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Jewish Genealogy Research in Russia

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St. Petersburg, Russia and California, USA

A large portion of present day Jewish families lived in Tsarist Russia. The study of their history and genealogy has long been hindered by an almost complete lack of access to Russian archives. With the fall of the Soviet Union, there is now a window of opportunity to search for Jewish roots in Russia. Such searches are very tedious and often not very effective because of a dearth of information about the location of Jewish materials and lack of finding aids to archive holdings.

Most materials concerning Jewish history in Russia are kept in various central and regional State archives and their branches. Unfortunately, many Jewish archival materials were destroyed during the two World Wars and also during the terrible pogroms which took place in Ukraine and White Russia in 1917-1921.

After the 1930's, during the period of the official anti-semitism in the Soviet Union, the collecting and cataloging of Jewish archival materials practically ceased. The process of opening documents of Jewish origin for use by researchers has only recently begun. This work is going slowly and it is not known exactly what kinds of documents still exist and which archives have such documents.

It is necessary to take into consideration circumstances of Jewish life particularly in respect to the laws of that time regarding Jews. For example, in towns with a Tsar's residence, the police records can be searched because Jews who had permission to live in such towns were required to register with the police each year.

A recent catalog of the location of Jewish materials reports that Jewish documents are kept in ten archives in Moscow and nine archives in St. Petersburg. Elsewhere in Russia, there are at least 12 different archives with Jewish materials and 37 in Ukraine and 14 in Belarus. Jewish documents are also kept in Georgian, Moldovian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Uzbek archives.

The largest historical archive in Russia is located in St. Petersburg, the capital city of Tsarist Russia. The Russian State Historic Archive (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv - RGIA) has some 7 million items covering the prerevolutionary period, i.e. the period from the beginning of the 18th century to 1917. Among the RGIA holdings are materials about Jewish settlements and agricultural colonies including town maps and plans. In some cases, town maps are accompanied by a numbered index to the families living in each house.

In the RGIA, there are also documents of different commissions and institutions such as the rabbi's commissions for 1857 - 1914; the commission on the organizing of Jewish everyday life for 1862- 1882; other interesting materials concern the construction of synagogues and prayer houses, the opening of Jewish ecclesiastical institutions, schools, some parish registers; records about pogroms and many other items. The RGIA also keeps documents regarding an individual's application to change religion or citizenship as well as records granting permission to emigrate from the Russian Empire.

Other archives in St. Petersburg with Jewish materials include the Central State Historic Archive which has registers of births and deaths of the St. Petersburg Choral synagogue for 1865-1920 and the Kronshtadt synagogue for 1900-1913. There are also documents regarding the Jewish literature-art society, the Jewish historical-ethnography society, and other societies and institutions, as well as some collections of private documents.

Some Ukrainian and Belarussian archives have registers of births and deaths, documents about pogroms, institutions, organizations and many other kinds of Jewish materials.

Since many Jews were scientists, writers and musicians, personal files can sometimes be found in the archives of such institutions as the Academy of Sciences (St. Petersburg) and Russian Central Archives of Literature and Art (Moscow). Information on Jewish revolutionaries is kept in the State Archives of Russian Federation (former Central Archives of the October Revolution) in Moscow.

For people who were in State service, a service record can sometimes be located. A "service record" is usually a treasure trove of information about the person and the person's family and often includes most pertinent dates.

Military service records also exist in the military archives. However, in order to successfully locate a Military record, it is usually necessary to know the dates of service and the regiment. A photograph of the person in his uniform or even a picture of a service medal can give good clues.

Unfortunately, in Tsarist times military service for Jews was considered tantamount to a death sentence and young men left the country if they could, rather than enter the military.

In some cases, information can be found regarding the owners of stores, companies and others who had owned legal private businesses. However, Jews would often register their businesses under the name of a Russian partner in order to avoid persecution. The National Library in St. Petersburg has monographs and newspapers which sometimes contain articles on Jewish subjects as well as advertisements of Jewish businesses and shopkeepers.

Good initial information is essential in order to start any genealogy research. Unfortunately much of this information is lost or the memories were so painful that the older generation simply avoided the subject of their past.

The Information Center BLITZ provides genealogy searches and as well as other research in different Russian archives and libraries. We have been successful in providing results concerning some Jewish families and Jewish settlements.

Genealogy Search Order Form

W. Edward Nute, Coordinator
Russian-Baltic Information Center - BLITZ
907 Mission Ave, San Rafael, California, 94901
Telephone: 415-453-3579
FAX: 415-453-0343
eMail address: enute@igc.org

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