The complete guide to charming Russian archives for church records

So many church records are posted online but those searching for Russian birth, marriage and death records always don’t get lucky to find them online.

Millions of birth, marriage and death records are sitting in Russian regional archives that could bring about happy dances but too many people are afraid to contact Russian archives.

Obtaining records from Russian archives isn’t as painful as learning the Waltz but the right steps are needed to get the records.

The most important step is to know the full name, village/town/city of birth, birth year and religion of the relatives or ancestors. It is very helpful to know the parents’ names, if possible.

Those who had relatives and ancestors who came to the USA and don’t know this information should read and follow through this post first.

Having all possible identifying information confirmed is the most important step. Once all the information is collected, getting the prized records is simple as following these steps:

  1. Determine the region where the ancestor lived in Russia. Search Wikipedia for the location. If there are several locations throughout Russia, check Google Maps to confirm the correct region.
  2. A very thorough list of the archives can be found in ENGLISH here. Try steps 3 and 4 if the link doesn’t include the needed archives.
  3. Once the region is known, write the region state archives into free Google Translate, for example Kursk State Archives. Copy the Russian text from Google Translate and then paste the text to search on Google.
  4. If Russian is unknown, make sure your browser has a translator app. Here’s an app from Google. Chrome users can download the application for their browser here. The text results of a search and webpage text also can be copied and pasted into Google Translate.
  5. Once the e-mail address is found for the archives, write the e-mail message into Google translate in simple English. Here is example message: Good morning! I am researching my great-grandfather Nikolai Ivanov. He was born in village Ivanovskoye in 1897. His family was Russian Orthodox. Would it be possible to search for his birth record? What would be the charge and how can payment be sent for the search? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, Your name
  6. The subject line of the e-mail message should not be anything similar to “request from USA”. It would best to use something similar to”birth record inquiry- surname” in Russian.
  7. A quick response from the archive could be sent to state that the request was received or it could take weeks to receive an answer.
  8. It is highly recommended to check regularly the spam/junk mailbox for messages from Russian archives. Due to the messages being written in a foreign language, those messages have a higher chance landing there.
  9. If the response is sent as text in an e-mail message, copy and paste the text into Google Translate. If the archive sends an attached letter in the format of  .doc, .docx, .odf, .pdf, rtf or .txt, the file can be uploaded here for translation into English.
  10. Estimates for research fees will be quoted in the Russian dollar- ruble. Visit this website for converting rubles into your currency.
  11. Bills to Russian archives can be paid through Western Union, which allows money transfers to Russian bank accounts or Russian Western Union stores.
  12. No matter the results from the search, it is very important to send a polite thank you e-mail message for the archive’s work. More research may be needed later on at that archive so keep that relationship friendly.

This effort may seem like a lot to get records but it will be well worth it. Eight years ago, this is how I started out. Now, my family tree goes back to the 1600s from using researchers and Russian genealogy forums that have connected me with my distant cousins.

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Hoping to learn about my grandpa’s mark in Russian history

I have been lucky that my mother kept letters from my grandfather to my father and made time to translate the dozen handwritten letters.

It’s been a struggle to research some of the details my grandfather writes about in his letters. My grandpa Pavel did not give enough details on some of his experiences for me to find documents in archives.

Luckily, my grandfather sent a clipping of an article written about him in his local newspaper. He participated in the 1958 Всесоюзной сельскохозяйственной выставки (All-Union Agricultural Exhibition) in Moscow as an exhibitor of his prized grapes.

It took awhile to understand the importance of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition because not many websites have information on the event. When I read the page on Wikipedia about the event, it was so exciting to learn my peasant-born grandfather participated in such an important national event.

I tried for two years to figure out how I could get documents from archives on my grandfather’s participation. I finally found that the Russian State Archive of the Economy in Moscow has records on the event by using keywords All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow and participants in Russian on Google.

The search results on Google sent me to the location of records at Russian State Archive of the Economy- Фонд 7857 (Fund 7857). I thought I would quickly get a response from that archive when I provided the fund number, my grandfather’s personal details, a scan of the newspaper article on him and my address.

But that was not enough to spark a response from the Russian State Archive of the Economy six months after I sent the archive an e-mail message. So I e-mailed my cousin in Moscow to contact the archive.

I got a response within two weeks of my cousin calling the archive, which wanted me to send within an e-mail message “payment is guaranteed,” a scanned signature and my mailing address. I had no idea how large of a bill I would be promising to pay so I asked for a bill estimate.

The archive estimated that the research and document copies will cost about $42-$69 in U.S. dollars. This sounds a lot but this expense will be well worth it if documents are found on my grandfather.

My cousin will submit my request because the archive only takes payment directly to its bank account. My bank requires foreign bank transfers to be at least $100. I cannot use Western Union because it only can send money to a Western Union store in Russia.

So now, I will wait patiently for the archive’s research results. I will be so thrilled if documents of my grandfather will be found.

This experience has taught me to ask for estimates and information on payment methods when sending research requests. Then I will send scans of my signature and a statement that “payment is guaranteed” after I get a response.

Hopefully, this method will increase the chances that archives will respond to my requests. It takes awhile to figure out how former USSR archives operate.

Get the formal attention of Ukrainian archives

After several years of researching my relatives and ancestors in Ukraine, I have finally learned that Ukrainian archives have a form for obtaining civil records.

A lot of Ukrainian archives have Web sites, but some choose not to answer their e-mail messages or have non-working e-mail addresses posted. If you have contacted a Ukrainian archive office and have not received an answer within six months, I highly suggest you use this form.

Here is the link for the form, which is in Ukrainian. The form must be filled out in Ukrainian. You must know exact dates of birth, marriage, divorce and death. Here is an English version of the form, but it cannot be used.

If you do not know Ukrainian, use Google Translate to fill out the Ukrainian  form.

Hopefully, the archive office will respond to your request better than an informal e-mail message or letter. The Consulate General will actually send the archives’ response to you.

If sending this form directly to archives does not result in a response, the Ukrainian Consulate General in New York City will process your request. The charge is $75. Here is information on that process.

I highly recommend first sending the form to archives on your own. I do not know whether the Consulate General’s office will refund your money if nothing is found. 

Every Russian archive teaches lessons in genealogy

I was hoping to find the birth record of a paternal great-grandfather for cheap in Kostroma regional archives. But I got a rude awakening about how Russian archives operate. I have yet to see a standard rate for researching records in Russian regional archives.

My expectation was that the search would cost around $50. Not even close. Thanks to my peasant ancestry, the archives do not have my family’s surname in church records. I have a lot of Russian peasant ancestry and Kostroma Region is only my second experience dealing with this problem.

I thought giving the archives my great-grandfather’s given and patronymic names, the two possible years he could have been born, the name of his church, the name of his family’s village would make the search less complicated and more affordable. Nope and nope. Archives want between $100-$330 American dollars for a search that could find nothing.

So I decided to contact the same researcher who studied my paternal grandfather’s mother’s family to find records on my grandfather’s siblings. My grandfather wrote in letters that he was the only child who survived childhood. So that made me curious about how many siblings my grandfather lost.

The researcher found four siblings. My grandfather had two sisters and two brothers as sets of twins. It is sad I will never find cousins through my grandfather’s siblings. But the siblings’ lives were still interesting.

The first set of twins, Alexander and Ivan, were born in October 1883. Alexander died in August 1885 and Ivan died December 15, 1883. This information seemed unexciting until I realized that my grandfather had a brother who died on his birthday two years before he was born and my great-grandmother faced a second child death while she was 6 months pregnant with my grandfather. The grief of losing a second child could have resulted in my grandfather being miscarried.

Then I learned my grandfather’s two sisters, Elizabeta and Alexandra, were born in October 1887 and died in April 1888 one day apart. I cannot imagine giving birth to a second set of twins in the same month as the first twins who died young. I wonder if my grandfather even remembered his sisters who died when he was 2 1/2 years old.

It is sad that my great-grandmother was a mere 22 years old when she had her last children. So maybe the death of four children was all it took for her to not have any more children.

My curiosity continued into my Ivanov family and I agreed for the researcher to study my family as far back as records would allow. It was exciting to see my family tree go back to my sixth great-grandfather, born around the 1720s, and then interesting to know my great-grandfather Nikolai had two brothers, including another Nikolai, who was 17 years older than him.

I thought the researcher would find that my great-grandfather’s siblings also all died young. It is great to know there is a possibility that I could one day find Ivanov cousins, especially when my father was an only child and so was my grandfather.

FAQ: Understanding Russian regional archives

Some people assume Russian regional archives really do not have much to offer. Archives have suffered through damage from two world wars and a destructive communist government. But I somehow have archive records back to the 1700s on several family lines.  Contacting regional archives are well worth the effort to see if  family stories can be confirmed with documents and whether family trees can be developed from existing records.

What language should I use to contact archives?

First check whether the archives have a Web site. If the Web site offers versions in English and Russian, you can write in English. I highly recommend using simple English and short sentences.

What is the best way to contact regional archives in Russia?

Some archives have Web sites with e-mail addresses and others need to be contacted by a written letter. See this Web site for archive websites and addresses.

How long does it take to get a response?

Sometimes archives do not answer e-mail messages. Archives get a lot of impossible requests. So, if you have not received an answer within 6 months, send a letter by postal mail. Remember it can take more than a month for a letter to arrive in Russia and then it takes longer for archives’ letters to arrive in foreign countries. Some archives have automated systems that confirm your e-mail message was received. An e-mailed response can take a week to several months.

How can I improve the chances archives will answer my e-mail message?

Do not write “request from USA” in the subject line because that is just as annoying as someone posting “searching for missing family” on a genealogy forum. It is better to write something like “Smirnov, birth record, 1899” to stand out. The archives staff will see that you don’t have some broad request that will take lots of time to answer.

Also, it is important to provide your full name and home address.

What if I only know the family village and surname for my request?

I recommend researching the family village before contacting archives. Check whether the village name has changed over time and see if you can determine the neighborhood for the village. A region could have several villages with the same name. Knowing the neighborhood will save a lot of time for archives. Remember that family religion and status (peasant, merchant or nobility) also will be useful information.

Will archives search records for me if I do not have exact dates for birth, marriage and death?

Some archives will do the search for a charge but will not offer a refund if information is not found. Other archives require the detailed information to do a search. If an archive office will not search  records, you can ask for names of researchers.

What if archives cannot find birth, marriage or death records on my family?

You should then ask archives what type of records are available for your family’s village or town. Census, property and other records could be just as useful.

How much will searches and copies of documents cost?

There is not a standard fee. Some archives will do searches with exact dates for free and then require a fee for scans or copies of documents. The fees seem pretty cheap compared to what I have paid in the USA for records.

How can I pay bills from archives?

I highly recommend using Western Union. First ask, the archive office who is permitted to pick up money for archives. To send money by Western Union, you will need to know how to spell the archive employee’s name in English. Western Union sends an e-mail message when the money is picked up. Sometimes archives will ask money be sent by a bank transfer but check your bank’s minimum amount required for foreign transfers. The Russian ruble is so weak that the archive fees could be too low for bank transfers.

See also : Approaching regional archives for success