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


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

Declassified records reveal details of a family secret

Anyone who has relatives from the former USSR knows family stories can be so strange and hard to believe. One family story has mystified my family for two generations.

It has been rumored that the first husband of my grandmother was sent to the Gulag, the infamous Soviet prison camps for people falsely accused of crimes, and vanished from the family. For years, I couldn’t prove that he was sent away to prison.

Knowing that my grandmother lived in southern Russia, I e-mailed the registry office for my grandmother’s hometown to obtain information from her marriage record.

The registry office quickly responded to my request and I finally had the correct full name of her husband, his address before they married and their marriage date. By luck I got my grandmother’s husband’s birth year from his brother’s great-grandson by finding him on Russian social network Odnoklassniki.

Several years ago the Federal Security Service of the region where they lived couldn’t find a persecution file on my grandmother’s first husband. At the time, I had used information from a fake Polish marriage record, where my grandmother put her actual birthdate but a unknowingly fake one for her husband.

Now that I had confidence my latest information was factual, I resubmitted a search request to the regional Federal Security Service. In three weeks, I got the answer my family had been waiting for years.

The FSS had proof that my grandmother’s husband went twice, not once, to the Gulag, for “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation” under the 58th Soviet article. The office provided me with his dates of arrests, addresses, employment information, household members, places of internment and his sentences.

With this new information, I know the father of my half uncle and aunt was arrested at age 54 when my half aunt was 7 years old and my half uncle was 5 years old. The man was sentenced to three years near Saint Petersburg, quite a railroad ride from southern Russia.  According to Anne Applebaum’s book “Gulag: A History” he was cutting trees and preparing wood products for Saint Petersburg.

Luckily, he returned only after two years but I can’t imagine he was allowed to return to the home where my grandmother, her two children and her mother were living. Many spouses and children rejected their relatives when they returned so they wouldn’t face the same fate.

Strangely enough when he was arrested again in 1937 he was living several houses down from my grandmother. My half uncle said he had only seen his father once in town after his arrest even though they lived on the same street.

Sadly, the second arrest led to a 10-year sentence by the horrid NKVD troika. The poor guy was already 59 years old. He was among more than 330,000 sentenced by the NKVD troika from July 1937 to November 1938 and the vast majority were executed, according to Wikipedia.

Nothing else is known about my grandmother’s first husband by my family nor the regional Federal Security Service. He was “rehabilitated” in 1989 and 1990 from his crimes. Sadly if he had the strength and luck to return home, his family was gone.

My grandmother escaped the USSR for Austria in August 1943 with her three children (one of which was my father from another man). All of my grandmother’s relatives from that hometown had died or escaped the Soviet Union together.

The husband (or possibly ex-husband) wouldn’t have anyone to ask where his family went. Now my grandmother’s husband’s family knows his painful story, thanks to our connection on Odnoklassniki and my nagging determination to solve this family mystery.

Ironically, it took known fake family documents to get me to fight to know the truth for both families to have closure.

Related posts:
Database of political terror victims in the USSR explodes past 3 million
Doors are open on “secret files”
Secret files help complete the life story of five brothers
SSSHHH!!! Detailed civilian records of Soviet persecution camps declassified…..

Newly updated database reveals 2 million documents on WWII victims and refugees

International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is the agency to contact for documents on relatives who were victims of Germany’s national socialism. The wait time for a response is 2 years but the ITS online database has expanded to about 2 million documents.

Thankfully, this database can be easily searched in English. Since a German-based organization runs the database, there are important changes in spellings of names and places to remember.

The most common spelling changes are that many people with names spelled with v’s are changed to w’s and y’s are changed to j’s. This even happens to names of places such as Kyiv/Kiev (Kiew in German) and Kharkov/Kharkiv (Kharkow in German). Some documents don’t have these changes but these changes are important to note.

Here are some other important hints to find documents on relatives.

  1. If only one match or many matches appear, make sure to click on “more persons” on the right for more matches.
  2. Search for relatives using all known spellings of their names.
  3. If the last names are complicated to spell, consider searching by unique first names.
  4. Remember to consider all matches whose names are spelled the same or similar. If dates or places are off, double-check that information with relatives. Some victims and refugees lost their documents and traveled with fake or recreated documents and those documents were not always accurate.
  5. The database also can be searched by city/town/village. It is important to spell those places as they were written near the time of World War II. Research the places to see if their names have changed over time.
  6. The birth dates and event dates are provided in the European format of date.month.year.
  7. Naturally, there will be typos in the database so make sure to view the documents before eliminating results as matches.
  8. When nothing can be found, consider going through the database by the index of names. Have a list of possible name spellings to help find matches in the database.

Not everyone will find information and documents on their family but don’t be discouraged. Anyone can submit free requests for document searches here. Automated e-mail messages are sent when requests went through properly.

ITS sends responses to research requests by e-mail or postal mail. Make sure to check your spam and in boxes and provide a permanent postal address for your requests.

As time goes on, this database will be updated with even more documents. Follow this blog with the top right button to learn about the next major update and other important databases.

Related posts:
Minor traffic violation leads to a pile of immigration records (an ITS search)
Millions of records added to WWII database
Databases of Soviet Army soldiers as POWs provide wealth of information

Stranger makes dream of seeing grandpa’s home come true after 8 years

In the past eight years, I have written two letters to the current owners of my grandfather’s house. Two years have passed since I sent the last letter and I had given up hope they would ever respond.

That was until I made contact with my half-aunt’s distant cousin I’ll name Valentin who lives in the same city. He offered to knock at the gate of my grandpa’s former home in southern Russia.

I couldn’t contain my excitement. Another resident of the city made the same attempt to reach the owners but didn’t have luck eight years ago.

Finally, I had another chance for someone to get on the property and take pictures of where my grandpa lived with his parents for many years and my father spent his days as a young child.

But Valentin didn’t have luck when he knocked on the gate. I kindly thanked him for his efforts and felt it just was a dream to see this home. At least, the same gate where my grandfather was photographed still stands after more than 50 years.

Four days passed without hearing from Valentin. I didn’t suggest he return to the property for one more try but he did it without telling me. He wrote to me again and sent me more than 10 photos of the property. The joy couldn’t be described in words.

My brave grandfather sent photos of the property in the 1960s in letters to my father in USA.  My grandfather’s photos mostly focused on his prized vineyard.

The newest photos give a more complete view of the property. Sadly, one half of my grandfather’s house burned in a fire two years ago and I will never see that portion. I am grateful the property hasn’t been cleared for a highrise apartment complex, a fear of my grandfather.

 the patio where my grandfather enjoyed admiring his beloved vineyard.

 a part of the original home my grandfather loved so much

 the well my grandfather used to water his prized vineyard

Two years ago, a women whose family lived in the portion that burned to the ground contacted me and provided me with the sales agreement my grandfather made before his death from cancer. The woman planned to send me photos of the property but that never came through.

Now, thanks to my half-aunt distant cousin, I have received an e-mail message from a man who was treated as if he was a grandson of my grandfather as a young child. He doesn’t have memories of my grandfather and step-grandmother but his parents do remember him.

In a few days, I am hoping to have more details about the last years of my grandfather’s life. My father escaped the USSR as an 8-year-old boy with his mother’s family, leaving behind a heart-broken much older father.

My grandfather had the courage to contact my father, his only child, in Soviet times through years of letters. That courage has not been forgotten. It gave me the unwavering determination to find the family who can complete the story of my grandfather’s life.

Related posts:
The aftermath of a house fire brings surprising joy
Search for grandma’s childhood home reveals family secrets
Old address books help fill in amazing details for journey out of poverty

Fast thinking rescues chance to find new information on long-lost family

Friday morning was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had with obtaining information from archived records.

I finally found a researcher to visit in Kyiv the main registry office, a government office that holds birth, marriage and death records before they are turned over to archives. It took a lot of effort to even get a researcher to that office.

With the help of a Facebook genealogy group member, I was able to create a limited power of attorney so my researcher could represent me at the registry office. Then, I created a family tree, showing my relationship to my great-grandfather’s brother who stayed behind in the warn-torn Ukrainian capital during WWII.

My collection of family documents also were submitted to prove my ancestry. I thought I had enough records to prove my ancestry, even though I couldn’t find my 2nd great uncle Simeon’s 1885 birth record. I provided his marriage record, instead.

My researcher started calling me at 7:15 a.m. on Facebook  while I was getting two kids ready for school. The registry office needed Simeon’s birth record that I thought didn’t exist.

Without that record, there wasn’t going to be any budging. The hope was that the staff would just take a quick look at my large collection of documents and provide details from Simeon’s death record.

I looked at my family tree and it has his complete birthdate. The information couldn’t have come from my great-grandfather because his letter only mentioned a death date of 1951.

I was in complete panic. My oldest son needed to get on the school bus. I carried my open laptop to the bus stop. My smart phone wasn’t working with Facebook instant messaging.

Then I looked at the transcribed records on my Trunov family that my researcher in Kursk, Russia, provided me. There was Simeon’s birth record transcribed word for word.

I immediately copied and pasted the transcriptions of the birth records for my great-grandfather and Simeon and the exact record number from Kursk Regional Archives to my researcher. Still, that wasn’t enough and my researcher needed a scan of Simeon’s birth record.

Time was running short. My youngest son needed to get to school and I needed to get to work. I waited so long to get the researcher to the registry office and one measly record wasn’t going to mess up my plans.

I took another look at my records and still couldn’t find it. Then I realized that my Kursk researcher e-mailed me records individually 8 years ago.

At last, I found the e-mail message with the birth record in a rar file format. Thankfully, last month I gave into buying WinZip.

I told the researcher that I found the record and not to leave the registry office. He already left and had to go back. It was a struggle to get that file opened with WinZip but I finally got it opened.

I double-checked that it was the correct record. Then I sent it over Facebook instant messaging but the researcher was afraid it would be too grainy.

The files were sent by e-mail to the researcher and I was off to my son’s school. The researcher got a death date of December 19, 1954. The database of the registry office didn’t have this man’s birthdate nor birthplace. Is it really my Simeon?

The journey continues with my researcher getting my records translated from English and Russian to Ukrainian to request the death record from a neighborhood registry office. Our hope is that office will have the actual record and confirm if we really found my Simeon.

Related posts:
Old address book online breaks down brickwall on a family photo
Rediscovery of a long-lost photo of a grandfather uncovers a mistake
Old address books help fill in amazing details for journey out of poverty

A Russian-American’s insider view of the MyHeritage DNA test

The newest game player for DNA testing for genealogy is MyHeritage. Up until Nov. 30, 2018, MyHeritage is allowing free uploads for anyone who has tested with Ancestry, 23andme, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA. Then, anyone who uploads their DNA file on Dec. 1 and later will pay a fee for the tools and ethnicity estimate.

Uploading to MyHeritage is well-worth the wait for the results. Here’s the details on the information and tools that come with the results.

What type of information is provided on matches?

Each match is identified with his or her name, a photo (not everyone), country of residence, age by decade, level of confidence for the match (low, medium and high); name of person managing the DNA kit if it isn’t the person who took the DNA test,  amount of shared DNA,  number of shared DNA segments and largest DNA segment. Also, a link to the available family tree is provided with the number people in their tree. The number of Smart Matches and common surnames appearing in their family tree also are noted.

Then the following information is provided when clicking on a match: a list of ancestral surnames, shared matches with relationship estimates, the shared ethnicities, in addition to a chromosome browser.

How does MyHeritage predict relationships?

MyHeritage lists matches as mother or daughter; father or son;  half-sister, aunt or niece; half-brother, uncle or nephew; great-grandmother or great-granddaughter, great-aunt or great-niece; great-grandfather or great-grandson, great-uncle or great-nephew; 1st cousin – 1st cousin once removed; 1st cousin once removed – 2nd cousin; 3rd – 4th cousin; 1st cousin twice removed – 4th cousin; 3rd – 5th cousin;  and 3rd cousin – distant cousin.

How often do you get matches?

Currently, I have 1,801 matches. I receive matches several times a week. An orange dot appears next to a DNA symbol in the webpage’s top bar when new matches have arrived. MyHeritage sends out an e-mail message about once or twice a month about new matches.

How many of your matches have Russian or Ukrainian ancestry or live in Russia or Ukraine?

I have 33 matches from Russia and 6 matches from Ukraine, in addition to many matches with Russian and Ukrainian surnames from around the world. About 600 matches have Eastern European ancestry.

How close are your matches?

I have 5 2nd and 3rd cousins who I know from Russia and Ukraine. Our estimated relationships are accurate. The other matches are mostly 3rd – 5th cousin and 3rd cousin – distant cousin.

Do you have surnames in-common with your matches? 

I don’t have any shared surnames with my matches but my other relatives whose DNA files I manage have some in-common surnames with their matches.

How friendly are matches in giving information?

Some matches will respond to my e-mail messages about exchanging information.

What tools does MyHeritage offer in searching, sorting, filtering and noting matches?

Matches can be filtered by family tree available, shared surnames, Smart Matches, close family, extended family, distant family, country of residence and ethnicity groups. Matches can be sorted by shared DNA, number of shared segments, largest DNA segment, full name and most recently arrived. MyHeritage also allows matches to be searched by name and ancestral surname. Notes can be added to each match for later reference.

What does the map for ethnicity breakdown for MyHeritage look like?

What other information does MyHeritage provide?

MyHeritage also gives an overview for the DNA results. The overview provides the ethnicity breakdown by percentages, total of matches, number breakdown of matches as close family, extended family and distant family, number breakdown of matches from 39 countries/islands, and number breakdown of matches who fall into the 30 ethnicity groups.

Related posts:

A Russian-American’s inside view of the new AncestryDNA test

A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test

A Russian-American’s insider view of the 23andme Autosomal Test

Guide for making the best choices in DNA testing

FAQ- DNA testing for Russians and Ukrainians