Daniel Blomberg and Professor 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 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