Russia Archives and Libraries
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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 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: email@example.com ; fax: [7-095] 245-09-45) in Moscow. Information and appropriate questionnaires are available at the "Arkhivy Rossii" website.
Writing to an Archive
Do not assume that archive employees will be able to speak and/or read English. As a general rule of thumb, you should write your request in the language of the archivist - for example, if you are writing to an archive in Russia, you should write your request in Russian. If you are writing to an archive in Ukraine, you should write your request in Ukrainian or Russian (or both!). You can include a copy of your letter in English below the Russian translation. If the archive writes back in English, you may correspond in English.
You do not have to speak Russian in order to write to a Russian archive. In general, online translators such as Google Translate can be useful as long as you use short, simple, and concise sentences. Complex ideas or flowery words can be difficult to translate. You may want to follow the general outline below and fill in the blanks with information specific to your situation. Some of the blanks require you to put words in genitive or prepositional case. To learn more about this, please see the Reading Russian Documents: Deciphering the Handwriting and Understanding the Grammar "How to" guide.
| Директору архива [Archive Initials]
 От [Your full name and contact information]
 Добрый день!
 Прошу Вас мне помочь в генеалогическом поиске.
 Мой [relationship* - grandmother, great-grandfather, etc.],
 [full name of ancestor in Russian], [religion (in genitive case)] вероисповедания,
[8a] родился (if your ancestor was female, use родилась instead)
[8b] женился (if your ancestor was female, use вышла замуж instead) [name of spouse (in genitive case)]
[8c] умер (if your ancestor was female, use умерла instead)
 в [name of colony/parish in both Russian and German (in prepositional case)],
 в [date of birth, marriage, or death],
 Прошу, используя имеющиеся в Вашем архиве метрические книги в
[fond and opis number if available, and/or any other additional information],
сообщить мне сведения
[12a] о его (if your ancestor was female, use её instead) родителях (parents) or рождении (birth).
[12b] o его (if your ancestor was female, use её instead) браке.
[12c] o его (if your ancestor was female, use её instead) смерти.
 Пожалуйста, пришлите мне копии имеющихся документов.
 Оплату гарантирую.
 С уважением,
[Your full name]
| To the Director of the Archive [Archive Initials]
 From [Your full name and contact information]
 Good day!
 I request your help in my genealogical search.
 My [relationship - grandmother, great-grandfather, etc.],
 [full name of ancestor in both Russian and German], [religion (in genitive case)] religion,
[8a] was born
[8b] was married to [name of spouse (in genitive case)]
 in [name of colony/parish in both Russian and German (in prepositional case)],
 on [date of birth, marriage, or death],
 Please use the metrical books available in your archive in
[fond and opis number if available, and/or any other additional information], to locate proof of
[12a] his/her parents or birth.
[12b] his/her marriage.
[12c] his/her death.
 Please send me a copy of any available documents.
 I guarantee payment.
 Respectfully yours,
[Your full name]
*Common relationship words include:
|great (repeat as many
times as necessary)
For additional help writing a research request, you may want to consider reading the article "Как сделать правильный запрос в архив о предках".
Archive Research Request Example
Директору архива ГАВО
От Джейн До (Jane Doe), firstname.lastname@example.org
Прошу Вас мне помочь в генеалогическом поиске. Мой предок, Иоганн Шмидт/Johann Schmidt, eвангелического-лютеранского вероисповедания, родился в Гречинной Луке/Валтере/Walter, в 1 января 1860 г. Прошу, используя имеющиеся в Вашем архиве метрические книги в ф. 176, о. 1, ед. хр. 4, чтобы, сообщить мне сведения о его родителях. Пожалуйста, пришлите мне копии имеющихся документов. Оплату гарантирую.
Джейн До (Jane Doe)
Visiting an Archive
In some cases, it may be necessary to visit an archive personally to obtain the desired record. Visiting an archive is not something that you can plan at the drop of a hat - it takes planning and preparation. Before you purchase airfare and plan your trip, be sure to contact the archive to see if they will be open during the time you plan to visit.
Getting the most out of your archival research trip takes careful planning and preparation. Below you will find some tips to help you as you prepare to visit an archive.
- Contact the Archive: Inform the archive of the dates you plan to visit the archive and what materials you would be interested in viewing. You may need to set up an appointment with the archive or the Читальный зал, or the reading room. Archivists will generally bring documents and archival manuscripts to the reading room for visitors to use. Be sure to know what the reading room hours are so that you can maximize your research time.
- Apply to Visit the Archive: In some cases, you must submit an application to obtain a reading card and access to the archive. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, so be sure to ask the archive about the process well in advance. Applicants are typically asked to provide contact information, forms of identification, reasons for visiting the archive etc.
- Plan Ahead: Planning ahead will help you get the most out of your experience. Examine putevoditeli and opisi before your visit so you know the fond and delo number. Knowing these "call numbers" will allow the archivist to quickly retrieve your desired records and you won't have to waste your or the archivist's precious time looking for its location within the archive.
- Schedule Time for the Unexpected: Give yourself some buffer time in case of travel complications, unexpected archival closures, or for new discoveries that lead you in a different direction than you had originally anticipated.
- Review Guidelines: Be sure you understand the archive's policies regarding their materials. Inquire if there any limits to the number of documents you can view each day, or if materials can only be requested as specific times. Also ask what kind of fees are necessary for photocopies, scans, or photography. You may also wish to ask if there are charging stations or internet access available. Knowing the policies in advance also helps you know what to pack for your visit. Commonly restricted items include pens, food/drink, coats and large bags. In some archives, electronic devices may not be permitted, so be sure to remember to pack pencils and a notebook.
- Create a Template to Organize your Notes: Keeping a research log is an important step in research and helps you stay organized. Prepare a template ahead of time to help you keep track of what you have looked at (fond, delo, information found on record etc.). Be sure to save a spot to cite your sources.
- Travel: Before booking your airfare or travel arrangements, be sure you are aware of any visa requirements. Be sure your passport is up to date.
- Transportation: plan out in advance how you will get to the archive. You can use services like Google Maps or 2ГИС (for Russia) to help you navigate public transportation. If you plan on driving to the archive, be sure to find out if there is parking available at or near the archive.
Other Helpful Links
- Find Lost Russian & Ukrainian Family Uncovering the secrets of finding family and records in the former USSR