Archive records on money dispute uncovers family history in mining

I have been assuming that my great-grandfather was the only one in his family to pursue a life in mining. A search in archives uncovered a money dispute that opened the doors to giving a better picture of his father past the simple life details.

My grandmother told my father in a taped interview that her father sold a mine for 20,000 rubles. I asked my researcher at Russian State Historical Archives to find proof of this family story. She couldn’t prove that story true but the researcher found documents for an even better story.

My researcher uncovered that my Don Cossack great-great-grandfather owned a mine in southern Russia. Thanks to a dispute over 4,795 rubles in silver from 1861, I have the luck of learning about his mining background.

My great-great-grandfather borrowed the silver from a Don Cossack colonel who could have been his cousin, based on his last name being the same as his paternal grandmother. The colonel asked for the money back four months later, which was 8 days after the birth of my great-grandfather.

The money was gone and the infuriated colonel reported him to the police. An investigation started and determined that 2,500 rubles of coal was available at my great-great-grandfather’s mine.

The problem was that the mine was not operating at the time, was at least one mile from a railroad track and was not near any rivers to transport it as payment to the colonel. Great-great-grandpa didn’t have money for miners to dig up the coal or an army of horse wagons to transport all that coal for his debt.

The bickering over the mine escalated because my great-grandfather managed to quietly sell the mine in 1865 to another Don Cossack, who made it a working mine without official permission.

By 1873, the dispute ended with the mine being put up for public action and my great-great-grandfather’s debt accumulating to 7,000 rubles. That amount could have bought several houses at that time.

Sometime after my great-grandfather was born in 1864, his mother died and his mother’s family took him to Luhansk, now in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic within eastern Ukraine.

That story from my grandmother makes more sense now. With my great-great-grandfather having financial troubles and losing his wife, he was a lost soul who was struggling to deal with family finances and his two children.

Later on, my great-grandfather learned how to assist engineers in the development of mines at a mining school in Lysychans’k, which also is Luhansk Region today. He became an engineer who developed chemicals for explosives used in mining. His choice of profession is no longer a strange mystery to me.

His brother became a doctor. Maybe not surprising when understanding the loss of his mother at a young age could have inspired him to become a doctor.

A search on Google with Russian keywords from my researcher’s transcription of the money dispute file helped me discover that my great-grandfather’s paternal uncle was manager for the Office of Mine Inspections for the Don Cossacks.

Probably even more searching could come up with more family history in mining. A search of where my great-great-grandfather owned a mine shows the area grew into a city of about 245,000 people and honors its past by calling it the city of miners.

the coat of arms for Shakhty, Russia (

Learning more than the basic facts of my great-grandfather’s life has gotten me to this point. I have opened myself to any possible archive documents on my great-grandfather’s family so I can discover family stories that are well beyond my imagination.

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An empty-handed search shows the path to an even better discovery
An unreal surprise appears when research on a great-grandfather seems stalled
Years of frustration ends with discovery of one key document

Ukrainian native inspired to research family after discovery of “American” ancestor

It took one photo for Natalia Korotenko to change her view of her family. She was surprised to find a photo from the early 20th century of an elegantly dressed man who looked like her uncles and cousins.

This wouldn’t be so unusual for many people researching their family tree but Natalia’s relatives had lived in Ukrainian villages.

“Mom remembered that this was her great-grandfather, who had left the Russian Empire for the USA before the October Revolution in 1917,” says the woman from Kyiv. “My mother told me when she was a small girl and her family came to see relatives in the village Malaya Chernyavka in the Berdychiv district of the Kyiv province, the local people called them the “American children and grandchildren”.”

Great-great-grandpa Yakov Perepechai, born in 1877, had lived many years in the United States. He came back to the family Ukrainian village around 1927-1930 to bring money he earned in the USA.

“My great-grandmother said that Yakov often traveled by train to St. Petersburg to exchange money and buy jewelry from immigrants whose ships departed from the port of St. Petersburg to European ports and further to the United States,” Natalia says. “On one of these trips, Yakov disappeared. I tried to find his grave in Ukraine, Russia, the USA and other countries, but without results. I don’t want to believe that something terrible happened to him.”

Yakov Americanized his name to Jacob when he registered for the draft during WWI.

Natalia will continue working to solve this 20th century mystery that started in 2014. The frustration and inspiration that sparked her genealogy journey have brought her lots of success.

She has pushed her family tree back to 1750. When she started this journey, she only knew about her grandparents’ generation. Now she knows her ancestors many generations ago had come from Poland, Germany and Russia, in addition to Ukraine.

Natalia, 46, has researched her ancestors mostly in person at Kyiv, Zhytomyr and Vinnytsa regional archives, in addition to Russia and Poland. She also researches online by e-mailing archives, viewing records on FamilySearch and collaborating on Facebook genealogy groups and genealogy forums.

“This is my inner, or rather, intuitive desire to find out the names, lifestyles, places of residence of my ancestors and thus honor their memory and thank them for the fact that we descendants today live…” Natalia says.

Natalia on a business trip

She is thankful her parents and close relatives support her interest in researching her ancestry by providing details known to them. That is a major change of attitude from when she was growing up in Ukraine.

“Before the collapse of the USSR, nobody spoke about genealogy because they were afraid. And the impression was that such a science did not exist,” says Natalia, an international traveling businesswoman and mother of a 16-year-old daughter. “I went to school from 1980-1990, when they taught false history, and we children believed, because there were no alternative sources of information.”

She speaks unafraid of tragic Soviet times and how that era affected her relatives and ancestors.

“I just now learned in detail how my grandmothers, grandfathers, great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers survived the October Revolution of 1917, fought with Symon Petliura against the Red Army and for the autonomy of Ukraine,”  Natalia says. “They survived the persecution and execution by Grigory Kotovsky, dispossession in 1929-1930, the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933, the exile and the camps in Siberia, the executions of the NKVD troika in 1938, the return to Kyiv and the difficult post-war life in the barracks of orphanages.”

These experiences of her relatives and ancestors weren’t part of the history she learned in school. Natalia is rewriting the history of her ancestors that was true to their lives, not to the false history she was taught as a child.

This is the third article in the series “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR” that will continue throughout 2020. People from the various countries of the former USSR will share their experiences in uncovering their ancestry. Follow this blog with the top right button to catch these unforgettable stories.

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Keeping alive some notable ancestors in a Russian family tree
Coming back to Ukrainian roots through genealogy
Introducing “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR”

An empty-handed search shows the path to an even better discovery

So much time and money have been spent to find records of my great-grandfather’s service with the Don Cossacks. A family photo shows him in a decorated Don Cossack uniform but records searched in two archives can’t document the same story.

My great-grandfather started his career in mining in eastern Ukraine and moved into explosive inventing for mine exploration, a much different path from the Don Cossack service of his brother, father, uncles and ancestors. It didn’t make sense why his path was so different.

That was until I posted on the most popular Russian language genealogy forum, asking if anyone knew anything about the mother’s family of my great-grandfather. Two quick responses provided nothing useful.

Two months later, a man from the forum e-mailed me if I was still researching my great-grandfather’s mother’s family. He told me at least four files exist at Russian State Historical Archives in Saint Petersburg for people with the same surname from Luhansk, Ukraine, for mining.

The man’s enthusiasm to pursue these records was contagious. Still, I had thought a slim chance existed for the records to be helpful because I knew so little on the family.

Great-great-grandpa Nikolai Pershin was a captain and engineer, which was all I knew about his life that led to a trend of engineers in my family.

Thankfully, I already have a researcher who helps me review records at Russian State Historical Archives. My researcher took a look at the records noted by the guy who e-mailed me.

It was quite the surprise that my researcher discovered in the records. I was so excited after reading her report, I couldn’t sleep that night.

My researcher retyped 16 pages of records. After reviewing the suggested records for potential connection to my ancestors, she opened the Pershin family nobility file. The details in the nobility file confirmed that these were the records of my great-great-grandmother’s family.

The records had a Nikolai Pershin who was a captain and engineer by the time by great-great-grandmother got married. He had a daughter Elizaveta, born in 1838, that was the perfect age to marry a Don Cossack leader in 1861. He had a son, Aleksei, likely the uncle of my great-grandfather whom is noted in another archive record. My great-grandfather also had a son, Aleksei, likely named in honor of his uncle. My grandmother told my father that her father’s mother died young and he was taken care by his mother’s family in Luhansk after her death.


A drawing of the Luhansk  Foundry, where my 4th great-grandfather lived and worked in 1796.

Not only did the records detail the birthplace of my great-great-grandmother’s brother and possibly her own, I learned about her family’s involvement as leaders of the famous Luhansk Foundry back to 1796 and Russian military service unrelated to the Cossacks for several generations.

The foundry was so important that it had a coat of arms. My great-great-grandmother’s brother, Aleksei, presented those coat of arms to Luhansk city duma and it became the city’s coat of arms in 1903. The current Luhansk coat of arms is based on the design Aleksei presented to the city more than 100 years ago.

My determination to find the story I wanted brought me to an even better story. Three years ago, a researcher discovered my great-great-grandmother’s maiden name and her father’s positions. Now, the maiden name of my great-great-grandmother’s mother has been discovered in a nobility file.

It took one person’s response to a 2-month-old forum post to break open this amazing family history. The Pershin family tree got pushed back to the 1730s and will open up a second female ancestor’s history to my family. It’s just amazing what can happen after a disappointment.

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Years of frustration ends with discovery of one key document
An unreal surprise appears when research on a great-grandfather seems stalled
Untraditional source reveals the death of a great-grandfather
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (with a video guide)

Keeping alive some notable ancestors in a Russian family tree

Sonia Smirnova enjoys taking pictures of graves for BillionGraves. She especially appreciates the chance to photograph and transcribe graves of World War II veterans.

She is part of the growing trend of documenting graves online. What’s unique about her in this trend is that she lives in central Russia.

Sonia grew up with an appreciation of remembering people who have passed on in her family.

“The life of our ancestors has an influence on us, doesn’t it?,” she says. “They died but gave life to us. We may not forget them. I feel that I’m not alone. They help me to move forward.”

Sonia, who works in information technology, has plenty to be proud in her family. Her grandfather was notable hometown architect Nikolay Bespalov and her great-grandfather was Ivan Kulikov, who worked with renowned artist Ilya Yefimovich Repin.

“So, it was very interesting to know how they became who they were,” Sonia says. “They were both from absolutely different families, workers and merchants. Their ancestors lived all over Russia and abroad. I’ve learned about it after a long research of the family archives and gravestones.”

Ivan Kulikov paints in his garden as his wife Elizaveta serves him lunch.

In addition to having those men in her family, her father is second cousin to Vladimir Zworykin, noted as “a pioneer of television technology” on Wikipedia.

“He visited our place in the 1960s and my father remembers it,” Sonia says. “We keep his postcards and letters carefully in our archive…My grandparents were in touch with him and his wife.”

Zworykin came to the USA in 1918 for work and decided to stay in the USA permanently but Sonia’s family stayed in his hometown, Murom. Her parents live in the house built about 150 years ago by Ivan Kulikov’s father. Sonia still lives in Murom.

“He walked the same streets and watched the same river,” she says. “His life is an example of a talented man who couldn’t apply his knowledge to his motherland.”

Sonia, 38, has been interested in her family tree since she was a child. She researches her family tree by studying her family photos, documents and gravestones, talking to relatives and using Instagram and genealogy website Geni.

“There were periods of active doing and long pauses,” she says. “But the tree was on the rise permanently.”

So far, her family tree has about 1,500 people, including her husband’s relatives from Ukraine. Sonia has discovered her ancestors came from Vladimir Region, Moscow Region and Saint Petersburg in Russia.

“My parents always helped me to learn more info about my ancestors,” she says. “My father Alexey Bespalov researches and keeps our family archive. He keeps in touch with other relatives. Sometimes somebody gives me info on Instagram, etc.”

Sonia finds inspiration to research her family tree from her hometown.

“Our city is rather small, but very old,” she says. “We have a museum, a lot of churches, architecture of 19th century. There are always a lot of tourists annually. Merchant families lived here since the old days. Young people want to know their origins.”

This is the second installment of “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR,” where people of the former USSR have a chance to be candid about their genealogy journeys. The series will continue throughout 2020. Follow this blog with the top right button to catch all the articles in the series.

Related posts:
Coming back to Ukrainian roots through genealogy
Introducing “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR”

Coming back to Ukrainian roots through genealogy

Rayisa never imagined she would get into genealogy. With being born in Ukraine, researching ancestors wasn’t encouraged and archives didn’t have an open policy to do research.

She grew up near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, only knowing of one grandparent, a grandfather who lived far away. Rayisa’s parents came from Kirovohrad and Khmelnytskyi regions of Ukraine.

“This grandfather lived far away, so I never knew him really well. I missed not knowing any grandparents. I wanted to know what my grandparents looked like, what they loved doing, and other interesting facts about their lives,” Rayisa says.

The mother of four kids and strong faith took a DNA test from 23andme in 2017 and she was hit with the genealogy bug. Thankfully, archives have become more open in Ukraine and Rayisa moved to the USA in the late 1990s. She couldn’t get a 23andme test in Ukraine.

“My parents are not alive anymore,” Rayisa says. “Most of my other relatives who are in their 50s or older were very happy to know that I am interested in my family’s history. Through researching my ancestry, I also met a wonderful aunt who is also interested in genealogy.”

Even though Rayisa has visited Ukraine since she has moved to the USA, she has not personally visited archives in Ukraine. She hired a Ukrainian genealogist to start her research. Then, she e-mailed archives for information and found information on archives’ websites to continue building her family tree.

“In the beginning I knew very little information, even about my grandparents,” Rayisa says.  “Now I can trace some ancestors that where born as far back as the second half of the 18th century…Genealogy is what I love to do the most.”

Now, her family tree has 2,185 deceased and living people. She has researched 18 surnames from Ukraine.

“My mom’s ancestry is the most researched because some records are available online…My dad’s tree has less direct ancestors,” Rayisa says. “Documents where I can trace my dad’s ancestors are preserved well. Unfortunately, those archives where the documents are kept do not make them available online, even though the bulk of them are scanned and available to see on computer by visiting the archives personally.”

One interesting story that comes from research is that sources suggest a paternal great-great-great grandfather took his wife’s surname. He moved into the home of his wife’s family home. Rayisa’s maiden name could be from her great-great-great-grandmother.

She also was able to document an interesting naming situation. Rayisa’s great-grandmother told relatives that she had several sisters named Anna due to the priest assigning the name.

Rayisa found archive records for two sisters of her great-grandmother named as Anna. Her great-grandmother complained about the naming situation because the same priest named her only daughter Anna.

Her research also has uncovered that a direct ancestor’s son was convicted and killed in 1938 for a fake crime. He worked as a helper to a landowner. His fate was found in a confession statement.

This was all learned thanks to a spark started by taking a DNA test.

Thanks for reading the first story from my series “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR “.  It will continue here throughout 2020 from the various countries of the former USSR.

Introducing “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR”

For more than 8 years, I have focused on my journey to research my ancestors from Ukraine and Russia. My journey has made me wonder about what it’s like for people from the former USSR to do the same.

Now, you and I will have those answers. Several people from the former USSR have agreed to answer questions about their journey to research their ancestry.

Each of them have different and amazing stories to tell for my series, “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR”. My hope is to give inspiration from seeing the challenges and successes of people from the former USSR.

The series will continue throughout 2020, while I continue to write about my journey in genealogy and the latest databases and resources available in researching in the former USSR.

2020 on Find Lost Russian and Ukrainian Family will be a more thought provoking year for those researching in the former USSR. The other side of Russian and Ukrainian genealogy will be finally told here.

Remember to follow this blog with the top right button to catch all the stories from “Bending Curtain: A Changing Tide in Genealogy in the Former USSR”. I am hoping you will be as excited to read these stories as I am to tell these great stories.

Random database search uncovers information waiting to be found at archives

After so many years of doing research on my ancestors, it is hard to predict what else could come my way. My latest discovery proves that good things do come to those who wait.

Out of boredom, I posted during the holiday season on the biggest Russian-language genealogy forum to find anyone who is researching my great-great-grandmother’s surname in southern Russia.

The responses on the forum weren’t of any use. Then, messages came this week from a man who saw my post. He suggested I have a researcher look at files at Russian State Historical Archive, the largest archive in Europe.

I know my great-great-grandmother’s family had some kind of connection to Luhansk, Ukraine. My great-grandfather had an uncle living there in the 1880s from his mother’s family.

The guy who contacted me found files on men with the same surname of my great-great-grandmother in Luhansk on the database for Russian State Historical Archive. I know it will be hard to connect those people with her family because I know so little.

Just out of curosity, I searched the full name of my grandfather on the database. My grandfather wrote in a letter to my father that he worked for Russian-Asian Bank in the early 1900s. I had a researcher attempt to find archive records on his work several years ago.

She couldn’t find any records. I gave up on trying to find information on his work for the bank.

Yesterday, my curosity peaked again. I waited a few minutes for the results of my search for him on Russian State Historical Archive. Then the first result was my grandfather’s personnel file from that bank where he had worked.

I was stunned and continue to be stunned. This has been waiting online for me to be found. It took a forum post completely unrelated to my grandfather to make this discovery.

Also, this is thanks to using Google Chrome as my Internet browser. It has an automatic language translator app and I couldn’t search or use these Russian websites without it.

So much money has been spent looking at records at this archive. I assumed I was done with this archive. Now, my researcher has plenty of reason to return to the archive.

I didn’t bother searching the archive’s database until now because I still get intimidated by large Russian archive websites. Having USSR-born parents only comes with a slight advantage in Russian genealogy.

This is a fine example of why not to give up. It’s hard to predict how one search can zig-zag into a perfect brickwall crashing.

Follow this blog with the top right button to learn about how this story continues.

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Years of frustration ends with discovery of one key document
An unreal surprise appears when research on a great-grandfather seems stalled
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The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs