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

Unsolved: Mystery of Russian regional archives

I am still trying to figure out if I love or hate Russian archives. It’s just as complicated as the country’s politics.

I’ve had a mixed experience with Russian archives. The first Russian archives I contacted was Kursk regional archives. The office responded to some of my requests by e-mail. Once, the office promised to send me a copy of my great-grandfather’s birth registry in the postal mail. It still hasn’t arrived in the mail more than a year later.

Then, the staff gave me a wrong patronymic name (middle name that represents the father’s first name). My mother remembered hearing of a different patronymic name for her great-grandfather. I thought archives would confirm the information. Luckily, a professional researcher confirmed my mother’s information.

I have tried to get Kursk archives to respond to more requests by e-mail. My luck has run out. But luckily, the archives did not charge me anything for finding my great-grandfather’s birth registry or searching for other records that could not be found.

The archive office in Kostroma Region in central Russia has not been very helpful. But it is partly my fault. I gave the wrong information for my first requests sent by e-mail. By the time I had the right village name for my grandfather, the archive office stopped answering my e-mail messages. Thankfully, I was never charged for any searches.

Then my most interesting experience has been in southern Russia. The regional archive office has found some wonderful information for me, but also provided me with information I never requested. Half the time, I already had the information.

In the same region, I received some great information from an archive office in my father’s hometown. My brother visited the city out of curiosity and the archives to help me. I received Nazi-occupation period residency records, which listed all the homes’ occupants, their birthdate and birthplace. This is valuable information when so many records were destroyed in two world wars, tragic events and communist pillaging.

Right now, I want to smack someone at the regional office. I sent money by Western Union in early September. An employee still has not picked up the money. I sent three e-mail messages and then a letter by postal mail. I even had a local resident call the employee who told me to send the money by Western Union. She said it was not her responsibility.

I got an e-mail message earlier this month from an employee asking for the Western Union transfer number, even though it was on the letter. Still, the money has not been collected. Apparently, the archive office does not want my money. I thought it was bad when it took two weeks to pick up my Western Union money over the summer. I had a friend in Moscow call the office to tell the staff to pick up my Western Union money and a few days later the money was collected.

Russian archives prefer money be sent by bank transfers. That is not possible in my situation. My bills have ranged around 600 to 800 rubles, which equals to $19 to $25 American dollars. I cannot send that amount as a bank transfer because my bank requires a minimum of $100 American dollars to be sent abroad.

So, I use Western Union. The archives in southern Russia said they accepted money by Western Union but I never expected it would be so difficult. One time, I sent an extra 1,000 rubles so I would not need to send so many Western Union transfers. I was told to send only money to cover a bill. Dealing with Russian archives is like a novel with lots of twists and turns.

Next blog: What to expect from Russian archives. This blog will be posted  tomorrow.