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)

 

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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

Another treasure for researching World War I heroes

Databases are aplenty for World War II heroes but World War I heroes haven’t been forgotten. The newest database for World War I heroes is a great research tool, with the perk of having scanned military archive records.

Many people researching their ancestors from the former Russian Empire are challenged by using Russian websites. But In memory of the heroes of the Great War of 1914-1918 can be easily used with the directions below, even without knowing Russian.

The website has 2,278,000 entries on soldiers who received awards, went missing and/or died. The same information with scanned military records can’t be found on subscription-based websites.

In memory of the heroes of the Great War of 1914-1918  is free of cost and registration.

Here’s a peek at the search page translated into English, using this link:

To search this database, all keywords must be in Russian. Make sure to open Google Translate in the next window to the database.

If Google Translate can’t translate your ancestors’ names and birthplaces, use Transliterating English to Russian in One Step.

A few words won’t translate using the above link on the database’s search boxes- Губерния (region); Уезд: (county); Волость (parish) and Населенный пункт (community).

Here’s how to get great results:

  1. Use only confirmed information on people being searched. If a death year is not confirmed through other sources, skip that box.
  2. If the database doesn’t give any matches, redo the search by using less information.
  3.  When family information is limited, try searching by surname and village.
  4. If you are searching for more than one person, copy and paste all the keywords in Russian for each person into a Microsoft Word or another word processing document.

If you can’t read Russian, copy and paste each page of results into Google Translate.

It’s good to know if your ancestors’ surnames or villages translate into other words in English (such as cobbler, cabbage, etc,). You can double-check this by copying and pasting the surnames and villages name in Russian into Google Translate and viewing the English translations.

Some surnames and village names will translate letter by letter into similar-sounding Roman letters.

The scanned records from military archives can be downloaded from the website, drag the images to the desktop on Macs and right-click on PCs. If you don’t read Russian, do a print screen, save it to a Word document and paste the translated text from Google Translate.

If you want to try your luck with other databases, click here for other free databases.

The adventurous types can try to find more information on the Internet with new information found in the database in Russian. Here are some hints:
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

Don’t miss out on learning about new resources by subscribing to this blog by clicking on the top right button.

 

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)