In Handy 12:21 18 Apr 2023

Following your roots: 10 Steps to exploring your genealogy

What is the problem? 

The dramatic 20th century largely erased family Ukrainian memory. In Soviet times, knowing who your ancestor was, especially if they were of the wrong origin, was sometimes deadly dangerous. Therefore, many Ukrainians still do not know the history of their family. The current Russian-Ukrainian war has not improved the situation: because of it, the family archives of many families are now inaccessible or destroyed. And yet, it prompts many Ukrainians to think about their lineage and roots.

What is the solution?

"Who are we? Whose sons? Of which parents?" — these words belong to the famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, and in the last decade, Ukrainians have begun to ask themselves these questions much more often. They want to know the history of their country and their kind. Evidence of this is the increase in demand for historical literature, the development of genealogical communities, and the boom in visits to archives in search of documents about ancestors. Rubryka spoke to expert genealogists to find out how to revive your family tree step by step.

Interest in studying the genealogy is only growing

"There are a lot of requests," says Victoria Moskalets, head of the document information utilization department of the Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine. She and other experts say that over the past decade, Ukrainians' interest in their genealogy has grown significantly, and this trend continues.

"Genealogy is already closely related to the issue of self-identification," Viktor Doletskyi, head of the Praschur Genealogy Study Center, is convinced. He has been interested in this field since 2008 and has been engaged in genealogy since 2011. The researcher noticed several waves of increasing interest of Ukrainians in their family's history: the first was in 2016-2017 when Ukrainians recovered from the shock of the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. And the second began in the summer of 2022 when people had already recovered a little from the shock of a large-scale invasion of 2022.

What steps should be taken by those who started researching their genealogy, Rubryka determined together with the head of the Praschur Genealogy Study Center, Viktor Doletskyi, and deputy director of the Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law, genealogist, founder of the UAGenealogy community Ihor Rozkladai.

How does it work?

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Step 1. Talk to your close and distant relatives

It is worth asking parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other more distant relatives. It is important to know when one of your ancestors was born, married, and died and where exactly this happened.

"You must be smart enough to collect oral memories because not everyone is ready to speak. Some people are ready to flood with information, to tell everything to everyone simply, and this is the coolest case," Rozkladai explains. "But very often, people are private due to some traumas or unpleasant stories. And here, perhaps, indirect questions will help."

The expert advises asking about everything related to the kitchen, education, clothes, and leisure: "What did you do as a child?", "What did you play?" That is, to look for questions that would relax the person, and they could tell along the way some vital information directly related to your interest.

Documenting any conflicting information you collect in writing is also a good idea. For example, different relatives can call different names of great-grandfathers or grandmothers and remember their life events differently.

Step 2. Explore your family photo archive

Rozkladai advises not to forget to sign all family photos if this has not been done yet, and Doletskyi says to look for these photos among distant relatives. The archival institutions you will contact in the next steps usually do not have photographs, so your family may be your only source of old photos.

Step 3. Draw the initial family tree

Draw or use one of the online templates to create your initial family tree, from yourself to the oldest relative your family can remember. You will take this tree as a basis for further quests.

Step 4. Review all family documents

Everyone has a drawer or shelf where documents are stored. In addition to passports or diplomas, there may also be documents that have not been retrieved for a long time — for example, death certificates of grandparents or parents, etc. It is worth carefully going through all these documents and studying similar folders of other relatives. There might be some treasures there.

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It is important to check whether there are documents for those relatives you put on the family tree. These are a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, and a death certificate.

Rozkladai draws attention to the fact that all documents from 1945 (75 years since the document's creation), plus or minus a year, and up to the present are in Ukraine's registry office system. If you are missing any documents, you must restore them first, i.e., contact the appropriate office, submit an application for an extract, and there you will have to prove family ties.

Step 5. If possible, do DNA tests of the oldest relatives

"If there are people of a respectable age in the family, I highly recommend immediately thinking about DNA tests for them. Unfortunately, people leave, and the older information you dig, the more details you will find. Then, suppose there were matches at the level of conditional triangulation when your test coincided with a test of a grandparent and an outside person. In that case, it will be easier to dig further and document the relationship. Especially if these coincidences are quite large," says the founder of the UAGenealogy community.

Step 6. Visit the settlement where your ancestor is from and ask the people there

This advice of genealogists is more relevant for small towns or villages. It is worth talking to old-timers and people with the same surname as your ancestors, who may actually turn out to be distant relatives.

Step 7. Go to the archives

You can contact archival institutions only if you already have a pre-assembled database because the archives need information that will help connect a specific place with a particular event and person.

"The archive does not store any stories about people, and it preserves recorded specific facts in documents," warns the head of the department of document information use of the Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine, Victoria Moskalets. "Accordingly, to find this document with a recorded fact, the archive needs full information about a person: when and where they were born, married, and died. Knowing the place is a must, which is one of the most important factors to remember."

It is crucial to know in which year and specifically who it was because people do not always have information about the surname, first name, or patronymic. For example, to find a woman's birth record, the archive definitely needs her maiden name.

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If the ancestors came from Kyiv or the territories of Western Ukraine, it is much easier to find certain documents, says Rozkladai. Many documents have been digitized, and many have been preserved. There will be many more problems with left-bank Ukraine; one must be prepared because there may be no sources, and the documents were destroyed or lost now or during World War II. Unfortunately, such a risk exists, especially in Poltava, Donetsk, and even Chernihiv regions.

It should be understood that due to historical processes, documents can be in the archives not only of different regions of Ukraine but also in other countries such as Poland.

What documents can shed light on the lives of your ancestors? These are primarily metrical books for the Orthodox — confessional information and tax documents, iff there were priests in the family, there should be documentation proving that. Such documents also include directories — address calendars that were published on the territory of the Russian Empire.

"Any reference books of that time can be a valuable source if you know what your ancestor did or at least where they lived," says Rozkladai. Thanks to such address calendars, he was able to trace the movements of his relative, the treasury accountant, for ten years. In general, the genealogist has already examined ten generations of his family tree.

Step 8. Search for information on specialized Internet resources

There are many such international resources because, as Doletskyi says, genealogy is the most popular hobby in the whole world.

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For example, you can find enough scans of various documents on the FamilySearch resource, an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping people research their family history. They are available online, and you just need to register on the site, Rozkladai suggests.

Also, these are various martyrologists (such as the National Bank of the Repressed, the site http://victimsholodomor.org.ua, etc.), which may then lead you to the archive of the Security Service of Ukraine. If we talk about World War I and World War II period, the databases created in the Russian Federation, which were once developed in cooperation with the Memorial company, can be helpful here. Currently, they are only available via VPN.

Step 9, optional. Contact private genealogists or companies

You can turn to such specialists at any stage of your search. After all, the study of genealogy requires attention and patience and the ability to read and search for and in old texts.

"People often contact us after visiting the archive," says the head of the Praschur Genealogy Study Center. "After all, a person has already tried to investigate on their own, and they have already understood that this is not an easy task. Mostly, such people do not have any questions after that: why is it taking so long, and why is it so expensive?"

It is important, of course, not to run into fraudsters, experts say. Genealogical communities, which mostly contain a list of institutions or individual researchers who work honestly, will help here.

Step 10. Familiarize yourself with the history of settlements or regions associated with your ancestors

"When a person wants to find something themself, it is essential to read the sources of the history of settlements or certain areas to understand where they came from, who owned them, where, for example, these noble families came from," Rozkladai shares. "They could often come with the peasants. That's when a more thorough and meaningful search starts, and it will probably last for years." 

He also advises using old maps (such as this one) as a source of information about the previous names of settlements and their possible mergers with others.

What will all this give you?

In addition to the fact that you will definitely know your origin better, you will be able to understand the history of Ukraine better.

When you study family history, in one way or another, you are forced to read about some historical events. You understand the conditions your ancestors were in, their living conditions, and so on. This ultimately leads to a completely different understanding of the country's history, historical processes, and even the cause-and-effect relationships of what is happening now.

In general, family research is like a repair. It cannot be completed but can only be stopped, the researcher smiles. You decide how far you are willing to go.

Illustrations are taken from the archive of Ihor Rozkladai and Viktor Doletskyi, Center for the Study of Genealogy Praschur

This material was created by the online media outlet Rubryka within the Ukrainian Rapid Response Fund program framework, implemented by IREX with the support of the US State Department. The content is the sole responsibility of the Rubryka online media outlet and does not necessarily reflect the views of IREX or the US State Department.


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