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

Google Translate helps reveal important communist-era records

I was ready to spend 250 Euros for research on my great-grandfather’s family until poor translations from Google Translate forced a researcher to reveal lesser known communist-era records.

The researcher sent me scans of a sample census record from World War II for my great-grandfather’s central Russian region. Then I noticed that the name of the record sounded familiar. That’s because a municipal archive already checked the same records for my relatives in their longtime family village.

Now, my 250 Euros are still sitting in my bank account because the researcher killed any chance I would need him to research my family. Being organized keeps you sane and financially wise in genealogy.

Now, I am getting another letter to municipal archives ready to research my family in a nearby small city. I recalled a granddaughter of my grandmother’s sister telling me that her grandmother and our great-grandfather visited our great-great-grandmother at her new residence.

So I am hoping that children of my great-great-grandmother moved with their mother to the same city. This family has been so difficult to research past the early 1900s that it is a perfect example of a brickwall.

Now, this frustrating and funny situation  with the researcher has inspired me. I have found an e-mail address for the registry office that should have the death record for my great-great-grandmother. I posted documents proving ancestry securely on a Google album.

It’s a miracle to find such a small Russian registry office with an e-mail account that works. So many times my messages to Russian archives have bounced back to me.

Now, my circus performance will be getting my letter to the municipal archives that has the World War II census records for my great-great-grandmother’s small city. The archive office’s address doesn’t have a street address.

Thanks to technology of the U.S. Postal Service, my letters to Russia that don’t have street addresses get returned to me. I have an e-mail address for a government office in that area that could help me but I’ll have to charm every inch of their soul.

I hope the story from my grand aunt’s granddaughter will help get information on my great-grandfather’s family. These census records called похозяйственной книги, which translates to household books, are the only Soviet Era records that could crumble this brickwall.

Other archives may have the same communist-era census records as переписи населения, which translates to backyard census. The communist government loved to track their citizens and that comes with great benefits for Russian genealogy.

These records are mostly at local archives, which report to the regional archives. Information on contacting these smaller archives are usually listed on regional archive websites.

Use the Russian phrases of похозяйственной книги and переписи населения and you will get the attention of archive staff. Then you may get surprised by what can be found in these records.

Last time, I got full names and birth dates of my great-grandfather’s favorite sister, husband and three children. Now, I am hoping to hit the jackpot one more time to avoid the restrictions at Russian registry offices for communist-era records.

Empty-handed search but warmed by open doors of Ukrainian Secret Service

I didn’t know what to expect when I asked the Ukrainian Secret Service to check  its archives for records on my maternal grandmother’s family. Would it be a good thing if records were found? Would it be wonderful if records didn’t exist?

My luck, of course, was records were not found. It was a disappointment at first but I also felt grateful that my grandmother’s family did not suffer from political persecution during a painful time in the communist era.

My grandparents told my mother that my family escaped war-torn Kiev in winter 1943 during the night. Only what was needed made it into suitcases. Thanks to my maternal grandmother’s German ancestry from her mother in current day eastern Poland, my family got permission to immigrate to Germany.

My family lived a quiet life in southern Germany. It wasn’t easy for my grandfather to live in the land of his torturers. My grandfather was a POW of the German army in a prison near Kiev and my grandmother walked for a long time every day to bring him food.

My grandfather talked his way out of that prison and got back to my grandmother and mother. My grandmother’s family found a way to escape bombed-out Kiev, which had little food and hope for those who waited for the war to end.

My grandmother probably wondered whether her father’s family suffered when she and several family members escaped Soviet Ukraine. Proof of persecution against her family doesn’t exist. Records from the secret service’s archives would have helped me find my grandmother’s paternal relatives.

I am grateful the records are not there. I am even more grateful for the professionalism and openness of Ukrainian Secret Service.

My request was acknowledged by e-mail less than 48 hours later. Then, 13 days later, I received a letter, stating archive records do not include my family.

The letter included information on a man carrying my grandmother’s maiden name who died as a POW of the Germans and addresses for Ukrainian and Russian military archives and Kursk Regional archives. The secret service just didn’t send me a cold one-paragraph letter that nothing was found.

Anyone who is curious about whether their family suffered from communist persecution should take action now. Requests are free and simple. I posted my proof of ancestry and identity records to a private Google Picasa album and sent secret service archives a link to the album.

I will make two more requests with the secret service archives. At any time politics of Ukraine could change the openness of these records. Timing is everything, especially when closure is desired on Ukraine’s painful political past.

Related website: Secret Service of Ukraine archives

Related post: Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives

 

Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives

I was taken aback when a woman posted on a Ukrainian genealogy Facebook page that the Secret Service of Ukraine has opened its communist-era archives.

The files are open on Ukrainians who were investigated for “crimes” or other “suspicious activities”. Back in the Soviet era, talking to a foreigner in the street was suspicious.

So I used Yandex Translate to read SSU’s website that announces most of its 1.5 million files are open to the public. It was shocking to read this:

“We are always happy to answer and queries to provide comprehensive information and useful advice on finding information about people who are trapped in the crucible of the Soviet repressive system security. After all, the basic principle of the archive is to share their treasures with the previous approval of the historical truth for the sake of a better future.”

I know it is 2015, almost 24 years since the Iron Curtain fell, but I thought Ukraine would need more time to open these records.

So I immediately scanned family documents on my Trunov family from Kiev to prove my ancestry.

Those documents included my grandmother’s official birth record, an EWZ record (German citizenship records for those who lived abroad and wanted to live in Germany during WWII) that shows my great-grandparents’ and their children’s names and birth dates, my great-grandmother’s German identification papers and my U.S. passport.

To make sending these documents secure online, I posted the images to an album on Picasa and e-mailed an invitation from Picasa to view the records to the SSU.

Then my e-mail message translated into Russian included my gratitude for the records being open and thankfulness for any information that could be provided. I included everything I knew about my Trunov family in Kiev and my postal address to show my request was not casual and lacked thoroughness.

My decision to move quickly on contacting SSU is based on my fear that restrictions could come any day such as complete proof of ancestry, limits on searches only of direct ancestors or requirement of using professional researchers to complete the searches. A future change in administration at SSU could easily make this process more complicated.

When I pressed the send button from my Russian e-mail account, I wondered how long would it take to receive a response. To my surprise, I got a response in 48 hours that my request was accepted and would be answered in the legally required time period.

I nervously await the response from SSU. The secret service archives could have records to answer so many questions for my family. Nothing also could be found but I cannot turn down or take an invitation to search these secret files casually.