Guide to finding the mystery family villages of Russia and Ukraine

The moment that the name of a family village is uncovered the excitement builds. Then, searching for that village on a 21st century map can seem as challenging as if the village never existed.

Before rushing to find the village or town on a map, it’s time to do some more research. Maybe the village or town still exists but the name has changed over time. Or the village switched borders within the former USSR countries.

Here are some web pages (all in English) that will help uncover the locations of mystery family villages and towns.

Russia:

  1. List of renamed cities and towns in Russia
  2. List of cities and towns in Russia

  3. List of cities of the Russian Empire in 1897

Ukraine:

  1. List of renamed cities in Ukraine

  2. List of Ukrainian toponyms that were changed as part of decommunization in 2016

  3. List of villages and towns depopulated of Jews during the Holocaust

  4.  JewishGen’s database on Ukrainian villages

Russia & Ukraine:

  1. List of ghost towns by country (Russia is listed under Asia.)

Galicia:

  1. Galician Town Locator

East Prussian towns now in Russia:

  1. List of cities and towns in East Prussia

Ruthenian (Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth):

  1. List of villages now in Zakarpatska Oblast, Ukraine (formerly the Kingdom of Hungary)

Carpatho-Rusyn (also known as Dolinyans,  Boykos,  Hutsuls  and Lemkos):

Root Seekers Guide To The Homeland

German settlements in Russia:

  1. Germans from Russia Settlement Locations

View this website on Germans from Russia for more information on these location.

If luck isn’t struck with these web pages, try posting for help on these Facebook genealogy groups. Those who had luck should search online for any additional information to help find the correct village or town on a 21st century map.

Feel free to post more useful web pages in the comments section.

Related posts:
Guide to interviewing relatives like a true detective
Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

10 Mythbusters for making breakthroughs in Russian genealogy

Too many people ignore the Russian side of their family tree due to myths about Russian genealogy. The biggest fear is all the efforts will result in nothing.

I once believed the myths but wanted to know whether discovering my Russian ancestry could be possible. Growing up first-generation American made me wonder about my ancestors and whether relatives could be found in Russia.

My family didn’t come to the USA until the 1950s so working on the family tree has been challenging with the limited amount of American records to start the research. But now I can brag about my family tree having more than 4,000 people, knowing several distant cousins in Russia and Ukraine and finding information never imagined when I started my journey.

Here are the myths that are discouraging people from beginning their incredible journeys.

MYTH 1: Too many records were destroyed during the communist era and two world wars to even consider looking for records.

Many archive records were destroyed during these time periods but the Russian Empire collected a vast amount of records on its people. The variety of records available at Russian archives is comparable to any modern country.

MYTH 2: Russian archives are too disorganized to even find much information.

Archives are getting more organized and ready for 21st century genealogy. Some archives are digitizing their records.

MYTH 3: It will take too long for Russian archives to receive a letter.

Many Russian archives have websites and respond to requests by e-mail.

MYTH 4: Russian archives will ask for proof of ancestry to release documents.

Archives will not ask for documents to prove ancestry to obtain records dated 1917 and earlier.

MYTH 5: I will have to pay bribes to get records.

I have never paid one in 8 years. Russian archives are monitored government offices. I pay bills through Western Union, which allows money to be sent directly to Russian bank accounts or stores where archive staff pick up the money. Western Union sends e-mail messages when money has been picked up.

MYTH 6: I don’t know Russian so I can’t write to archives nor read the letters from archives.

Google Translate does a sufficient job of translating English to Russian and the reverse. If the archives sends a letter as an attachment, it can be uploaded here for a free translation. If archives sends a response as text in an e-mail message, the text can be copied and pasted for translation here.

MYTH 7: If I don’t have enough information, archives won’t do a search and it’s too hard to find researchers. Genealogy isn’t popular in Russia.

Genealogy is a growing hobby in Russia. It’s not as popular as it is in the English-speaking world but it is still possible to find researchers when archives cannot complete research requests.

MYTH 8: Once I get the records from archives, it will be expensive to have the records translated.

There are plenty of eager helpers who can translate Russian documents. Just check out these Facebook genealogy groups for help with translations.

MYTH 9: There aren’t any websites comparable to Ancestry to post my Russian family tree that could be seen by other Russians.

MyHeritage and Geni are popular among Russians.

MYTH 10: There isn’t a comprehensive forum for Russian genealogy. It will be hard to go far in Russian genealogy.

The most comprehensive forum is Всероссийское генеалогическое древо. It is in Russian but can be easily translated into English with Google Translate. Here is a look at the forum in English. This is the forum where I had found Russian and Ukrainian relatives several times and received lots of help to research my family tree. Those who are not brave enough to try this Russian forum, can try these Facebook genealogy groups.

Anyone excited to move forward in their Russian genealogy can read these posts to get ready for their journey:

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
The complete guide to charming Russian archives for church records
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs
Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

Guide to interviewing relatives like a true detective

Too many times a good source of information can’t been seen when the person being interviewed keeps saying “I don’t know”.  The problem may not be the person not knowing anything but how they are being questioned.

That’s what I learned during my years as a newspaper reporter. The knowledge I have gained as a newspaper reporter really does help in genealogy.

Here’s how to get around the “I don’t know” scenario.

Example 1: When was he or she was born?

Instead ask:

How close was this to the birth of his brother or sister?

Was the day close to a holiday or family special event (such as someone’s wedding, baptism or funeral)?

Did you go to school that day? What grade were you in?

What was going on in your life? (to get answers like “I just graduated from junior high school.” I got my first job.”

Example 2: What village did you (or your parents) live in the old country?

Instead ask:

Was there anything in the village that attracted a lot of attention (such as monuments, famous churches, historical buildings, etc.)

What were your favorite places in the village? Did you visit a particular store regularly?

Did you have to go far to get to the next town or city? What was the closest city or town?

What do you remember the most about the village? (to get a unique feature of the village)

Was there a train station nearby and where could you go?

Example 3: When did your grandmother die?

Instead ask:

What was the weather like for the funeral? Was that cold or hot for that time of the year? What did you wear to the funeral?

Was the day close to a holiday or family special event (such as someone’s wedding, baptism or funeral)?

Was he or she (the person who died or being interviewed) about to have a birthday?

Did he or she (the person who died or being interviewed) recently have a wedding anniversary or celebrate a child’s birthday?

Example 4: When did you immigrate to this country?

Instead ask:

Did you start school already? What grade did you finish in school?

Was this close to when another relative had left for immigration?

What was the weather like when you got on the ship or plane?

Was there a major political event or war-related event that happened near that time?

Was there a delay in leaving due to weather or a war-related event?

Example 5: What is the name of the church where your parents got married?

Instead ask:

Was the church old or newer?

Was it near any other churches?

What street was it on or near?

What did the church look like? (in case, the person had seen the church before)

Did any other relatives get married there?

These types of questions should get memories flowing and bringing out some great stories. It’s so easy to give up but finding the right source by asking the right questions are truly worth the effort.

Related posts:
Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems
Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

Large Russian-American cemetery database offers another resource for researching immigrants

Many Russian-speaking immigrants escaping the Soviet Union found a special cemetery in northeastern United States. That one cemetery is claiming to be the largest Russian Orthodox cemetery outside of Russia.

Novo-Diveevo Russian Orthodox Cemetery is tucked away a few miles from New York City and attracted many Russian-speaking immigrants as their final resting place. More than 7,100 immigrants and their descendants are documented with grave photos on this Find A Grave database.

The best part of this database is the ease involved to search for possible ancestors and relatives. Every memorial can be viewed in a list with this link.

If that’s too time-consuming, the first or last name can be searched with just a few letters. That is highly recommended due to the challenges of determining in how names were spelled on gravestones- the original name or modified names.

Here’s a guide on tricky name spellings-

  1. Names ending with ov also can be spelled with ow or off
  2. Names with the zh sound also can be spelled with a j
  3. Names using the kh combination also can be spelled with the k dropped
  4. Names ending with y also can be spelled with iy or ij
  5. Names with the sh sound also can be spelled with sch
  6. Names starting with a g sound can be switched to a h for Ukrainians

My favorite feature of this cemetery is that many of the gravestones have photos, birthplaces or military service information.

If the memorial page doesn’t have that information posted in English, the information can be easily retyped with a Russian keyboard here. Then copy and paste the text on Google Translate for the English translation.

Anyone with Russian nobility ancestry is highly encouraged to search this cemetery’s database. The cemetery is filled with dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses and princes and princesses, who escaped the Soviet Union to save their lives from political persecution.

If nothing useful appears in this cemetery’s database, another cemetery database to check is Holy Trinity of Jordanville, N.Y. More than 2,000 Russian-speaking immigrants and their descendants are documented for that cemetery.

Related posts:
Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?
The User-Friendly Guide to Find A Grave for Russian and Ukrainian Genealogy
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

 

The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs

Millions of records are available online for those researching their ancestors from the former Russian Empire. These records are completely free to access and download.

But still so many people won’t touch a link for a website in Russian. I’m trying to figure out why when Google Translate makes it so much easier to use these websites.

Using these Russian websites isn’t a computer safety issue. I only use Malwarebytes to protect my computer from malicious websites and my computer is completely safe.

So many of the best Russian websites have information never found on the subscription genealogy websites. Russian genealogy research online is possible even if you don’t know Russian.

I do have the advantage of having a father born in Russia and mother born in Ukraine. My father died when I was 10 years old. The pressure to know and speak Russian was released.

I was so horrible at learning Russian that I kept repeating first grade in Russian school. The teachers didn’t know how to get me to learn Russian like the other kids.

I still can’t have a simple conversation in Russian. My pronunciation is off and my knowledge of Russian grammar is embarrassing. I have relearned Russian from my childhood and  learned more Russian words from using Google Translate.

Thanks to Google Translate and my refusal to fear Russian-language genealogy websites, I am in contact with my grandfather’s family in Kiev, great-grandfather’s brother’s family in Moscow, my great-grandmother’s brother’s family in Saint Petersburg and some very distant cousins in Russia.

Not only that, I have found the best researchers in Russia to research my family tree back to the 1600s and obtained documents on my family I never thought could be found online and at archives.

All the success stories written on this blog could happen to anyone who follows these tips and does thorough research on their relatives and ancestors.

  1. Open Google Translate and one of the following websites: WWII casualties and MIA soldiers, WWII soldiers’ records, WWI soldiers’ records, or victims of political terror database.
  2. Copy and paste the link of the selected Russian website into  Google Translate into the empty left box. Click on Russian above that box, English above the right box and then the translate button.
  3. Now view the website in Russian and English. Does the Russian website in English seem less intimidating than its original form?

These websites can’t be searched in English but that problem can be solved quickly.

Visit Transliterating English to Russian in One Step to get several possible spellings of your family names. I highly recommend copying and pasting the translated names into a Microsoft Word document or a text document.

Once that is completed, searching Russian databases is easy as copying and pasting the Russian keywords. Then when the results appear, just copy and paste them into Google Translate.

If the results are too large for Google Translate, just copy and paste into Google Translate in chunks or use the find tool of your Internet browser. Copy and paste the Russian keywords into the find tool.

If nothing is found, start deleting one letter at a time due to the changing endings of words in Russian grammar (my struggle with Russian).

Genealogy research in the former Russian Empire involves lots of emotional sweat, especially for those who aren’t fluent in Russian. How much do you want to find your grandmother’s family never heard from again after WWII? What records on your relatives have been waiting to be found by you?

The Russian-language websites have the ability to knock down those strong brickwalls but it’s up to you whether you want to face the challenge of using Russian websites.

Related posts:
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker
Guide to finding family in Ukraine like a native expert
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (with a video guide in English)

Unknown immigrant database completes family story of escape from WWII

Many of my relatives can tell me the story of how one brother of my grandmother got separated from his four brothers and a sister as they boarded trains during WWII.

The families got on any train that had breathing room but Grand Uncle Dimitri was the only one to not make it to Austria. He, his wife and four sons arrived in Italy.

Grand Uncle Dimitri told my family, who later escaped to the USA, that he spared his family from being repatriated to the USSR by crawling under the fence of a monastery to be converted as a Catholic. That would be a great story to confirm with documents.

But I only can confirm how he managed to arrive in Argentina from Italy, thanks to the unknown database CEMLA. None of the subscription genealogy websites were of any help, even after searching different variations of  his last name.

I learned  from CEMLA that Grand Uncle Dimitri departed from Genova, Italy, on the ship Sestriere and arrived in warmer Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 19, 1948. He described himself as a mechanic.

I know without a doubt this is my grand uncle because his age, first and last name and port of arrival are correct. The only incorrect information is that his last place of residence in Russia is listed as his birthplace. He is listed as Russian, even though he was born in Ukraine. His family had a long history in Russia.

This gem of a database has so many immigrants from throughout the world. It’s worth checking just for the curiosity on those brickwalls in the family tree. The best part is that it doesn’t require registration. Getting busy with searching is instant as clicking on buscar (search).

Here’s a sample of how results will appear:

The database from Center for Latin American Migration Studies is in Spanish. So here are English translations to make using the database smoother: apellido (last name); nombre (first name); edad (age); estado civil (marital status); nacionalidad (nationality); lugar de nacimiento (place of birth); profesión (profession); fecha de arribo (arrival date);  barco (passenger ship); puerto (port of departure), anterior (previous), siguiente (next) and nueva búsqueda (new search).

This database is worthwhile for anyone researching relatives who relocated from Europe, especially as World War II refugees. South America wasn’t damaged in World War II so it was the perfect place for refugees to find a safe and new home. So many refugees were already immigrating to the USA, Canada and Australia.

I found in my grandmother’s documents that my Ukrainian maternal grandfather unsuccessfully attempted to immigrate his family to Argentina. He waited awhile and got permission to immigrate to the USA, instead.

If relatives can’t be found in the South American database, check out these ship passenger lists from Australian archives for refugees of World War II.

Also check out, newly updated Free Databases.

Related posts:
Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?

The biggest struggle in researching relatives and ancestors from the former USSR is figuring out spellings of their various names. For so many reasons, their names changed after immigrating and trying to trace their lives is like a complicated maze.

So here is the challenge of the day. See how many of these questions below you can answer correctly. These name changes are based on people who listed their real surnames and Americanized names on their gravestones in a Russian Orthodox cemetery in New York state.

Get your pen and paper ready to write down your answers and check them against the correct answers below.

1. A woman was named Kureshova. She changed her name to:

a. Kuresh

b. Kourre

c. Korr

2.  A man named Okunev. He changed his name to:

a. Hay

b. Okin

c. Okner

3. A man was named Pukh. He changed his name to:

a. Puner

b. Pouch

c. Punerov

4.  A woman was named Kurekova. She changed her name to:

a. Koreka

b. Kurek

c. Kurenko

5. A man was named Minitsky. He changed his name to:

a. Minn

b. Minit

c. Munit

6. A man was named Kusakov. He changed his name to:

a. Kusak

b. Kusar

c. Kent

7. A man was named Lopuhovych. He changed his name to:

a. Loch

b. Lopuk

c. Lopov

8. A man was named Mikhalov. He changed his name to:

a. Michaels

b. Mikhalow

c. Mitchell

9. A man was named Masianoff. He changed his name to:

a. Mason

b. Martell

c. Massy

10. A woman was named Dukhovetskaya. She changed her name to:

a. Dukhovetsky

b. Doukhowetzky

c. Doherty

See all the correct answers below.

If you got all the answers right, you know name changes can be simple or random. If you got a few wrong, you know it’s hard to predict how names are changed. If you got all the answers wrong,  look at your answers versus the correct answers. I would hardly get any of the answers correct if I never saw the gravestones.

  1. b  2. a 3. b 4. c 5. a 6. c 7. a 8. c 9. b 10. b

If you are stuck on researching your relatives and ancestors from the former USSR, check out these posts:

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

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems (perfect for the upcoming holiday season when visiting older relatives)