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The astonishing thing about Russian genealogy is the fact that it is possible at all. Wars, revolutions and ignorance have destroyed a significant part of written records. Persecution, and even massacres, of people belonging to “wrong” classes discouraged the transition of family memories to young generations. Only a decade ago Russian genealogists started to come out in the open.
Genealogy flourished in czarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was quickly quashed following the revolution in 1917.
"The new regime saw genealogy as an ideologically defective science, which could only serve the ambitions of the upper classes. Therefore, it was considered to be harmful and useless, and was to be forbidden," Dr. Igor V. Sakharov said.
"Under communist rule not only were millions of people subjected to repression, but also whole branches of science (were repressed). The first branch of science to go was genealogy. The genealogical societies were dissolved, the periodicals suppressed, and an end put to genealogical studies.
"It even became dangerous to be a genealogist. Some of them were jailed, put in concentration camps, others starved to death, and yet others were deported. Many genealogists escaped abroad, saving their personal freedom and their lives."
Still others remained in Russia, risking arrest and imprisonment by continuing their genealogical research and writings. Two prominent Russian genealogists, George Shmarov and Alexander Grigorov, spent 20 years in concentration camps.
In communist Russia, Sakharov said, "It even became dangerous to have a good memory, especially the memory of one's own family past, and it could sometimes be almost suicidal to share the knowledge with anybody else. It became dangerous to remember one's parents and grandparents, not only if they had been of the nobility but also if they had been well-to-do peasants, businessmen, clergymen, army officers, functionaries in the old administration, or just educated people.
"In this situation Soviet people forced themselves to forget the concrete past of their families and to do everything possible to prevent this knowledge from reaching their children and grandchildren.
"Instead of taking care of the Russian genealogical forest and tending one's own genealogical tree, the people tried to cut them down. The old personal documents and letters were burnt, portraits and photographs were destroyed, family relics were hidden, and even surnames were sometimes changed to obliterate family connections."
As a result of genealogy's suppression, Sakharov said Russia now faces "a profound cultural, intellectual, moral and spiritual rupture, a gap between modern generations and the generations of our fathers. The people have been cut off from their roots. We now observe in Russia a loss of historical memory, a disease which can be called historical amnesia." Sakharov was profoundly influenced by his mentors, Shmarov and Grigorov, who introduced him to the world of archives. "There," he said. "I realized that everyone deserves to go down in history, that every ordinary person is no less a representative of his or her time and society than that person's most prominent contemporary.
"I knew better than I had before that each person who lives or has lived on Earth was created by God as a unique human being and my feelings protested against the fact that so many of the so-called ordinary people had disappeared into oblivion after their deaths, as if they had never existed," Sakharov said.
Sakharov is among the many who are rebuilding Russian genealogy. In 1987, the National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, started a scientific seminar on genealogy and family history. Two years later, the Russian Genealogical Society was founded in St. Petersburg and Sakharov was elected its first president. In 1992, the National Library of Russia created the Institute of Genealogical Research, the first post-communist governmental institution of its kind in Russia.
A similar resurrection of genealogical activities and organizations is taking place in Moscow, Perm, Tevr and other Russian cities.
Countless millions of records of genealogical value were destroyed by the communist regime that ruled Russia for nearly three quarters of a century, but Sakharov and others are providing the leadership for Russia's genealogical resurrection, for the restoration of a nation's memory.
Their success will aid not only Russian genealogists, but American genealogists whose roots are firmly embedded in Russian soil. While many records were destroyed under communism, the history of a people, the history of Russia's families, is being resurrected from alternative sources such as Soviet-kept housing records. It is a great and grand day for Russian genealogy.
Now it has become evident that archives in Moscow and provinces have managed to keep many of their files in good shape. Sometimes, a research of family roots is stonewalled by the dearth of records, but in many cases these archives yield wonderful results.
The two primary sources for pre-revolutionary genealogy in Russia are parish registers (more precisely, parish register transcripts) and revision lists (poll tax census). In both cases the annual returns for a particular region were often bound together no matter how many folios existed for that region. Church books are not the best research source for Russian genealogy. Both archivists and researchers agree that the best place to begin research is in the revision lists. Revision lists were kept between 1719-1858 to support a national poll tax.
Lineage Books (rodoslovnye knigi)
The gentry nobility assembly (deputatskoye dvorianskoye sobraniye) was established in 1785 by Catherine the Great as the local governing body of the nobility. These books were compiled and turned into the assembly to confirm their hereditary status. There was widespread corruption: bribery, false genealogies, and forged documents. In Ukraine, the ranks of the nobility swelled to 23-25,000 by the late 1780s. Petitions were reviewed and 10,000 were rejected in the 1790s.