Increasing awareness and skills regarding Ukrainian family history
Faculty Mentor: Thom Edlund, History
The former Russian Empire is one of the most challenging places to do family history research in
the world. One of the reasons is related to the fact that the records used to locate genealogical
data depend on political and ecclesiastical boundaries. For example, a Christian man living in a
village without a church will be baptized, married and buried in a village different from his
hometown. Thus, it is not only necessary to know one’s ancestor’s place(s) of residence, but the
place(s) where he or she was civilly registered, attended religious services, was married, etc. Due
to the colorful history of the Russian Empire – specifically the never-ending conquering, loss and
reorganization of land and the comparatively unstable political climate – pursuing ancestors may
easily become an endeavor of discouragingly large proportions. The boundaries as well as the
administrative center of the area a town belongs to may very well have changed two, three or
more times in the last 200 years. So, where does one begin to look?
This challenge of a complex historical geography is by no means the only one. The burning of
churches and archives, as well as the acts of genocide and mass deportation under the
Communist regime, both present significant genealogical problems. Moreover, because of the
politically insecure situation in the first half of the 20th century, it was not always safe to even
talk about the relatives that had been deported or killed. Thus, many of the older generation are
unaware even of such basic genealogical facts as their grandmothers’ names.1 These challenges
prevent many Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles from finding out about their individual heritages.
My first goal was to provide the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in
Kiev, Ukraine, the site of the first planned LDS temple in the former USSR, with increased
awareness of and better tools wherewith to develop this part of the religious practices of the LDS
faith. My second goal was to facilitate future family history research for those interested in this
area by publishing the results of my research.
One of the two primary means to achieve the first goal was a fireside in Kiev, organized through
the leaders of the local LDS member district. During the first part of the fireside, my wife and I
combined music and talks to teach the foundational principles of family history and genealogy.
Afterwards, we had a question and answer session. In this, we gave more specific research hints
to the members, including which documents contain a given type of information, in which
archives the different types of documents are stored, during which time periods one can expect to
find certain types of documents, etc. For example: The metrical books, or metricheskiye knigi,
originally kept by the ecclesiastical unit (parish, synagogue, etc.) closest to the person’s home,
are divided into three categories: birth, marriage, and death books. Jews, unlike Catholics and
Orthodox Christians, permitted divorce, and therefore Jewish synagogues also kept a fourth
category of metrical books: the divorce books. The metrical books provide such information as
A father’s first name becomes the basis of the middle name of all his children; thus, the grandfathers’ first names
are usually known even if they rarely were mentioned in the home where their grandchildren grew up. For example,
the sons of Ivan would have Ivanovic as their middle name (or patronymic), and the daughters would have Ivanovna
as theirs. Similarly, Sergey becomes Sergeyevich and Sergeyevna respectively.
date and place of event, occupation and/or estate of person, parents’ names (in birth books), etc.
They do not provide information on the makeup of a family unit – names and ages of all family
members, and so on. For this type of information, one would consult the family lists or the
revision lists, depending on the time period. This information was enthusiastically received by
the attending members, and though the turnout was significantly lower than expected, the
fireside must be considered a success.
The other way of sharing information with the members was through conducting a training
session with the family history consultants of the Kiev district. These are people with varying
experience in family history and genealogy whose duty in their respective congregations is to
assist the other members in their pursuits within this field. At this meeting, we used a similar
approach as at the fireside; my wife and I shared our insights from doing research in the Central
Historical Archive of Ukraine in Kiev, as well as knowledge and experiences from classes at
BYU, where we are both majoring in Family History and Genealogy. We also learned a few
things about the local research issues from those of the consultants who had extensive experience
within the field.
As my other goal was to help facilitate future research in this area by conducting and publishing
a case study of my own, I spent most of my time in the Central Historical Archive, learning the
ins and outs of the Eastern European archival system. My specific hope was to trace a family
back through the centuries, using the various records available in the archive. This part of my
project was less fruitful with regards to actual findings than it was as a learning experience for
me. I ran into a wide variety of research challenges, the confrontation with which has
significantly improved my skills and my thinking as a researcher. There simply is nothing that
compares with hands-on experience when it comes to developing research methodology. This is
especially true since the only archive-like repository for genealogical information that I had
previously experienced was the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, which is set up very
differently from the Central Historical Archive in Kiev. Where the former is specifically focused
on family history research, the latter serves a multiplicity of research purposes, leaving the
researcher much more on his own to figure out how to find the desired documents. I also came to
intensely lament the fact that I had not brought a detailed gazetteer of the area, since the village
where my target person had resided was so small that none of the (supposedly comprehensive)
local history books mentioned it. I literally spent days poring over church records from ten
different parishes because nobody could tell me which parish the inhabitants of Khutor-Greblya
belonged to at the end of the 19th century. In order to know which parish to start looking in, I
would have needed to know the location of Khutor-Greblya in relation to the larger city of
Pereyaslov-Khmil’nitskiy (where the churches were). As it was, I found the birth entry of my
target person an hour before the archive closed on my last day of research! The joy my findings
brought me was, of course, enhanced by my contentment knowing that the future projects I
would undertake would now be much more effective.
Since one person doesn’t make much of a genealogical line, I will not try to publish my research
as a case study, but rather document the issues of conducting research in the Ukraine for possible
publication in a family history journal. Hopefully, in addition to helping me immensely, my
experience can be helpful to other researchers of Ukrainian family history.