Guide for spelling Russian and Ukrainian names to break those solid brickwalls

It gets exciting to discover an unknown Russian or Ukrainian relative but then the excitement turns into frustration when more information can’t be found.

The back of a photo may identify a man as Valya but trying to find information on Valya turns into a search into a man who doesn’t appear to ever have existed.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the differences between Russian and Ukrainian first names and nicknames.

This Useful English webpage gives a great list for spelling Russian first names with nicknames in English and Russian. The list starts at the middle of the page.

For those researching Ukrainian first names, try this website. Ukrainians and Russians have similar first names so make sure to also check out the Russian lists.

The challenge with Russian names continues when “middle names” are considered. Seeing a photo of a man identified as Valya Ivanovich doesn’t mean that is his full name. Ivanovich is a patronymic name, which is derived from the father’s first name, so his father was Ivan.

Useful English gives some examples of patronymic names under the men’s first names. It is very important to not confuse patronymic names with last names. Also,  sons and daughters have patronymic names that are spelled differently, for example Nikolaevich for men and Nikolaevna for women.

Then when it comes to last names, the spellings in English can be complicated from translations of the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets.

Here are useful lists of Russian last names and Ukrainian last names from Wikipedia.

The largest Russian genealogy website also has an extensive list of Russian surnames here in English and Russian. Each letter in English is linked to a page of surnames.

The link for each surname has posts for people searching for relatives. This is how I had found my distant cousins from several family lines. (The Russian text for the posts can be easily copied and pasted into Google Translate for English translations.)

Once the proper spellings of names can be determined, doors really open in Russian and Ukrainian genealogy. It can be challenging but the results from making the effort can be amazing.

Related posts:
Guide to finding family in Ukraine like a native expert
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum (with a video guide)
The cure for fearing Russian-language genealogy websites to make breakthroughs


Get sanity during the holiday season with a simple form

The holiday season is on its way but already stores are convinced the holidays are already here. Nothing like the holiday season stress mixed with intense genealogy research to cause panic that genealogy could take a back seat in the next several weeks.

So organization is the key to keeping sane while dealing with the holiday season AND genealogy.

Here is my Miller Sanity Checklist for Documenting Immigrants. 

Miller genealogy sanity checklist (best viewed in Web Layout under View in word processing programs)

Download this form to keep track of which documents you need to find and already have on your relatives. This form will keep you on track on what really needs to be done and will remind you how much you’ve already accomplished.

One great tip: Add a date to each check mark to remind you how much you have accomplished over time. Then print out the form and place it somewhere visible for genealogy rainy days to see your accomplishments.

Related  posts:
Documents that open doors to information (on A- and C-Files)
Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

The User-Friendly Guide to Find A Grave for Russian and Ukrainian Genealogy

findagraveFind A Grave is an easy resource to use for those with longtime roots in the English-speaking world and western Europe. For those with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry, the challenge in using Find A Grave  starts immediately with determining how to spell names of relatives who used the Cyrillic alphabet in the old country.

Thanks to different ideas about spelling Russian and Ukrainian names in English, finding relatives on Find a Grave is not as simple as a few clicks.

So here are top 10 tips to untangle the mysteries of finding relatives from Russia and Ukraine on Find a Grave.

  1. Don’t eliminate results based on birth dates. So many issues complicate how Russians and Ukrainians declare their birthdays. In Russian Orthodox cemeteries, some families post their relatives’ birth dates by the European format of date.month.year. Sometimes that format can be misunderstood by Find A Grave volunteers posting the information. Immigrants also lied about their birth dates to appear younger in their new homeland. Others immigrants had their birth dates changed unintentionally during the rush of processing immigrants during and after WWII. Then some immigrants changed their old Julian calendar birth date to the current Gregorian calendar birth date.
  2. Use as few letters as possible to spell the last name. Romanov also can be spelled Romanow and Romanoff. Trying to guess the correct endings of surnames is a hard gamble to win. Search using the portion of names that most likely don’t have any variations.
  3. If results are not appearing for a non-complicated surname with a first name, consider using the person’s nickname.
  4. Consider changes for names of towns before eliminating good matches. The two world wars changed country borders and names of towns. Research your relatives’ birthplaces to see whether they would be listed under new names or even other countries.
  5. Be open to unusual spellings of names. Lydia also can be spelled as Lidia, Lidiya, Lidija. The variations sometimes only make sense to those with the name.
  6. Patronymic names may be confused for maiden names of women. (Patronymic names are middle names derived from the father’s first name, i.e. Nikolaevna, Sergeevna and Ivanovna.) If the maiden name is the only incorrect information for a good match, check whether the patronymic name was mistaken for the maiden name.
  7. Remember these rules for variations in spelling names: a V could be changed into W and FF, Y could be changed to J and IY could be shortened to I and Y or changed to IJ.
  8. Consider shortenings of surnames or major changes in names for assimilate into the new homeland. One gravestone in a Russian Orthodox cemetery lists a man’s surname as Peck when the true translation of the name should have been Peskovtsev.
  9. Confirm a match as the person being searched by using Legacy, a free online obituary service.
  10. When search results become useless, try a search engine with keyword and keyword site: in the search box to avoid the search restrictions on Find A Grave.

Related post:

One website could become the Russian version of Find A Grave

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

It has taken me years to figure out how to search the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian even though I grew up in a Russian-speaking home. Now, I finally feel I can search the Internet like a native speaker, of course with the help of Google Translate as my aid.

Here are some tips that will eliminate the aggravations of searching in Russian and Ukrainian for non-native speakers and maybe find the hidden gems.

1. If you are not getting good results by searching people in this format: Ivan Vasilievich Ivanov (Russian: Иван Васильевич Иванов and Ukrainian: Іван Васильович Іванов), then search for Ivanov Ivan Vasilievich (Russian: Иванов Иван Васильевич and Ukrainian: Іванов Іван Васильович). This doesn’t make any sense to most people but a lot of times Russians and Ukrainians are referred by their last name, then first name and patronymic name on websites.

2. The same reverse situation is true for addresses. Russians and Ukrainians put street and lane before the chosen street name. If you search for “Lenin Street, Smolensk” the results will be limited compared to “Street Lenin, Smolensk”.

3. Don’t assume you have found information on a family village unless you see the place referred as село or деревня (Ukrainian: селище, містечко and селище).  I assumed at times I was looking at information on my family village until I noticed the place was referred as a город (city). A lot of villages are written as c., м. or дер. and then the village name.

4. Don’t let Russian grammar confuse you. My family village of  Ивановское will be also written as ИвановскогоThe end spellings of peoples’ names and places will change depending on the grammar case. That’s why Moscow (Russian: Москвa) will be written as Москве sometimes.

5. Don’t ever use letters from English-language keyboards to search in Russian. My first name is written as Bepa in Russian. When I write this using my English-language keyboard, I get zero results in Russian. In the Russian language, the print letters e, y, o, p, a, k, x,c, E, T and M are very similar to Cyrillic letters but search engines will pick up that these are not Cyrillic letters.

6. If you have found a website that appears to have a lot of information on your family or topic, narrow down your searches to that website by using your “Russian keywords” site: http://_________________________.

7. If you would rather find information through pictures before clicking on link after link after link, search Google Images. Each picture is linked to the websites from where Google lifted them. This may be the easiest way to search if seeing everything in Cyrillic would make you crazy.

8. At times, the website you are viewing may turn into nonsense symbols. So read this post-  Say goodbye to Оплата получена– before you start getting aggressive in searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian.

9. If you click on the Google Translate link next to search results, don’t forget to edit webpage names when you bookmark. You’ll get a list of bookmarks named Google Translate, otherwise.

10. I highly suggest having a firewall and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware installed on your computer and/or devices before you go click crazy on Russian and Ukrainian websites. These websites seemed to be filled with malware and viruses.

I hope your searches are fun and filled with surprising gems of information.




Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems

Everyone has someone in their family who says “I don’t know anything,” “I told you everything I know” or “No one talked to me about the family”.

It’s amazing the information relatives young and old have given me after I broke through the defensive attitude. It does help that I worked several years as a newspaper reporter with lots of experience in investigative reporting. My job was to get the “I don’t know anything” types to talk to me.

So here’s my top 10 tips for getting shiny gems of information from relatives who seem to have super glued their lips.

1. If a relative says “I don’t know anything about that,” ask them what they know about the family. Maybe they would prefer to talk about something else and would feel appreciated if they could talk about their favorites stories. Let them talk, warm them up and see if any of their stories connect back to the information you are seeking.

2.  If a relative says, “Why do you need this information?”,  move the conversation away from you by talking about the importance of future generations learning about the family. Some relatives need to be reminded that they could help pass on important information.

3.  If a relative says, “Who told you that nonsense?”,  don’t act defensive. Give that relative a chance to provide their perspective for that story even if it sounds inaccurate. One of their small tidbits may be enough to put together information to break through a brick wall.

4. Don’t try to trick a relative to talk about a controversial or debated event in the family. Your plan may backfire and that could be the end of the conversation. Wait until the end to talk about controversial topics when your relative is more comfortable.

5. Some relatives may be more visual people when communicating. Ask those relatives to pull out family photos, letters and Christmas cards to talk about the relatives you are researching.

6.  If you are trying to nail down a family village with an older relative who can’t recall the place,  bring maps of the area or your computer to look at online maps.  Ask your relative if they remember certain churches, buildings or monuments being in the community or certain villages, counties or country borders being nearby or particular industries being strong in the community.

7.  Bring photos and letters your relative has not seen and show research you have done. You can try to warm them up by showing that you are willing to share with them and are not there just to extract information from them.

8. Don’t pop out digital voice recorders or video cameras without any warning. That could make your closed-off relative more nervous and hesitant. It is best to write down notes on the first visit and then ask for permission to record follow-up interviews.

9.  Know when to stop asking questions. Don’t make the conversation too long. If possible, try to have a follow-up conversation to clear up some points after you have a chance to review your notes.

10. Make sure to thank your relative several times before leaving their home and call them a few days later to thank them again.

Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

One of the biggest mistakes in genealogy is rushing to the next step without doing all your research. Too many times, I hear people rushing into finding their family’s village well before their research is done.

Rush into this major step, you could feel like a horse led into an empty barn at feeding time.

Too many people assume when they have family stories and a few documents, that will be enough to start research in the family village.

In genealogy, you can’t research too much, especially with the factors involved when dealing with immigrants. Not many immigrants understood immigration officials when they arrived in their new homeland. Maybe some immigrants understood the language of their new country but officials could have misunderstood them or been confused by the stress of processing immigrants.

Then, immigrants had to document their lives in their new homeland on documents in a new language. Sometimes it wasn’t easy or cheap to find help in properly filling out the forms.

I have different birthplaces and birth dates for some relatives. Luckily, I’ve done my research to confirm those details. In some cases, I spent money and time in researching records in the wrong place.

There is nothing like being annoyed at yourself that you should have known better or some know-it-all relative saying with a big grin,  “Boy, you really screwed up. Hope it didn’t cost you too much money.”

So here’s how you can earn some bragging rights for uncovering the mysterious family village. Follow these suggestions and you can restart or start your search with more confidence and success.

1. Interview the oldest relatives in your family. If relatives say, “I don’t know much.” Then say, “Please tell me what you remember.” Even if relatives can’t remember very specific details, try getting details such as closeness to another country’s border, big city or another region. Someone else could help you knock down the not-so-specific details to more concise information.

2. Learn about the family’s religion, class and profession. Not all Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox or Jewish. The other religions are Old Believers, Russian Baptist, Catholic and Lutherans (mainly Germans living in the Russian Empire).

2. Get all possible immigration documents. Here are the records you should consider obtaining if your relatives came to the USA: petition for naturalization, application for immigration visa and alien registration, ship passenger record, declaration of intention for naturalization and Alien Case File.

3. If your family came to the USA in the early 1900s to 1950, I highly suggest paying $20 for an index search request at to see which immigration records are available on your family.

4. If your family was held in German concentration camps or labor camps during World War II, make a free search request with International Tracing Service.

5. If your family escaped the Soviet Union during World War II by using German ancestry to relocate to Germany, search for your family here under data category “war records”. This database will tell you whether there are Einwanderungszentralstelle files (goldmine for genealogy research) on your relatives that you can obtain at U.S. national archives in College Park, Maryland.

6. If your relatives married, served in the military or died outside of the Russian Empire or USSR, I would recommend obtaining their marriage, military and death records. Those records could have the family village.

Once you have attempted to collect this information, it is time to research the family village. It is important to remember that just like many  other countries, too many names of towns and villages duplicate in Russia and Ukraine and some names for towns and villages change over time.

If you are not familiar with Russian or Ukrainian, use Google Translate to translate keywords for search engines. Information in Russian or Ukrainian are likely to be more bountiful than English.

This all seems a bit much for one piece of information, but the cost for researching family in Russia and Ukraine can run pricey. Investing hope and money on the right village will have great returns.

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Anyone researching their Russian and Ukrainian roots can make a major mistake when putting together their family tree.

So let me test you. This name- Svetlana Vladimirovna Krasnikova- is written on a document. What is Svetlana’s maiden name?

If you guessed Vladimirovna, you are wrong.

This is the easiest mistake that could make your family tree a pile of shallow branches that will collapse onto themselves. Vladimirovna is Svetlana’s patronymic name.

What is a patronymic name? This is something I had to learn when I was a teenager and had to give my full name to work for the first time. Thanks to being born to former USSR citizens, I have a patronymic name after my first name.

So, now you have guessed this is a “middle name”. It is special middle name that isn’t picked from a book nor given in honor of a favorite relative or friend. My middle name- Nikolaevna- tells people that I am daughter of Nikolai.

I still get too excited at times that I have found maiden names to add to my family tree. It takes time to understand the difference between patronymic names and surnames.

Just a few years ago, I had to call my mother to ask her whether my great-grandmother’s middle name on the back of a professional photo was her patronymic or maiden name.

It’s hard to contain the excitement that you’ve found a maiden name in Russian or Ukrainian records. Too many times on church records women are only identified by given and patronymic names. So finding maiden names is quite the thrill.

Here are the main rules for identifying patronymic names. For women, the name ends with evna, yevna,  ovna or ichna. For men, the name finishes off with ovich, yevich or yich, according to Wikipedia’s page on patronymic names.

The difference between surnames and patronymic names also can be seen in these examples: Ivanovna (female patronymic) and Ivanova (female surname), Matveyevna (female patronymic) and Matveyeva (female surname), and Nikolayevich (male patronymic) and Nikolayev (male surname).

I have learned over the years about the perks of having patronymic names even when surnames are missing. A crafty Russian researcher found my great-grandmother’s maiden just on her given and patronymic names. That resulted in a Moscow man finding me on Russian forums and confirming us as relatives through a great-great-grandfather.

A patronymic name is not as great as a surname on the family tree but the gift of this unique name is knowing the father’s name just from a “middle name”.