Today, July 8, Russia celebrates the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity. On this day, we tell you how to learn more about your family: what organizations can help you, where to look for pre-revolutionary parish registers, and how best to store a family archive in order to pass it on to descendants.
The text turned out to be large, so if you need a brief instruction, scroll to the end, we have prepared it.
The questions of the «Guru» were answered by the project manager of the Directorate of Federal Programs of the All-Russian Public Movement «Volunteers of Victory», the head of the All-Russian project «My History» Kirill Zakharov.
Kirill Zakharov, photo from the personal archive.
I want to know more about my family history, but I only know the names of my grandparents. Where to begin?
For starters, you can google your full name; this works if the last name is rare. And there is a high probability that one of the links will lead to vgd.ru, this is the All-Russian Genealogical Tree forum. It has been in existence since 1998; this is such an old-fashioned forum, with discussion threads by last name. There you can find the information you need without even looking into the archive, but for this you will have to spend a lot of time on the forum.
But still, the very first thing to do is to look at the family archive. Everyone at home has such a shelf with documents, where everything is stored, from the grandmother’s birth certificate to the guarantee for the washing machine. This archive needs to be parsed and structured; it is best to spread the documents into files, one file — one person.
Then you need to talk with the oldest member of the family about what you found. So you revive the documents, complete the story with details, and you will have specific questions for the oldest relatives.
Unfortunately, it often happens that they do not have time to ask: what a person felt, what the atmosphere was like, how life looked. And a living testimony is a very valuable source, even if a person does not remember specific dates. Ask leading questions: what was the weather like? How were you dressed? And the person will remember that, for example, he took off his hat when he ran from school and found out that his brother was born. So it was winter, and he was 6-7 years old; we have a reference point for the brother’s date of birth — the winter of 1905. With new data, it is easier to search further.
It’s good to start such conversations at a family feast: you get a common topic for conversation and the opportunity to more easily build a dialogue with the older generation.
How to contact the archives? Do they respond to the needs of ordinary citizens? Can access be denied?
The archive may refuse if the document is classified.
But in general, now there is such a tendency that everything related to the Great Patriotic War is being tried to be preserved for posterity and made more accessible. The Ministry of Defense makes landing pages dedicated to events; for example, recently it was 75 years since the liberation of Belgrade, and they were leaking previously classified documents about the liberation of Yugoslavia. Or 75 years of the Iasi-Chisinau operation — they also posted replicas of personal documents, both commanders in chief and ordinary soldiers, rare photographs.
Some funds are digitized. This is very convenient when you can view the necessary documents from Moscow, as, for example, in the Khabarovsk archive.
In my opinion, this is the mission of the archival community — to make sure that anyone can study the history of their family and country from documents.
In the Yaroslavl region, it is also possible to view an electronic copy of the required document — they have registration through the State Services. And there are regions where the queue for genealogical requests is scheduled until next year, and you can see the documents strictly on certain dates; let’s say you are booked in the window from April 1 to April 10, 2020, and if you came on April 11, they will tell you: we have a long queue, wait for the next year. The fact is that the number of employees in the archives is not comparable with the number of requests. That is why we, the “Volunteers of Victory”, urge you to be interested in the history of the family, first on your own, and then turn to the archives, if necessary.
An important point regarding access to documents: 75 years must pass from the date of publication so that personal information can be used without restrictions.
If you are looking for information from the USSR period, you can contact the registry office, but there you will need to prove kinship: if you are looking for a grandfather, prepare your birth certificate and father’s birth certificate. Archival files are usually easier to obtain than files from the registry office.
The website «Memory of the People» has digitized documents. Sometimes they have lines painted over; this is personal data, and if 75 years have passed, you will be able to obtain this document in its original form upon request. If 75 years have not passed, you will also need to prove that you are a relative.
Another important point: often people lose both time and money when they turn to the wrong archive. Therefore, before sending a request and paying, you need to look at the scientific reference apparatus of the archive, its electronic inventories. So you learned from documents or from elders that your desired ancestor was born in the Ryazan province in 1896, which means you need to go to the website of the Ryazan State Archive and see if they have parish registers for the county or the city of Ryazan for this period.
Large cities usually have two archives: the regional one (with parish and church books) and the so-called party archive, which is now designated as the «Center for Documentation of Recent History.» TsDNI is also in the Ryazan region. If during the Soviet period your ancestors played a prominent role, were members of the party, personal files should be stored there: photos, biographies, autobiographies; you can get a lot of information from there.
If you are interested in the tsarist time, it is useless to contact the Central House of Arts. And they will not write you the reason that the necessary documents are not in their archive, but, relatively speaking, in the neighboring one; they will answer formally: we do not have the necessary documents. And a person may not understand that he simply turned to the wrong place, and even be disappointed in the idea of quitting looking.
Can you trust the services of organizations that advertise themselves on the Internet — «Learn all about your family history»?
It all depends on the organization. Some have performed well.
In the 90s, there was a demand for the services of archives, mainly with the aim of proving that one of the ancestors was a nobleman. Now the demand is still great, and not only among rich people, but among the most diverse, but people want to know the truth. Peasant ancestors means peasants.
Usually rich people use the services of professional organizations: the study of one family line will cost from one and a half million rubles.
What such an organization does: it hires, as a contractor, historians and archivists. Reputable companies have a large network, the mechanism has been worked out for years, and they will find the necessary information much faster than you can do it on your own. Education and experience are still important: a historian may be interested in some detail, and he will pull on it like a thread; and you can just ignore it.
It is worth being skeptical except for pedigrees with a beautiful design. There is little chance that they are lying to you directly; the case is different. Of the 25 pages of «The Fighting Path of Your Ancestor» of information directly related to the ancestor, there may be three pages. What does it usually look like? First — general information: full name, born, studied, left to serve in such and such a year in the Soviet-Finnish war — and a photo of a typical Soviet military registration and enlistment office of those years, not necessarily the one from which your ancestor left to fight. Then general information about the Soviet-Finnish war. Then a photo of how the fighters spent their time: some typical military photo of those years, and it doesn’t necessarily have your relative on it.
As a result, there is very little information about your ancestor in such an album, and you yourself could collect it if you wished. But if you have money and no time at all, why not?
If you search on your own, you will be rewarded not only with information, but also with incomparable pleasure — from the fact that you discovered something important about your family yourself. For busy people, a third, intermediate option is also possible: start the search on your own, and then connect professionals. For example, you reached the archive and the register of births, and then reached a dead end. The more information you provide initially, the cheaper the services of a professional organization will be.
How to find out in which fund and in which archive to search?
There is an excellent project, unique even by world standards — this is the Central Stock Catalog, created by the Federal Archival Agency of the Russian Federation on its website. We can enter a full name and get all the funds where a person is mentioned, indicating the occupation; it will be visible both the number of references, and the number of cases, and in which archive they are stored. That is, you can immediately write to the Altai, for example, archive not only the full name, but also the fund, and the number of the document in the fund. This will save you time and make the process of document delivery easier. The more information you provide, the faster the case progresses and the less likely it is to make a mistake: if you indicate only your full name, it’s not necessarily your relative under it, maybe a namesake of the same name.
What to do if the archive is denied access? What could be causing this, and is there anything that can be done about it?
The 90s were golden years for historical scientific research: archives were opened en masse. Lucky were those who managed to find and photograph the right one, because then everything began to close again.
Information about collaborators may be missing. Wartime information can be found through the “Memory of the People” portal of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense; Regional archives also help. Partially, documents about people who returned from captivity or were in the occupied territory are in the public domain.
Finding a person who was a hero is much easier than someone who was a collaborator, or someone who was a scout, border guard, prisoner or partisan.
The repressed can be found through «Memorial». But what if the ancestor was a policeman or Vlasov?
In Russia, before the revolution, it was customary to know one’s ancestors. Then the Soviet state erased a whole historical layer. In the 1990s, people became interested in genealogy again, and found that many people had a hole in their family history. This is also due to the fact that the Soviet leadership was often intolerant of nobles, kulaks, etc., and often documents about them were simply destroyed. It is impossible to take into account the volume of documents that were burned during the retreat during the war. It is not known what documents could have been taken out.
Documents generally tend to get lost in the whirlwind of historical events, which is why it is so important to learn history firsthand.
The circulation of documents and values in the world is striking in its scale. The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 on Red Square stores Napoleon’s awards from various campaigns, not only those associated with Russia — they appeared in Russia after the capture of Paris. The Czech archive of Russian emigration, the largest in the world, moved to Moscow in 1946 and is now kept in the State Archives of the Russian Federation.
We had a case in the Krasnodar Territory: a volunteer found relatives in Brazil. It turns out that his grandmother had a brother who emigrated to Europe and then to South America. Volunteer ours through Facebook. Now he regrets that he did not start the search before the 2018 World Cup: Brazilian relatives themselves came to Moscow, they could see each other!
By the way, can foreign archives help?
The history of Russia is closely connected with Europe. In Europe and in the USA there is a large layer of documents related to Russia and Russian people outside of our country. Africa, Latin America, Australia — there are fewer Russians and, accordingly, fewer documents. But, of course, you need to write to the archives: most likely, they will respond to a letter with names and dates, especially if you are a relative.
How much help in the study of genealogy military archives?
There are three largest military archives in Russia:
1) The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense — everything related to the Second World War and the Red Army in the period between the wars is stored there;
2) Russian military archive — it contains documents from 1917 to 1940 plus documents of border guards from 1918 to 2001, including personal documents;
3) RGVIA, Russian State Military Historical Archive — it stores documents related to pre-Soviet history.
All Heroes of the Soviet Union and holders of the Order of Lenin have cards in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, with information for which they were awarded.
There are also organizations that can help: The Office for the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Military Personnel — great fellows, the engine of the archive industry. Portal «Memory of the people». Database of heroes of the First World War. All these names can be googled and you will immediately see the official sites.
How to search if the traces of ancestors were lost in the evacuation?
Here the Central Stock Catalog will help you again. If the evacuation was from Leningrad, there is a cool project, which is called just that: “Siege of Leningrad. Evacuation». There are more than 830 thousand surnames in the database. These are electronic cards; sometimes instead of names, just initials. If the owner of the initials lived in the same apartment as your ancestor, their cards will be linked. There is a line when and where people were evacuated. And here house books will help you — you need to look for them in the regional archive.
There is a source that not everyone knows about: these are the archives of organizations, for example, a separate theater or a separate factory.
If the plant was in a big city, then, in theory, its funds should be in the city archive. The problem is that not all organizations handed over their archives; the document you need can be found in the district administration.
I wrote a diploma on the theaters of the city of Volgograd. Came to the city archive; there were no documents for the required period. The information I was interested in was found in the Foundation of the Union of Theater Workers. In search, everything is individual, this is the beauty and complexity of this area. We can follow the same path with you, but this will lead us to different discoveries.
How can scientific papers, a library of dissertations help?
If the ancestor was sufficiently known, his name can be found in a scientific work. Maybe the author of the work will share with you the information that he has — write to him.
You need to search at the dissertation library by full name; in Cyberleninka you can look it up by keywords, or on elibrary.ru — there are all the articles in the VAK database. The only but: the text of the dissertation is most often paid.
Where to look for church books?
In regional archives; they handed over their papers there. Church books have two copies: consistory and parish. The consistory was kept in the center of the region, in an organ that recorded births and deaths. The parish was in the church, everything was recorded there, sometimes with details, who was whose son, who lived in what house and how he was buried. From time to time an official came and copied information from the church book, usually in a condensed way: born, married, died. Therefore, the parish copies of church books contain more information, while the consistory copies are better preserved and easier to find. There are also revision tales — they contain information about how taxes were paid; but remember that the poll tax was paid only from men, that is, it is useless to look for women in them.
Church books should be looked for first in the regional archive; they will be designated as «metric book of such and such a period.» How to look for information in them: here you found the name of your great-grandmother in the marriage record; count 16-18 years ago and look in the metric book for an entry about when she was baptized. Look up her father’s date of birth and marriage. That is, the marriage record will give you two or three names, for each of which you can search further.
A common mistake: people start looking immediately with great-grandmothers, whom they know nothing about.
You need to start sequentially; You still don’t know everything about your parents.
It is better to record the interview on a dictaphone, and preferably on video. Go first on one branch, considering which branch the oldest member of the family is from.
Then move on to another line. It is better not to mix, so as not to get confused. It is better to start building a family tree in straight lines, without cousins; then add if somewhere you met an interesting story on the side branches.
I want to pass on the finished family tree to the children, so that it would be convenient to continue it. What is the best way to store information?
Keep everything on paper and electronically. Get an album for copies of documents. It is best if the home archive contains three blocks: 1) a folder with all documents, arranged into separate files, by name; 2) a family album, where there is a family tree, family traditions are recorded, and pages — one person at a time. You can attach photos and photocopies of documents with a signature to this album. 3) In electronic form. So you will be insured against material losses and erasure of electronic documents.
How to build a family tree yourself
Step 0. You have the names of both maternal and paternal grandparents.
Step 1. Look through and arrange by personalities all the documents that you find at home. Start compiling a family tree. Mark the empty spaces, write down the questions.
Step 2. Take the documents and talk to the oldest member of the family. Record the conversation on video.
Step 3. Come up with a format that makes it easy to store, complete, and share the family record. Ideally, it would be nice to have originals + electronic and paper copies. So you will be best insured against losses.
Step 4. Start with the branch that represents the oldest member of the family (maternal or paternal). This is necessary so that you have time to ask all the questions that will appear during the study.
Step 5. Look for the names of the ancestors in the Central Stock Catalog. Write requests to those archives that he suggested to you.
Step 6. Remember that in addition to the city administration, there are district administrations (their archives may not be linked); there are archives of enterprises, military archives, parish registers. Patriotic projects of recent years can help you a lot in finding information about the time of the Second World War, evacuation, blockade.
Step 7. Look for the name of the ancestors in the fund of dissertations.
Step 8. Write to foreign archives if necessary. Look for relatives through Facebook, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, any social networks.
Step 9. If you are at a dead end, seek help from professionals; it is better if these are proven organizations that have existed for many years. If in doubt, consult with familiar historians.
And you can also ask your question on family history to the mail of the project «Volunteers of Victory» email@example.com.