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Russia Archives and Libraries
Archives collect and preserve original documents created by organizations such as churches or governments. Libraries generally collect published books, maps, microfilms, and other sources. This section describes major repositories of Russia’s genealogical and historical records. When you need the address of an archive or library, look in this section.
There are many government archives in Russia as well as in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. These archives contain a rich assortment of materials for the genealogist tracing families in the Russian Empire. However, the archives do not communicate with each other and information on similar subjects is not coordinated. Each archive will provide specific information on subjects sought if they are found within their archive. They may recommend another archive if they are unable to provide such a work.
Information in the archives can now be accessed by contacting the archives directly or by contacting a commercial research service such as BLITZ. However, unlike research in many western countries, it is not possible to simply request a birth, marriage or death certificate. Archives in the former Soviet Union were not organized to respond to this kind of straight forward request or to provide such information or documentation.
In general, the archives in the former Soviet Union are poorly organized, poorly indexed and in poor physical condition. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the budgets from the central government for maintaining the many archives have been drastically cut or are non-existent. Archives must now pay for their own electricity, heating and fire protection services.
You may write to request information. However, most archives are not staffed to do research for clients and only a few do it. The more provincial areas cannot read English. If you choose to go yourself, your success will depend largely on making prior arrangements so that the archive knows you are coming. Even then access may be restricted by the disposition or mood of the archivist. Travel conditions and facilities are primitive in many areas, usually worse the further east you go. Unless you speak the native language you are advised to hire a local guide/interpreter.
Unfortunately, a great many records have been lost during wars and by fire. Some records were discarded after they were thought not to be useful any longer and some records have simply not been catalogued so their existence is not known even to the Archive.
Efforts are now being made to systematize the records and publish catalogues for the various archives. The FamilySearch is now microfilming a great many records in Russia. Filming has occurred in Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine.
The problem remains that many of these records are handwritten in the old Russian alphabet. You will need language skill depending on the area you research. Primarily you will need to know Russian. Other major languages of the records are Polish, German and Latin. You will need to determine the proper spelling of place names and determine the correct place if there are locations with the same name. Needless to say, these records are very difficult to read and translate. Unless you are skilled in reading old Russian, this is a good reason to use a local research service such as BLITZ.
Types of Records
Some of the types of records that can be accessed in the archives of the former Soviet Union are listed below:
Civilian service records - Civilian service records are very detailed records of a person's government work record and usually list the spouse, children, vital dates, places of work and types of civilian service. Civilian service records are very good sources of genealogy information.
Military Service records - Military service records are similar in detail to civilian service records and are found in the Military Historic Archive in Moscow and in the Naval Historic Archives in St. Petersburg. A military service record is more likely to exist if the person was an officer. It is useful to know which branch of service the person served in.
A photograph of the person in uniform is most helpful. Military service medals, even those shown in a photograph, can often be identified as to the campaign. If the service medal is available, it should have a serial number on the back, which can be traced. Records of trials and courts-marshal are also kept. These records often contain much personal family information.
Protestant Church Registers - In pre-revolutionary Russia, each year the non-Russian orthodox churches were required to make a copy of their register and send it to St. Petersburg. These records are kept in the Russian State Historic Archives in some 300 large volumes called "Metrical" books. These books are very time consuming to search because they are not indexed and are organized by year and parish.
It is therefore essential to first know the parish name, which can have both a German and a Russian name. Parish boundaries often changed as the population increased or as colonists established new settlements. Sometimes parishes disappeared as they were absorbed into adjoining parishes.
Business Records - The St. Petersburg archives often have records of Foreign companies which did business in Russia. These records can include lists of local workers, letters from individuals, contracts, etc.
Heraldry and coats of arms of noble families - Genealogy charts and coats of arms for noble families are kept in the main archives. Members of each generation of noble families were required to confirm their noble origin (their right to be attached to the nobility of their family) according to the Russian Law of that time. These files can contain valuable information on each noble family extending back many generations. In conquered lands, such as Poland and Lithuania, local families often applied to the Russian authorities and provided detailed genealogy information to try to become registered as nobility in Russia.
Adoption records - Records of adoption proceedings may be in the Russian archives. In some cases, couples would apply to adopt their children born out of wedlock. During the 19th century (Victorian era) it was against the law to legitimize illegitimate children. Illegitimate children had no right of inheritance and gaining a good position in the government was practically impossible. However, the parents could petition the Tsar and he might (rarely) grant an exception to these laws on the basis of the parents' social standing and good character.
Land ownership records - In some cases, land ownership records are available. These records may indicate the number of serfs owned by the landowner.
Apartment records - Some cities have local archives with the listing of apartment residents, the date they moved in, the date they left for an extended period of time, where they went, when they returned, where they returned from and when they moved out for good. In some cases, the records will indicate that a person was arrested.
KGB records - During the Lenin and Stalin era many people were arrested, tried and executed as traitors. Sometimes those not executed were later rehabilitated. The records of the trial and rehabilitation proceedings are in the archives of the FSB (former KGB) offices located in the same city (or region) in which the person was arrested. These files can only be accessed by members of the immediate family.
For researchers, these files can only be ordered and viewed 75 years after the date of the original records. The main information center located in Moscow may provide the relatives with such information. Accessing the KGB records is not easy and you should use a local research service.
Library Sources - A large number of published sources for genealogy information are available in libraries including many directories compiled according to the rank or institutions where people served, schools, addresses, and other information published in Pre-Revolutionary Russia as well as, old newspapers.
Before visiting an archive, contact it and ask for information about its collection, hours, services, and fees.
The Family History Library has an index of the State Archives of St. Petersburg titled: Annotated Register, call number is => 947.2 A3
Another FHL book is titled: Arkhivnye dokumenty poistorii evreev v Rosii v xix - nachale XX vv Which is a Research guide to materials on the history of Russian Jewry (19th and 20th centuries) in selected archives of the former Soviet Union.
Call number is => 947 J57d
Archives of Russia:'' ArcheoBiblioBase: Archives in Russia (ABB)
A Directory and Bibliographic Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St Petersburg. Website => http://www.iisg.nl/~abb/abb_print.html
A basic reference work for those using traditional state and CPSU records, medieval manuscripts, and personal papers, this volume also provides a starting place for those trying to locate manuscript maps, folk songs, motion pictures, genealogical data, technical documentation, and architectural drawings, among other sources.
Entries for individual repositories include names (and all previous names) in Russian and English, addresses (including e-mail and fax), transportation, major staff, institutional history, surveys of holdings, access, working conditions, reference facilities, and a bibliography of related finding aids. In addition to indexes of authors, personal names, and an index-correlation table linking previous and present acronyms with current names of repositories, the English edition has an extensive subject index.
All of the archives listed are described in more detail with a full bibliography of their published guides and finding aids in the ABB printed directory, Archives of Russia: A Directory and Bibliography Guide to Holdings in Moscow and St Petersburg. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000). The English edition is considerably expanded from the Russian-language edition, Arkhivy Rossii (Moscow, 1997).
During the period of Soviet rule, archives centralized and preserved a vast holding of church and vital records dating from 1721-1917. Access had now been granted to this material though the degree of availability varies from archive to archive.
In the archives of the former Soviet Union, material is filed by record group - fond. A record group contains the records of a specific organization, portion of an organization, or individual. Archives also create collections as opposed to record groups, in which records of different organizations or individuals are filed together on some logical or thematic basis. Thus, in some archives, vital records of different religions can be filed together.
A single volume, file, or even a single sheet of paper is an item - delo. Each item is given a title based upon the record type and contents. Items are usually filed chronologically by the ear liest year of information found in that item. Within a particular year, the items are supposed to be filed by degree of significance.
An inventory - opis is a list of items in a record group or collection. While filing by record group reflects authorship, description by inventory reflects content, equivalent to table of contents in a book. The inventory identifies title assigned to each item, the sequential number, and information on inclusive dates and number of pages. The inventory is the key to finding records in an archive. It usually is not available outside of the archive. There may be more than one inventory for a record group. These sometimes reflect different types of material or different accessions of records for the same institution. The decision as to what to include in an inventory will vary significantly from archive to archive.
The result of the above practices is that each item in an archive is defined by three numbers: fond, opis, and delo. The number at each level is simply a sequential number. Later insertions are given an alpha designation after the number such as 21a, 21b, etc.
akt official document, act
aktovaia kniga register
delo basic classification unit
edinitsa khraneniia storage unit, smallest unit of a fond
fond basic organizational grouping in an archive
gramota a deed, charter, official document
list folio, leaf, sheet
opis’ subunit of a fond, series; or finding aid
putevoditel’ finding aid to an archive
sbornik collection (misc.)
sobranie collection (artificial)
Regretfully, IISH (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam) is not able to handle family history and/or related genealogical inquiries. Furthermore, it should be noted, that neither the Federal Archival Agency nor many Russian archives are staffed or equipped to answer extensive genealogical inquires of a "family history" nature, although some archives have been improving services in this regard. Unless the exact archive involved has already been identified, family-history inquiries should normally be addressed directly to more specialized genealogical services, many of which are listed and described in the Resource Guide on the website of the Federation of East European Family History Societies (http://www.feefhs.org ). Genealogical inquiries and family history in Russia can be performed reliably through Russian Society of Historians and Archivists (ROIA) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ; fax: [7-095] 245-09-45) in Moscow. Information and appropriate questionnaires are available at the "Arkhivy Rossii" website.