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.

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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

The frustration of Moscow federal archives

Right now, the Moscow federal archive office makes me want to scream. My experience with the staff has been pure frustration.

At first, I was so excited that the archives found two documents on my great-grandfather. Two documents do not sound like much, but I have yet to find one document on him in archives for the region where he was born and had lived.

My excitement turned to annoyance when I learned how much Государственный архив Российской Федерации (ГА РФ) wanted for scans of four pieces of paper. The archive office wants $99 American dollars. This equals to about 3,000 rubles. It sounds completely insane.

My bank charges $45 for foreign bank transfers. I find it unreasonable to pay $144 for four scans. The archive office will not accept payment by Western Union due to concerns about money being in the hands of employees.

Archive staff claimed the office has an American account with Bank of New York. It would only cost $25 for a domestic bank transfer. I gave my bank the account number from archives and customer service was confident the number was not for an American bank. Now, I learned the archive office has Russian accounts for deposits of rubles and another for other currencies. Apparently, the archive staff did not understand what I meant by American bank account number. The archive office did not give me the account number for the Bank of New York.

Then, I asked my brother for help. He has friends in Moscow so he sent a friend to the archives to pay the bill. The staff was offended I sent someone else to pay the bill. I sent an e-mail message two weeks in advance that another person would pay the bill in person. I never got a response to my e-mail message before my brother’s friend arrived or afterwards.

So, now I am hoping a guy in Moscow who responded to my plea for help on forum.vgd.ru will find a way to help me. He immediately responded to my e-mail message last night. This man will try to find the same documents from the 1880s in January.

The Moscow federal archives has a website but it is hard to figure out where certain documents could be found. The federal archives in St. Petersburg has a wonderful website that makes finding files with their location very easy.

I hope this drama with ГА РФ will end soon, with me having the documents in my e-mail account. Hopefully, it will not cost $144 to get these scans. I have been warned Russian federal archives charge expensive fees. I never expected that four scans would cost $99.

A lot of people use private researchers to review documents at ГА РФ because it is cheaper. It has been very affordable to have archive staff research my family in regional archives. I never imagined Russian federal archives would demand so much money for documents.

Approaching regional archives for success

The right approach to Russian and Ukrainian regional archives will decide how much information you will get on your relatives and ancestors.

After two years of interacting with Russian and Ukrainian regional archives, I think I almost have figured out the archives.

It is most important to know what you hope to gain from contacting archives and keep an open mind. I know a lot about my father’s mother’s family but I still have contacted regional archives to confirm family information.

You may already know when your grandfather was born or when he was married. But do you know who were his godparents or the four guarantors (the people who stand by the bride and groom) for his wedding? These people could be cousins, aunts or uncles you never knew about and their families could help you contact your missing relatives.

It is best to make a list of all the information you are seeking on your relatives and ancestors and decide what is most important. The first letter to archives should not be too demanding.  Obviously, the letter needs to be written in Russian for Russian archives and Ukrainian for Ukrainian archives. I recommend Google Translate for Ukrainian and Promt for Russian.

Make sure to put your postal address and e-mail address in letters and your postal address in e-mail messages. You can find contact information for Ukrainian archives here and Russian archives here.

I really do not recommend using e-mail for archives in Russia and Ukraine, unless you are writing to large cities like Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg or Lviv. It will take about two to three weeks for a letter to arrive in Russia and Ukraine outside of Europe.

I question whether some of my e-mail messages got read by the archives in Kostroma region. A few times when the archive office responded, the subject line for the message was RE: Spam. This also happened one time when I e-mailed an office in St. Petersburg.

So many times, e-mail messages written in Polish, Russia and Ukrainian land in my spam mailbox. Many e-mail programs assume if the e-mail message is not written in English, that it could be very likely spam. I am starting to get scam e-mail messages written in Polish and Russian. If the archive office does not look regularly at their spam inbox, your English-written message could be there and never be seen.

Here is a great webpage that explains how to write letters to Ukrainian archives. The text written in Ukrainian can be easily used for Russian archives. Just copy the Ukrainian text into Google Translate and have the Ukrainian translated into Russian.

The response time from Russian and Ukrainian archives can vary. Sometimes, it takes up to three months to get a response by postal mail. Some of my letters from archives have been sent through the Russian consulate in New York City. I usually receive a response to my e-mailed requests within one to two months.

I recommend waiting four months for letter requests and two months for e-mail requests before you contact the archives about the status of your request. Russian and Ukrainian archives are very busy now that genealogy has become so popular.

It takes a lot of patience to wait for responses from archives. Every day, I wait for the postal mail and check my e-mail too many times to see whether I have a response. It’s like Christmas when I finally get a response with the information I requested.

Making the most of Russian regional archives

I have learned to keep my expectations for Russian archives low. This is not an insult to Russian archives. It is just reality.

So many records were destroyed intentionally and even more from battles during the world wars. Communists hated the White Russian soldiers so much that many of their records were destroyed. The White Russian soldiers, also known as Cossacks, represented the privileged who did not pay taxes and got the best in life. Russians who did not follow blindly in the communist state were imprisoned or killed while their family records were destroyed. The priests were treated the same horrible way. Lenin was God. Stalin was God.

Not many church records exist after 1919. Churches were demolished and burned. Records of birth, marriage and death were managed by the local government. Archive records up until 1919 are fully open to the public but so many records are missing.

I paid a researcher to study a great-grandfather’s family from the village records in Kursk Region. Only 10 years of records could be found between 1880-1919. I will never know about so many of his relatives because the village records are mostly gone. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather did not pass along much information about his family so I am really stuck in finding his siblings’ families.

Luckily, 27 years of records were found for a village in another neighborhood of Kursk region for another great-grandfather. I felt blessed when so much information was found on his relatives.

I have been required to use a professional researcher in Kursk Region because the archive office requires full names, specific dates and places for birth, baptisms, marriages and deaths. Other regional archives have searched for information on my family without having exact information.

The policy for releasing information from records after 1919 also can vary. My brother was able to visit a relative’s hometown and get records from the 1940s without showing ancestry. We cannot even prove ancestry to Russian archives back to our father because his last name was changed to his half-siblings’ surname when the family escaped Russia during World War II and he did not leave with a Russian birth certificate.

I know other regional archives will require proof of ancestry to release any information after 1919. I got my father’s birth information by e-mailing the city’s website contact person. The archive office for communist-era records will not release any information to me on my father’s siblings or cousins, who are dead.

That is why it is so important to have all the research possible done on your ancestors and relatives. Everyone thinks they know about the family through oral history. Family documents get faded as so does the accuracy of information over time.

If you have the luck of getting a friendly and helpful archive employee who will search records, you better have all the family information accurate on the names, dates, addresses and villages. It is not a good idea to waste archive office staff with inaccurate information. The staff will not go the extra mile for you.

Russian genealogy is a lot more complicated than others, thanks to destruction of so many records. It involves more creativity and less rigid thinking. Records for birth, baptism, marriage and death are not the only resources to research relatives. Records for census, residency, voting, tax, property and schooling and printed directories help fill in the gaps left from missing traditional records.

I have more information on my family from printed directories and residency records than the traditional records. It takes patience and an open mind to have success in Russian genealogy and family searches.

Next blog: How to write to Russian and Ukrainian archives for family records