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Church records are excellent sources for accurate names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Many people who lived in Russia were recorded in church records.
Records of births, marriages, and deaths are commonly called “vital records” because they record critical events in a person’s life. Church records are vital records made by church officials. They are often called parish registers or churchbooks (Metricheskaja kniga, plural - Metricheskie knigi, Метрические книги in Russian). Church books were started in Russia in 1720s. They consisted usually of 3 parts: a) births and christening; b) marriages; c) deaths and burials. Most remarkable was, that in the marriage part, like in the christening part, witnesses were mentioned, two from each side of the family.
Normally two copies were made, one (a transcript) sent annually to a central ecclesiastical or civil office. The transcript is the copy most likely to have survived the civil disruptions of Russia's past. Parish registers consist of forms filled out annually, filed, and then bound into books. Over time they were filed in any order imaginable. There are gaps in the years indicating that some materials were lost or misplaced. Quite often the records of churches in a district for a single year are bound in the same volume.
The form of Orthodox church books was for a long time unstable: it was constituted legally in 1779 and 1837. Other denominations also had church books in that form, which was dictated by the state: for catholics in 1826, for the lutherans in 1832, for jews in 1835, for old believers in 1874, and for baptists in 1879. The October revolution of 1917 has changed church books to civil registration, although in some churches these books were privately continued until the 1920s.
In addition to church books, especially when they are missing, one had the books of those who came to a confession (Ispowednye rospisi, Исповедные росписи in Russian), and books of the marriage investigations (Brachnye Obyski, Брачные Обыски in Russian). These books contain mostly agreements of parents to the marriage of their children, but sometimes also genealogical trees, when there was a question of the relation of bride and groom.
A very special source, to which we do not know analogues in other countries, were synodicals, the prayer list for certain deceased people, who were somehow related to that particular church or monastery. That could be a landlord, a priest, but also some peasants and town citizens. To get your family mentioned by such rememberings, one had to pay some money, of course. Some synodicals are very short, and tell only family name. But lots of them are a list of all deceased ancestors, which were known to the person who ordered the synodical. Synodicals of the 17th century are sometimes a unique source for ancient genealogies. Only one problem is with them, - that there was no stable algorythm of the order in which one put his ancestors. So, synodicals could be used only with a help of some information from other sources.
Russian Orthodox Church Records
The keeping of metrical books was mandated by a 1722 decree of Peter the Great. A format of three parts, christenings, marriages, deaths, was established in 1724, a printed format in 1806, and in 1838 a format that prevailed until the revolution. The consistory copy was considered official record. A Russian diocese - eparkhia was coterminous with a Russian state - guberniya. The registers of each parish - prikhod in an country- uyezd were commonly filed together for a single year. Confession lists are often interfiled with parish registers. Each Orthodox Christian was to confess and partake of the sacrament at least once a year. The principal time for confession was Lent. Children of both sexes in obligatory fashion were taken to confession, beginning from their seventh year. The form of confession lists was established in 1737: the sequential number of the household, surname, given names of all children at least a year old, sex, ages, whether or not the person attended confession, and if not, why (rarely noted).
Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church Records
Followers of the Byzantine rite, primarily Ukrainians, that returned to union with Rome. In 1839 the Church was formally dissolved in the Russian Empire and its members considered Orthodox. The church persisted only in Galicia and Transcarpathia, then under Austro-Hungarian rule. When these areas were assimilated into the Soviet Union, this religion was outlawed. The descendants of Ukrainians may think their ancestors were Orthodox when they were really Uniate before 1839.
Roman Catholic Church Records
Russia mandated the keeping of Roman Catholic registers in 1826. Three copies made, the third for the deanery - dekanat, the level between the diocese and the parish. Aside from Russian Poland, there were five dioceses in 1900: Tiraspol (located in Saratov), Zhytomyr (Zhitomir), Mogilev, Vilnius (Vilno), Kaunus (Kovno).
The Russian Poland region is a unique situation within the old Russian Empire. After the defeat of Napoleon, the Polish regions governed by Russia were given semi-autonomy. They therefore continued to keep the records, with minor 1826 variations, in the old Napoleonic paragraph form. They were in the Polish language until 1867 when Russian Cyrillic was mandated by the government. More information can be found on the Poland resources pages.
Lutheran (Evangelical) Church Records
In 1832 Russia mandated keeping these records. Aside from Russian Poland, there were eight diocesan offices, one in St. Petersburg, one in Moscow, and six in the Baltic states. The registers were kept in German, until law of 1891 required that they be kept in Russian. The transcripts in St. Petersburg for 1832-1885 have been microfilmed.
A significant portion of the St. Petersburg records have been indexed by independent sources, especially covering the southern part of that Diocese in what is now Ukraine. They are as follows:
Germans from Russia Indexing - In the 1990s, several Germans from Russia groups with dozens of volunteers indexed a large number of the St. Petersburg Lutheran records specifically applicable to Ukraine and Moldova regions of today. They can be browsed at this link. These indices contain numerous errors and should be used with caution. In spite of that, this is a valuable resource as it contains well over a hundred thousand b/m/d records.
Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe - This Society has taken the St. Petersburg Lutheran indices for Volhynia (today northwestern Ukraine regions) originally compiled by the Germans from Russia group referenced above and added new ones for Podolia and Kiev regions. They are also working at correcting errors in the original Volhynia index. They have also added new indices for Lutheran Parishes for Volhynia where the originals are held in Warsaw Archives rather than St. Petersburg. These regions were all part of Russia prior to WW I. The Volhynia portion alone of this index contains over 70,000 entries. That number does not include the additional records indexed as found in Warsaw Archives. A list of Lutheran Records for these regions along with relevant microfilm numbers can be found on the SGGEE website.
The unique situation for Russian Poland also applies to the Lutheran records. The vast majority of Lutheran Church members were Germans who had migrated there during the Partitions of the late 1700s. The records were also in Polish Napoleonic paragraph format until 1867 and Russian Cyrillic after that. It is important to note that registration of b/m/d was a civil obligation. Therefore, prior to the establishment of a Lutheran Church Parish in a given region, Lutherans would register their events at the nearest Roman Catholic Parish.
A list of Lutheran Parishes along with relevant microfilm numbers for Russian Poland can be found on the SGGEE website. Many of these (especially from times prior to the introduction or Cyrillic) are being indexed in a Master Pedigree Database. It contains over 500,000 line items and is only available to members.
Additional information about Lutherans in Russian Poland can be found on the Poland resource page.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
Old Believer Church Records
Dissenters from Orthodoxy who refused to accept alterations of religious rituals and prayers. Civilian registration of birth and marriage by police mandated in 1874 for those who were born into Old Believer families. One copy was made and kept in the provincial administration - gubernskoye pravleniye.
Baptist Church Records
Civil registration was mandated in 1879. Two copies, one in the provincial administration and the other in the regional police headquarters - uezdnoye politseiskoye upravleniye.
No Baptist Church records are known to exist for Volhynia or other parts of modern day Ukraine, formerly part of Russia. Some limited Baptist Records for Russian Poland have been found as indicated on the SGGEE website.
In 1828 and 1832 Russia mandated keeping these records. Two copies were filed, one in the mosque and the other in either Orenburg or Simferopol or Tavri. The mandate was extended to the Transcaucasus in 1872.
Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:
- Russia, St. Petersburg Lutheran Church Book Duplicates (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia Births and Baptisms (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia Marriages (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia Deaths and Burials (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia, Lutheran Church Book Duplicates (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia. Samara Province Orthodox Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia, Tver Province Orthodox Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Russia, Tver Province Orthodox Confession Lists (FamilySearch Histaorical Records)