June 01, 1997

Russian Genealogy

If you have family roots in Russia, you are in good company. Between 1820 and 1992, according to INS data, some 3,512,332 individuals immigrated to the United States from Russia, most of them around the turn of the century (2.5 mn between 1897 and WWI).

The largest component (over 50% by one estimate) of this emigration during tsarist times was Jews leaving the Pale of Settlement in the late 1800s and during WWI. This was supplemented by Jewish emigration from the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s (some 200,000 persons). Gary Mokotoff, publisher of Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, said it is estimated that 95% of all Jews in America have family roots in the territory of Russia and the former USSR.

A second important ethnic emigration from Russia in the past century has been Germans who were invited to settle on the Volga and the Black Sea by Catherine the Great in 1763. The 1897 Russian Census showed some 1.7 mn Germans residing in Russia. In 1979 the number had risen little, to 1.9 mn, indicating significant emigration in the interim.

Most all Germans in Russia were deported from their original homes on the Volga or Black Sea to Kazakhstan or Siberia during WWII. Many left during WWI and WWII -- some 1.4 mn emigrating to Germany; still others left after some freedom of emigration was introduced in 1987. Many Germans from Russia ended up in the US, mainly in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and the Dakotas. Indeed, the Germans from Russia Historical Society has estimated that over half the current residents of North Dakota are Germans from Russia and/or their descendants.

Finally, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922), there was a large exodus from Russia by those opposed to or threatened by the new Bolshevik regime. During this period, some 2 mn persons emigrated from Russia to Western Europe and the United States.


Tracing one's roots back into Russia can be a daunting task. It was not until very recently that Russian archivists have even accepted the importance of genealogical research (archival genealogical research was forbidden in Soviet times as a bourgeois pursuit). What is more, while archives do maintain important and useful documents for such research, serious budgetary shortfalls threaten these holdings and have led to shutdowns because of unsafe working conditions and staff shortages.

Nonetheless, there are considerable resources available both inside and outside Russia to help trace one's roots. For, even 100 years ago, it was hard for a person of any prominence in Russian society not to leave a paper trail. There is a service record (posluzhnoy spisok) for most persons who held any rank in the military or civil service from the mid-1800s to 1917, or for any member of the nobility. There are parish records ("metrical books") for members of Christian churches (non-Orthodox churches were required to annually submit copies of their birth, death and marriage records to St. Petersburg). Jewish surnames can often be found by searching city and business directories. And there are court records, land ownership records, contracts, police records, books of residency of rented homes and apartments (domovye knigi), records of German colonization of the Volga and Black Sea, records of Jewish colonization of Ukraine, draft records, prison records, school records, Communist Party records, genealogy records and coats of arms for noble families, adoption records, etc.

Obviously, it is much easier to track down pre-revolutionary records on prominent individuals -- members of the nobility, the merchant class, military officers, etc. -- than it is on persons without property or position in the Russian empire. Even so, it is difficult to impossible for an inexperienced, private individual to navigate dark, dissheveled historical archives without a guide, much less to decipher (and translate) ornate, old-Russian handwriting.

"We gave a few pages of this old script -- as a test -- to a translation firm in L.A.," said Edward Nute, president of Blitz, a genealogical research firm specializing in Russia and the Baltics, "and they threw up their hands."


So how do you get started? Begin by subscribing to Avotaynu and Everton's Genealogical Helper. These are two invaluable publications that will help you learn from others' mistakes, search out reputable researchers through their advertisements and learn about the latest discoveries in the field.

While you are waiting for your first issues of the magazines to arrive, start documenting yourself. Get down in writing everything you and your known, living relatives know about your family tree as far back as possible. This includes dates, places of residence, dates of emigration and immigration (passenger lists of ships arriving in the US are available, as are citizenship application records, etc.), known and suspected relatives and history (where worked or served, religious affiliation, reason for leaving, possible run-ins with the tsarist police or KGB, contact with Russian consulates in the US, etc.).

This should then be collated with what other genealogists might have already found out about your family, either directly or indirectly when researching their own family. Avotaynu offers databases of over 2000 Jewish genealogists researching ancestral towns and surnames, plus has online surname databases, cemetery records, Russian consular records, names of refusniks, and much, much more. The two German-Russian societies have regular conventions and help members organize themselves by village, so that researchers can meet with descendants of the village their family came from and compare notes. Philip Freimann, whose family descends from Katharinenstadt (now Marx) met cousins he did not previously know of at such conventions. Finally, Rand (follow links from url given under "Genealogy Resources on the Internet," below) offers an online database where you can search by last name and retrieve a list of other genealogists researching the same or related last names (this is for all names, not just people with Russian roots).

Having gathered all this information (perhaps inputting it into one of the many software programs for this purpose now on the market -- make sure it is GEDCOM-compatible), you follow the basic genealogist's precept of "begin from what you know and work back in time." Of course, what you know or what your family members purport to know (often referred to as "family traditions") often turns out to be quite far from the truth. Particularly when there is an emigration experience involved, which can lead to linguistic distortion of names, locations and events, to say nothing of "remembered" dates.

When it comes time to tap into documents in archives in Russia, turn to the experts. While it might seem romantic to undertake some of this research yourself, it will most likely turn fruitless. Blitz, RAGAS and FAST are research companies with vast experience in the Moscow and St. Petersburg archives. Reputable firms and individuals with specific research experience into Jewish and German-Russian genealogy also regularly advertise in Avotaynu and Evertons.

Thanks to the efforts of the Mormon Church and others, many important documents from Russian archives are available in the US. The Mormons have microfilmed many Jewish birth, marriage, divorce and death records, metrical books for many German parishes, in addition to many city registers. The German-Russian historical societies have libraries with extensive holdings, including completed Family Data Sheets, church, census lists and cemetery records, published books and more. The New York Public Library has city directories for Moscow and St. Petersburg, genealogical charts and heraldry information on nobility, a large amount of information for Jewish genealogists, as well as city directories and information on Polish nobility. Other large public and university libraries, such as Harvard and Yale may have similar holdings.

In sum, there is a wealth of new resources available in archives, libraries and online. The opening of previously closed, former Soviet archives has been of particular significance and offers huge, new possibilities for genealogical research if your family has roots in Russia and the former USSR. This article is merely an introduction to these new possibilities, indicating the starting points for successful research. The rest, as they say, is up to you. Happy digging!

See also this Russian Life article for a useful listing of online resources.

Tags: genealogy

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