Grandmother leaves behind a foundation for uncovering Baltic German roots

Vladislav Dominyak made one visit to archives and it sent him on an adventure that he had not planned.

He learned that Latvian archives placed birth records online after visiting the archives in Riga. Boom, there came the genealogy bug for the Russian man from Saint Petersburg.

“This defined my electronic habitat for the next year,” he says. “It is interesting that the awareness and structuring of information occurs in a spiral. As new information appears, I return to the already familiar photographs, compare people, places, etc.”

He takes advantage of his skills from his job, teacher of psychology at St. Petersburg State University, to study his family tree.

So far, he has 743 people in his family tree, dating back to 1722. Thanks to his grandmother with Baltic German ancestry, Vladislav, 48, had a great foundation to create his family tree for the past five years.

His grandmother kept the family documents highly organized, not knowing her grandson would one day create the family tree from her collection.

“The archive turned out to be very impressive: photos, metrics, letters, notes, diaries, even apartment bills,” Vladislav says.

He is enthusiastic about his genealogy hobby, but not his family.

“Mom is pretty skeptical. Father is positive, but without much interest,” Vladislav says. “When I start talking about what I have learned about one of my relatives, he quickly begins to get bored. But the closer the relatives, the more interest.”

He has met other people who share his excitement for genealogy but he has become accustomed to a certain reaction to his hobby.

“When people find out that I am engaged in genealogy, the most common response is a restrained, detached, respectful reaction: ‘Oh, yes, this is interesting.’ But there is usually no real interest,” Vladislav says.

As a child, he doesn’t remember people studying the family tree as a hobby. Relatives talked about family legends but that was it, Vladislav says.

His family’s focus is on yachting.  Vladislav prefers water-based tourism and kayaking.

Vladislav’s great-grandfather, Nikolai Alekseevich Podgornov, was a participant of the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. His crew on the Norman yacht didn’t taken any prizes. Vladislav found information on his great-grandfather’s participation in the Olympics from an online search.

The interest in yachting continued onto his grandparents’ generation. His maternal grandmother Olga Nikolaevna Simakova (Podgornova) was a master of sailing and Vladislav believes she was possibly the first female captain of a small yacht team in the former USSR. Her husband and Vladislav’s grandfather took boating to a professional level as a sea captain.

Grandma Olga

Meanwhile, his paternal grandma Karina Ivanovna Nelius, daughter of a bank clerk, worked as an artist who was a student of noted artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. She married a graphic artist.

Karina’s work is displayed at Museum of Art of St. Petersburg. See her work here.

Grandma Karina

Vladislav knows the most about his Baltic German ancestry from Latvia. His ancestors lived in Valmiera, Gazenpot, in addition to Riga, and arrived in St. Petersburg in 1904. He has discovered a paternal great-great-grandmother from Lisice in western Poland and learned of Polish ancestry from his mother’s family.

“Knowing who the ancestors were makes you feel better. I have someone to be proud of,” Vladislav says. “There is someone to look up to…By the way, the more I learn about my relatives, the more alive they seem to me.”

Follow this blog with the top right button to catch the next post in the series that brings light to how people from Russia and Ukraine study genealogy.

Previous posts from the Bending Curtain series:
Years of patience leads to an accumulation of discoveries
Ukrainian native inspired to research family after discovery of “American” ancestor
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”

Years of patience leads to an accumulation of discoveries

Olesia Fediushkina loves to show her adventures in travel and appreciation of nature through photos posted on Facebook. Her other love is genealogy.

“As far as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed looking through old photos and listening to my granny’s stories about her youth, her parents, etc.,” says the woman from Kaluga in western Russia. “But initially, I wasn’t interested in details – dates of birth, death, motives or reasons of actions and events that happened to my ancestors, relatives. That came much later, as I was about 23-25.”

It hasn’t been an easy journey to learn about her ancestors. When her interest had peaked, regional archives weren’t open to visitors and Internet sources “were not so well-developed as compared with nowadays,” she says.

That has not stopped Olesia’s determination to learn about her ancestors since her interest started about 15 years ago. She sends requests to archives, visits archives, gets advice on genealogy forums and uses search engines.

“I managed to turn back to my research just a year ago, and since then I found more than within all previous years,” Olesia says.

Now, she has traced her family tree back to the beginning of the 19th century. She knows her mothers’s ancestors came from Kaluga governorate, now modern day Tula and Bryansk regions, with some also coming from Poland or Baltic countries.

Her father’s mother’s ancestors also came from Kaluga governorate, near Kaluga. On her father’s father’s line, she has discovered ancestors who were Terek Cossacks from the territory of modern Chechen Republic. One branch seems to lead her to Georgia.

“I believe it helps me to understand myself better, which is quite important to me, to see some patterns and to try to break them. It helps to see some events with different eyes, to forgive some things that seemed unforgivable, etc.,” Olesia says. “…Overall, that helps to get one little step closer to the internal harmony. I know that sounds like a cliché, but that’s how I really feel. I believe that our knowledge, experience and self-consciousness is the only thing we can take with us, when it will come our time to leave.”

This journey helps her learn more about history, which she admits she should have been more diligent to learn in school.

 Olesia on her travels.

Her discoveries in the family’s history has brought mixed reaction from her family.

At first, her mother didn’t see the value of genealogy. Then Olesia’s mother saw the excited reactions of her relatives and her mother’s attitude has changed to supporting the research.

Meanwhile, her father’s family has questioned the research.

“My father’s mother used to tell that remembering the past hurt her and refused to share information, documents, memories,” Olesia says. “Besides, she couldn’t believe I need it just for myself, and she used to ask ‘Whom will you tell, show that?’”

Her father lacks any interest in his ancestors and doesn’t share stories with Olesia. His wife questions whether the research is about her searching for inheritances or something of value.

Meanwhile, her friends are neutral on the topic. She has a friend who is interested in genealogy as much or even more than her. Other friends are satisfied knowing about their grandparents and don’t see a purpose in knowing any more.

“Anyway, nobody of my relatives, friends knows how much money I spend on my hobby, except the above mentioned friend, who shares this hobby,” Olesia says. “Every one of them would say Im crazy.”

This attitude about genealogy doesn’t surprise her because the word genealogy wasn’t used when she was growing up, she says.

“There was no ‘typical’ attitude about one’s family’s history. Generally, people kept memories about their parents and grandparents,” Olesia says.  “But due to some reasons -repressions, war, etc.- some people preferred to ‘forget’ about some of their relatives, ancestors – it could be just dangerous sometimes to tell about them or to keep the evidences.”

That attitude doesn’t ruin Olesia’s excitement for her research, which has led to finding living relatives. Some are excited to find a new relative and others are not interested in the connection.

She also is trying to find her relatives through DNA testing. She started with MyHeritage and then uploaded her DNA file to Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch.

The office worker at an automotive factory originally was curious about her ethnic origins but was also hoping to find relatives. Time will only tell if she gets her wish.

This is the fourth 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.

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

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.

Related posts:
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”

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.