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.