in Russian and Ukrainian.

8. Families may have moved to another place. Copy and paste the place of residence from Вся Украина – жители into Google to see where it is located. If the full name is uncommon and the birthdate seems possible for that person, it could be the correct person even if their place of residence is far from their last known address. The chances are higher of having a good match if the place of residence is in the same region as their last known residence.

8. To be completely thorough in researching good matches for relatives, search for other people who lived at the same address. Copy their hometown, street and house number into a Word document and paste those keywords into the proper search boxes to get the names of other residents for that address.

Find their profiles on  vk.com and ok.ru. The people may have moved since the database was created so find them online.

1. Search for the relatives on vk.com and ok.ru using your new accounts. Copy and paste the relative’s name in the top search box.

2. If too many matches appear, scroll down to the filter for extra options on the bottom right on vk.com. Then enter his or her birthdate. The birthdate filter on ok.ru is under age on the right.

3. If the all the results disappear, search only by first name and  birthdate. Then when too many results appear, reduce the results by adding their place of residence and nearby cities, towns and villages. The regions and neighborhoods of each place will need to be known on vk.com.

4. When good matches appears, view all the details of their profile. Then look at their friends. Look for friends who have the same last name as your relatives.

5. Some people on vk.com only allow friends to send them messages. To go around that, message friends who live in the same town or nearby. Then search for their profile on ok.ru to see if his/her profile is open there.

When relatives still can’t be found, it’s time to find some neighbors who could help on vk.com.

7. The last option is searching for neighbors of the address found on Вся Украина – жители. You’ll need to make temporary changes to your profile. Click on your name on the top right corner, click on edit under my profile, click on contact info under basic info. Change country, city, district and street to where your relative lived.

Then press save, click on my profile in the left column, click on show full information under birthdate and marital status, click on the house number or street name shown for the hometown address to find everyone who has listed as living at the same address or nearby.

8. Send polite messages to people found in the results, asking if they know of your relatives, and remember to say thank you for responding.

9. Step 7 can be avoided when searching in small towns and villages. Message friendly-looking people who are at least 30 years old to see whether they know any information.

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Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?

The biggest struggle in researching relatives and ancestors from the former USSR is figuring out spellings of their various names. For so many reasons, their names changed after immigrating and trying to trace their lives is like a complicated maze.

So here is the challenge of the day. See how many of these questions below you can answer correctly. These name changes are based on people who listed their real surnames and Americanized names on their gravestones in a Russian Orthodox cemetery in New York state.

Get your pen and paper ready to write down your answers and check them against the correct answers below.

1. A woman was named Kureshova. She changed her name to:

a. Kuresh

b. Kourre

c. Korr

2.  A man named Okunev. He changed his name to:

a. Hay

b. Okin

c. Okner

3. A man was named Pukh. He changed his name to:

a. Puner

b. Pouch

c. Punerov

4.  A woman was named Kurekova. She changed her name to:

a. Koreka

b. Kurek

c. Kurenko

5. A man was named Minitsky. He changed his name to:

a. Minn

b. Minit

c. Munit

6. A man was named Kusakov. He changed his name to:

a. Kusak

b. Kusar

c. Kent

7. A man was named Lopuhovych. He changed his name to:

a. Loch

b. Lopuk

c. Lopov

8. A man was named Mikhalov. He changed his name to:

a. Michaels

b. Mikhalow

c. Mitchell

9. A man was named Masianoff. He changed his name to:

a. Mason

b. Martell

c. Massy

10. A woman was named Dukhovetskaya. She changed her name to:

a. Dukhovetsky

b. Doukhowetzky

c. Doherty

See all the correct answers below.

If you got all the answers right, you know name changes can be simple or random. If you got a few wrong, you know it’s hard to predict how names are changed. If you got all the answers wrong,  look at your answers versus the correct answers. I would hardly get any of the answers correct if I never saw the gravestones.

  1. b  2. a 3. b 4. c 5. a 6. c 7. a 8. c 9. b 10. b

If you are stuck on researching your relatives and ancestors from the former USSR, check out these posts:

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

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems (perfect for the upcoming holiday season when visiting older relatives)

 

A journey to a family village teaches the importance of returning to the homeland

Three years ago, a cousin from my great-grandmother’s family found my message, asking for anyone related to the family to contact me, on a genealogy forum. This week I learned about how important it was to leave that message five years ago.

I have been so curious about how the village of my great-grandmother looks like today. Thanks to the relationship I developed with my cousin whom I only have e-mailed and instant messaged, I finally have set my eyes on the village of my great-grandmother.

Sadly, I wasn’t there for the big reveal but my cousin took his family on the 500-mile journey from Saint Petersburg to our family’s ancestral village of Meledino in the Kostroma Region of Russia.

The visit to the village almost didn’t happen. The car from Saint Petersburg never would have made it through the Russian countryside. By luck, my cousin’s family found a man who had a tractor that looks like it came from WWII but it was built to make the family dream of touching the land of our ancestors happen that day.

 Photos taken or given by Andrey Kozyrev

Then the sight of what happened to the family village was sad, but peaceful.

The village has been completely abandoned by people and moved back to its natural state.

Then in the next village, my family saw some sad sights of an abandoned church and its cemetery. Once the church was a beautiful site, busy with weddings, baptisms and funerals, and now it is left in ruins.

Nearby, my family learned what happened to their family’s log cabin, after 60 years of emptiness.

 

But the 50-year-old graves of my great-grandmother’s brother’s grandson and wife were found in great condition. This couple was the great-grandparents of my cousin Andrey (3rd cousin, 2 times removed).

The best part of this journey is that Andrey travelled with the family tree, created by a researcher I hired. Andrey found distant cousins during his 4-day visit and the family tree will grow once again.

One of those cousins is this 95-year-old grandmother, who lives in the village next to where my great-grandmother was born. When talking to her family, Andrey said the family was very surprised that an American researched her ancestors and felt proud to know this.

It was hard to hold back the tears of joy when I saw the messages and photos from Andrey. “Thank you, Vera! Without your investigation of genealogy, I would not have known my ancestors! A low bow from our whole family!”

So many people tell me that they don’t know Russian and won’t try the Russian websites for genealogy. I have rediscovered my Russian from my childhood and use Google Translate daily to understand the Russian websites that make my journey happen.

If I never tried the Russian websites, I would not be witnessing the journey of my cousin’s trek to our family’s ancestral land. Genealogy isn’t a journey that affects one person; it’s a journey that changes an entire family.

Related posts:

Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum

Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

Find Long-Lost Relatives from the Former USSR Simply in English

Secret files help complete the life story of five brothers

The stories of my grandmother’s brothers’ lives have been incomplete since I began  researching them six years ago. Thanks to their “illegal political activity” in the 1930s, their arrest records are filled with gems of information that cannot be found in online databases nor at archives.

I have been wondering about the simple things about their lives such as their military service, work and education. Now, I have learned some stunning facts.

One brother earned the rank of second lieutenant in the Russian White Army. His voting privileges were taken away when Russia became the USSR, thanks to his service in the czar’s army.

Another brother was a volunteer with the Red Army, the army of the USSR, from 1919-1922. That makes me wonder whether he served in the Russian-Polish War.

My curiosity got me moving to contact Russian military archives to see whether his records can be obtained. His daughter didn’t even know he served in the army.

I also learned three brothers worked in the same factory together, while another brother worked at another factory before their arrests. One brother was unemployed.

Four brothers finished their secondary education. Another brother completed five years at a commercial school but didn’t finish his secondary education.

I could have obtained this information six years ago when I made my first request with the Federal Security Service in the Russian region where my grand uncles were arrested. Six years ago, I just asked to confirm whether the family story of all five brothers being arrest was true, which law they “violated” and  where they lived at the time of their arrests.

I knew there had to be more information in their files, beyond name, birthdate, birthplace and address. My curiosity was peaked about what else was sitting in those files when a genealogy researcher asked whether my family was persecuted during the communist era.

Once I told her yes, she gave me the wording needed to obtain the personal family information from their files that I can’t get elsewhere. “My relatives (names and birth years) were arrested as enemies of the people in (town/city) in (year ) and were under investigation until (year, if known). Later they were justified. Please send me extracts from their criminal cases to the above e-mail address. I’m especially interested in ………..(addresses, education, employer, relatives who lived with them, etc.)
Yours faithfully,

I got a response from the Federal Security Service by e-mail in 17 days and the information was free. Most of the personal information was never known by my family.

This is all thanks to false accusations of “participating in a counter-revolutionary organization and carrying out anti-Soviet agitation.” This proves that truth does come from lies.

Related posts:

Doors are open on “secret files

Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives

SSSHHH!!! Detailed civilian records of Soviet persecution camps declassified………

Guide to requesting declassified records of the former USSR gulags

Also, check under political terror victims on the Free Databases page to search for relatives.

Database reveals names of secret agents for the Soviet Great Terror

Curiosity of relatives from the former Soviet Union is peaked when there is a silence about their life in the old country. What’s the big secret about their life?

More 41,000 men and women from the former Soviet Union had a big secret of their lives- working for the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) during the Soviet Great Terror from 1935 to 1939. Their secret is no longer that, thanks to an online database from Russian organization Memorial.

Anyone who is curious if their relatives served as NKVD agents during the terror years can do it quietly by using this database. Not surprisingly, some of these agents were executed after years of loyal service.

Information on each agent varies but some have their full name, birthdate, birthplace, death date and place of death, in addition to details on their service and awards.

Naturally, this database is in Russian but easy to use for those who don’t know Russian.

Here’s how to use the database without knowing Russian:

  1. Translate family names into Russian by using Google Translate or Transliterating English to Russian in One Step
  2. Click on the link for the correct letters that start the last name on this page.
  3. Once a possible match is found, click on the link, copy and paste the text into Google Translate  to read the material in English.

For those intimidated by using a Russian website, here is another way to search this database.

  1. Translate family names into Russian by using Google Translate or Transliterating English to Russian in One Step
  2. Copy the full name or last name into Google’s search bar and add site: http://nkvd.memo.ru/index.php. It should look like Иванов site: http://nkvd.memo.ru/index.php in the search bar.
  3. Then the results appear in Russian. Copy and paste each page of results into Google Translate to decide which links to click on.

Memorial, which posted this database onto its website, also has a database for victims of the Soviet Repression here. The database was updated in December 2016.

The organization is working on a database of Soviet Union citizens who were forced laborers of Germany. Follow this blog by clicking on the button in the top right corner to learn when that database becomes public.

Related posts:
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker
Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems