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)

Databases of Soviet Army soldiers as POWs provide wealth of information

It’s wonderful to hear stories of Soviet Army soldiers who returned home to their families. Too many Soviet Army soldiers were taken prisoner and never heard from again.

One database from Germany provides information on 700,000 Soviet Army soldiers who died as POWs. The typical solider will have the following details: first name, last name, birthdate or birth year, father’s first name, birthplace, death date, nationality and identification number for the database.

This database is easy to use in German with the following suggestions.

  1. Change the letter v to w. Vladimir will also appear as Wladimir. Smirnov will also appear as Smirnow. The website has Ivanov written as Ivanov and Iwanow.
  2. Change the letter y to j. Vasiliy will also appear as Vasilij.
  3. If nothing can be found with the changes suggest in No.1 and 2, try the known or common spellings.
  4. Remember the e may be dropped in names such as Petr and Alexandr.
  5. Search by last or first name only if searches with first and last names are not successful.

The search box is above two phrases- Beginn des Namen (start of name) and Teil des Namen (part of name). The beginnings and endings of first names can be searched, in addition to last names.

Once information is found on a soldier, obtain additional information by sending an e-mail message in German (using Google Translate) to the first address listed here or mailing a letter to the first postal address listed.

If the people being researched aren’t on this database, check these lists that are translated into English.

Arkhangelsk Region, Russia

List of Soviet Army soldiers who died as POWs of the Germans

List of Soviet Army soldiers who died as POWs of the Finnish

Auschwitz, Poland

List of Soviet Army soldiers at  Auschwitz– There are 2,032 Soviet Army POWs in this database, listed in alphabetic order in English. One card of information is given on each soldier, written in German. The images can’t be download so print or try holding down Ctrl and PrntScr at the same time and paste the print screen into an image editing program.

Kiev

List of Soviet prisoners of war who died in German captivity in hospital No. 3 in White Church, Kiev Region, in the winter of 1941-42

Stalag 326

List of Soviet prisoners of war who died in Germany captivity

Maps

Map of German POW camps for Soviet Army soldiers

Map of Finnish POW camps for Soviet Army soldiers

If nothing can be found on the people being researched, make free search requests with International Tracing Service here. It could take a year to get a response.

Remember to look at the Free Databases page to see the other databases for researching in Russia and Ukraine.

Another gem for researching relatives who served in the Soviet Army during WWII

It takes some digging to uncover great finds for researching relatives from the former USSR. Genealogy research isn’t the commercial enterprise in Russia as it is in the English-speaking world.

So it’s a happy dance moment when one more gem is found. My latest find is Ветераны Великой Отечественной войны (Veterans of the Great Patriotic War).

This wonderful website has pages of photos and stories for more than 12,000 WWII veterans of the Soviet Union. Yes, this website is only in Russian but directions are given below on how to search and use the site for those unfamiliar with Russian.

This is the first website on WWII veterans of the Soviet Union that I have found with pictures of each veteran, plus stories of their lives. The people who contributed the photos and stories are mentioned by full name and place of residence.

For those familiar with Russian, the search box is above the first row of veterans with a button that says найти (find).

For those unfamiliar with Russian, go to this link to search. Then open Google Translate in the next browser window.

Here’s how to check whether any of the veterans included on the website are your relatives.

  1. Translate your last names and family villages/towns/cities using Google Translate or the Steve Morse website.
  2. If you are searching common Russian names such as Ivanov, Smirnov, Romanov, etc., I highly recommend searching the website with last names and family villages/towns/cities.
  3. Copy and pasta the Russian translations of last names and family villages/towns/cities into the long search box and then click on the button that says найти.
  4. If you use Google Chrome, the Russian may be automatically translated into English. If your browser doesn’t translate automatically into English, copy and paste each page of results into Google Translate.
  5. Please remember if you can’t find your last names and family villages/towns/cities after using Google Translate, the names translated into other words, i.e. last name Kapusta could translate from Russian into English as cabbage.
  6. If you didn’t get any results by using together last names and family villages/towns/cities, try only one type of keyword. Also, try using all possible spellings suggested on the Steve Morse website before giving up hope.

Now that you were brave enough to try searching in Russian on this website, try searching the whole Internet in Russian. Here’s my guide on taking that next step: Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker.

Remember to follow this blog by clicking on the follow button on the top right of this page. Great free research resources are discussed on this blog throughout the year.

The dream of three generations comes true on a rare chance

Eight years ago, I was filled with joy for finally finding my grandfather’s family who were left behind for dreams of a better life. It took until last weekend to comprehend what it really meant for this family to come back together face-to-face 74 years later in Washington, D.C.

My grandfather was the only child of six who left his family in Ukraine. His parents weren’t supposed to talk about their son who left Soviet Ukraine but his siblings never forgot him.

My cousin (granddaughter of an older sister of my grandfather) gave me the complete picture of what our reunion really meant to her family. Her grandmother agonized over finding my grandfather but she knew she couldn’t under communism.

She faced the death of three brothers and sisters and died before communism fell in Ukraine. The pain of not knowing about what happened to her little brother wasn’t hushed. One son made it a mission to find my grandfather’s family to fulfill his mother’s dream.

He tried to find us through the American Red Cross’ Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center. The program has a 79 percent success rate for finding information but our family wasn’t a success story. That was thanks to my grandfather changing his last name by one letter to avoid questions whether he was German.

As a last resort, the son of my grandfather’s sister posted information on his mother’s family on All Russia Family Tree (link translated into English) in 2005. That is the only place where he posted to find us and he didn’t have much hope we would find his message.

I was viewing this website at that time and even before. My Russian was so rusty that I didn’t know how to write my grandfather’s last name in Russian but I remembered some words and the alphabet. I called my mother that I found a Russian genealogy website but I couldn’t read it.

This was before I knew of the existence of Google Translate, my best friend of understanding Russian websites and searching the Internet in Russian. When I got “sophisticated” enough to use Google Translate to discover my grandfather’s nephew’s message in 2009, he already died from a heart attack.

He dreamed of writing a book, bringing his family together in a newly-bought datcha and finding his uncle’s family. He never had a chance to fulfill any of those dreams.

Thankfully, his two oldest children welcomed me with open arms. It took three generations to bring us back together, all thanks to one Russian genealogy website I randomly found.

Spending three days with my cousin, my mom and my two kids felt so natural. My grandfather loved his family he left behind and it’s amazing that love wasn’t forgotten over the years. That’s what family is all about.

Related posts:

The gift of patience becomes a gift of knowledge five years later

Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (All Russia Family Tree) Includes a video guide.

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

Massive database reveals priceless information on rebels of the Russian Revolution

In history, the brave people come out to fight the change they fear and hope their secrets that could hurt their families stay just that. The rebels who challenged the changes that came with communism in the USSR are no longer unnamed souls who took their secrets to their graves.

Ten years of work by Vadim Olegovich Rogge has brought about an incredible database of 106,000 men and women who risked a lot in the 20th century.  This database includes many of the people who were considered enemies of the new communist government and even those who escaped the Soviet Union through emigration.

It was quite surprising to find my father, grandfather and a grand uncle in this database when they weren’t even adults during the Russian Revolution. They are considered rebels for immigrating to the USA. It would have been priceless to see their reactions for being included in this database if they were alive.

This amazing database has full names, birth dates, birthplaces, death dates, places of residences, titles within the White Army (the military that served the czar), military experience, and other incredible details, varying for each person.

Naturally, this database is posted in Russian but very easy to use for those unfamiliar with Russian by taking these steps.

  1. Use Google Translate to switch last names from English to Russian.
  2. Scroll down past the text explaining the database and find “Скачать базу данных «Участники Белого движения в России» (в формате PDF):”
  3. Click on the links for the first letter of each surname being researched. Everyone whose last name starts with a particular letter will be included in a large PDF file.
  4. If you are unfamiliar with the Russian alphabet, have the Wikipedia page on the Russian alphabet open in another window. This is extremely helpful in figuring out where a last name such as Smirnov will appear in the PDF file that covers a few hundred pages.
  5. Once the correct surnames are found, copy and paste all the entries into Google Translate. Make sure to enter a space between each entry or the translated text will form into a massive paragraph that is challenging to read.
  6. Make sure to save each letter file to your computer. It is never known how long these types of databases will stay online.

Once you have collected information on your family, don’t be shy and try searching Russian search engine Yandex with keywords on your family from the database. One detail could lead to a domino effect of finding even more information.

For more databases, go to the Free Databases page.

Eight years of patience brings dreams of a family reunion to reality

I still remember very clearly the day when I discovered my grandfather’s nephew was looking for relatives of his mother’s family on a genealogy forum 8 years ago.

It didn’t make sense why he was looking for his mother’s family. My grandfather was the only sibling who left behind his family after World War II. It was supposed to be a secret.

With being a POW of the German army in WWII, my grandfather was an enemy of Soviet Ukraine. He gave into the enemy and later escaped the POW camp to come back to my grandmother and my newborn mother.

During winter 1943, he escaped Kiev during the night for Poland with my grandmother, my mother and my grandmother’s family. No one was to talk about him or the family would face harsh punishment.

When I finally reached my grandfather’s nephew’s family by phone in Kiev, I learned the nephew died three years earlier.

I was crushed but thrilled to learn he had a son and daughter. The family got me in contact with several cousins from my generation and my mother’s. I made a promise- I will be in Kiev in three years with my mother.

I thought that was enough time to save money for the trip. It was but my family situation wasn’t ideal for running off to Ukraine three years later. I hoped my situation would change each year and later realized I waited too long. The prices for flights to Kiev kept getting higher and higher.

Then, came the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and the fighting between Russia and Ukraine. It was hard to see the two countries that fought together in WWII were fighting each other.

I kicked myself for breaking my promise to the family my mother never had a chance to know as a child. The cousin who gave the daughter of my grandfather’s nephew a lot of information on our relatives died of painful brain cancer in summer 2015.

My chances of thanking her in person vanished. I hope she understood how grateful I am for everything she told me through her goddaughter (and the daughter of my grandfather’s nephew).

Right now, flying off to Kiev is not a possibility for many reasons. My only option is waiting out to meet the daughter of my grandfather’s nephew in the USA. She travels a lot to the USA for work.

For almost two years, I have asked my cousin regularly “when are you coming to the USA?” Finally, my cousin e-mailed me that she was coming to the USA again and wanted to meet in Atlanta. I told her that my mother could meet her but it would be easier for us to meet in Washington, D.C., if possible.

Well, it’s happening in a week. Three generations of my family (me, my mother and two kids) will meet my cousin. I have my Ukrainian flag ready for the emotional airport reunion that I thought only happens to other people.

Related post:

Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (where I  found this family and several other relatives)