A shocking sign that some people in the former USSR aren’t scared anymore

I have wondered for years when will people in the former USSR stop being scared of talking openly about life under communism. I have read several books of people talking about the repression their families faced but they hide their identities or withhold their last names.

The latest development on this topic is beyond shocking and something I never imagined would ever happen in the former USSR.

Memorial, the Russian-based organization that researches the atrocities of Soviet times, is pounding in signs on houses in Russia and Ukraine that announce residents who faced death for fake crimes during the Soviet Era. This is the choice of relatives who aren’t afraid to speak up about the family secrets.

I have relatives from Russia in their 40s who were upset that I talked about a relative who was killed during the communist era over e-mail. The idea of someone nailing down plaques and announcing former residents of a particular house died from communist persecution is a bit shocking.

I can imagine elderly neighbors seeing these plaques, gasping at the sight of these plaques and muttering, “What the hell are they thinking? Keep these matters within the family, not within the community and for everyone who walks by.”

This project, started in March 2017, already has had about 40 signs put on homes. It doesn’t look like much but this is a sign of change in the former USSR. (Watch this project grow each month here. Copy and paste text into Google Translate if you don’t know Russian.)

Researchers disagree about how many people died from persecution in Soviet times but about 2.5 million persecution deaths have been documented during Stalin’s reign, according to this Wikipedia article.

These signs that show people aren’t afraid to speak openly about their family’s persecutions could lead to larger online databases on the repressed and more people posting online about their family’s secrets. Finding long-lost family could become easier soon as people talk more about their “secret” relatives.

Too many people who have relatives from the former Soviet Union know how hard it is to have their family talk about life in the former homeland. More information will be coming as the fear of talking about the past decreases in the former USSR.

Memorial has already posted an online database of people from the former USSR who were persecuted during Soviet times here. The database can be searched here.  (Use this website to translate names into Russian.)

The organization is working on a database of USSR citizens who were forced labors of Germany during WWII. I can’t imagine the closure so many people will have when this information is revealed, giving them a new understanding as to why some relatives want to keep the past secret. (Follow this blog with the top black right button to learn when the database is available.)

Related posts:

Secret files help complete the life story of five brothers

Doors are open on “secret files”

Database reveals names of secret agents for the Soviet Great Terror

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

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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.

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.

SSSHHH!!! Detailed civilian records of Soviet persecution camps declassified………

There is nothing like another night of boredom and being determined to find an exciting Russian archives database. I knew I found something hot when the website’s address was unsecret.rusarchives.ru.

First, I thought it was just a boring list of declassified records of communist-era bureaucratic boards. Who really cares about that stuff unless your family served on those boards? Then, I found the search engine and the real “unsecrets” were sitting there in detail.

I copied and pasted four pages of declassified records’ details into Google Translate when I hit the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных”. This translates into institution for prisoners of war and interned.

I cautiously thought this must be just POW records of the USSR during World War II. Nope, it’s not possible. This possibly covers the POWs of WWII but why are the records dated from the 1940s to the early 1960s?

Then I realized the Russian government quietly declassified records of people who were persecuted for talking to foreigners, receiving letters from foreigners or “committing” crimes that never happened and sent to the infamous camps called gulags.

Here’s a sampling of what I found by searching Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных УМВД on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search.

Burial of prisoners of war in the camps number 190 and number 16; death certificates of prisoners of war; and lists of prisoners of war repatriated to their homeland.

There are already two great websites that list many of the persecuted people of the USSR on Жертвы политического террора в СССР and National database of repressed of Ukraine but the declassified records will answer questions about relatives’ experiences during their persecution.

The list of declassified records can be found on one page here. For the list translated into English, click here. (These two links are having problems right now. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

Unsecret.rusarchives.ru has many more records listed than the linked page above. For non-native Russian speakers, have your relatives’ regions translated into Russian by Google Translate, then copy and paste the translation and the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных” into the search box on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search and click on поиск (search in Russian) for the results.

Have  Google Translate open in the next window so results can be copied and pasted for translation to see what records are available at Russian State Military Archives.

Anyone ready to learn about their relatives’ persecutions in files at Russian State Military Archives in Moscow, click here for the guide to make requests.

 

Guide to requesting declassified records of the former USSR gulags

It’s a major step to search for records of relatives who were persecuted in the USSR. Being properly prepared is the most important part of the process.

Here’s how to increase the chances of success:

1. Collect all possible personal information on your relatives: full names, birth dates, birthplaces, parents’ names, marriage dates, names of spouses, old addresses, dates of arrests, professions or work titles, etc. If you don’t have exact dates, make sure to narrow down the time frames.

2. When writing your request, make sure to use non-aggressive wording such as “I would be grateful if your archive office could search for records on ___________________,” instead of “I am requesting a search of records on ______________.”.

3. Include the file names and numbers where you expect your relatives to be found in the archives. Once you know the Russian or Ukrainian regions or Soviet republics where they lived, you will see the files listed in example as “Institution for prisoners of war and interned Voroshilovgrad Region…F. 14P, depository unit 116, 1943 – 1953”.

Use the Russian version of the information by placing your cursor over the translated text and then copy the Russian text. A box will appear “Original Russian text:” in a mini-pop-up box.

4. Include in your letter that you found the files listed on  http://guides.rusarchives.ru/browse/guidebook.html?bid=123&sid=173787 or http://unsecret.rusarchives.ru/so the employee handling your request doesn’t mistaken the information as still classified.

5. Offer to provide proof of ancestry in a follow-up letter to finalize your inquiry. It shows you are making a serious effort to make the request.

6. Show a lot of appreciation for your request being accepted. Use sentences such as “I will be grateful for any information that can be found.” “Your efforts will be greatly appreciated.” “Thank you for considering my inquiry. I hope I have provided enough information to make the search successful.”

7. With the archives being in Moscow, requests can be sent in English. I highly recommend using very simple sentences. Google Translate can be used to have the letter written in Russian but Google Translate doesn’t do the greatest job. If you use Google Translate to send a letter in Russian, I recommend sending a copy in English.

8. Send your request to Russian State Military Archives, ul. Admirala Makarova, 29, Moscow, Russia, 125212. If you live in the USA, put the postal code to the left of Moscow on the envelope. The postal machines could try to send the letter in the USA by accident.

9. Requests can be sent by e-mail to rgvarchiv@mailfrom.ru. You must provide your postal address to have your request considered. You may quickly receive an e-mail message requesting that you send a statement in Russian that you will be financially responsible for the cost of the search.

10. Next is waiting for a response without pestering the archives about the status of your request. It could take weeks to months. Sometimes, Russian archives send their responses by postal mail through the Russian Embassy so don’t just wait for responses directly from archives.

Good luck! Post your questions below. It would be great to hear the results, positive or negative, in the comment area below.

 

Top 10 tips for charming the guardians of communist-era records

I didn’t know birth, marriage and death records were open records in Russia and Ukraine for the communist-era until a few years ago. It takes more than saying “Please, give me information on grandpa.” to get a peek at these records.

Some registry offices that possess these records have friendly  and helpful staff while other offices have staff who find every excuse to block your efforts to get information.

So here’s how to charm the keepers of these records:

1. Make sure you have complete and accurate information on your relatives. Don’t ruin your chances with getting information by providing “I’m kind of sure” information on your relatives.

2. Do research the place of birth, marriage and death of your relatives. You can search for the places on Google and see what details webpages give on the area. This is highly recommended to make sure you send your request to the correct registry office. Simply use Google to search загс (Russian and Ukrainian for registry office) and the town or city of your relatives in Russian or Ukrainian.

2. Get your records proving ancestry to your relative together, scan them and post them to Google + Photo Albums, with the album set as share privately. Make sure to write small descriptions of each record and  include a scan of your passport or driver’s license to prove identity in the album. Provide a link to the album in your written request.

3. Never, ever mention the word genealogy or any word related to genealogy when you e-mail or mail your request. The office could reject your request.

4. Don’t ask for official copies of records. You will be sent to the Consulate General of Ukraine or Russia. If you need official reprints of records, make a request for information at the registry office to confirm the record exists first.

5. Make sure your e-mail account can handle Cyrillic. I had to open an account on mail.ru because my American e-mail account turned Russian into random letters and symbols. Copy and paste any random Russian or Ukrainian page of information into an e-mail message to yourself and see how it comes back to you.

6. Avoid using words such as want and need. It is best to use sentences that show gratitude such as “I would be so grateful if you could search for_________________. ” “Your efforts are greatly appreciated.” “Any information you could provide would be appreciated.”

7. Do not advertise you are a foreigner with an e-mail subject line such as “Request from USA” in English nor Russian. It is best to state you are unable to visit the office personally to avoid invitations to make your request in person.

8. It is highly recommended to send your e-mail message or letter in Russian or Ukrainian. Many offices still do not work in English. Ask for help on a Facebook genealogy page, visit a Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church or high school or college that teaches the languages to find help with translation.

9. Do not give the registry office a time limit to respond to your request even if it sounds innocent such as “I look forward to hearing from you in the next few weeks.”

10. Show gratitude no matter what were the results of the search. Send a thank note by postal mail or e-mail after the results are sent. You never know when you will have to deal with that office again.

Good luck!

Getting one record from the 1930s can be like a box of chocolates

Dealing with the Russian and Ukrainian registry offices that guard the communist-era birth, marriage and death records is like a box of chocolates. The chocolates may look the same but you never know what you’ll get until you bite.

That’s a great summary of what I just experienced over three e-mail messages with a small registry office in central Russia. I was so excited when I got a response to my request for my great-great-grandmother’s death record in 2 business days but it turned out biting in that chocolate gave me zero satisfaction.

I received a scanned letter I could hardly read, due to the technical Russian language. Thanks to my friend in Moscow, I learned I needed to fill out the attached form. I retyped any words I didn’t know into this Russian online keyboard and then translated those words on Google Translate.

I printed the form and filled out the form in Russian, thinking this would be a simple process. Then came the second e-mail message.

I learned the registry office thought I was a Russian citizen living in the USA so the office told me to make my request with the Russian Consulate General (the office that reports to the Russian Embassy), thanks to help from a member on Facebook group Genealogy Translations.

It was quite comical that the staff at the registry office were convinced I was a true Russian. I was told that Google Translate butchers the Russian language. Couldn’t the staff tell that I was an American who couldn’t write proper Russian?

So off I went to call the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of Russia in New York City. No one was answering the phone but I won’t complain. The Russian Embassy has forwarded responses from Russian government offices without a charge for years.

Frustrated I sent one final e-mail message that I am not a Russian citizen but an American. I told the registry office that I would like to know if the record exists before I make a request with the Consulate General.

Quickly an e-mail message came back from the registry office the next day, explaining the proper procedure for applying for civil records and telling me the record doesn’t exist.

I don’t know who I should be mad at, my great-grandfather who couldn’t remember his mother’s death year or the person who supposedly lost the record.

My last experience with a registry office was in eastern Ukraine, a comical experience. A regional archive office told me my great-grandparents’ marriage record from 1890 was sitting in a registry office.

Just imagine going to an American registry office for a marriage record from 1890. The staff immediately will start coughing to cover their laughing or will run to the manager’s office to laugh their heads off.

I got information from the marriage record unofficially for a price I didn’t enjoy from a researcher to avoid the strict requirements to prove ancestry and identity.

This is the former USSR, where birth, marriage and death records are somehow government secrets to protect national security. In the past four years, I have yet to get  a copy of my family’s communist-era civil records.

Still I am happy with the information I have obtained over the years from registry offices. Communist-era records are open with the right charm that hasn’t involved a bribe yet. Just maybe I know what I am doing.

Next post: How to make successful requests to registry offices