Russian genealogy rises from ashes

A glimpse into the rarely seen world of Russian genealogy was offered by one of Russia's leading genealogists, Dr. Igor V. Sakharov.

Speaking Nov. 20 to about a hundred people gathered in the auditorium of the Museum of Church History and Art, Dr. Sakharov spoke about genealogy before and after the revolution of 1917, and about the fate of prominent genealogists under the communist rule. He also gave an overview of genealogy in present-day Russia.He is the director of the Institute of Genealogical Research in the National Library of Russia and president of the Russia Genealogical Society. His visit was sponsored by BYU's Kennedy Center, and he delivered the first address in the centennial series of the Utah Genealogical Society.

His work has religious overtones as both he and his wife, Natalia, a university professor, said their faith in God helped them endure the years of the communist regime.

In his address, he looked at the major sources of genealogical research in Russia, and extended an invitation to outside institutions to join in cooperative genealogical ventures.

"I feel very excited to be here in Salt Lake City, the true genealogical capital of the world," he said.

Genealogy, as no other branch of historical science, "concerns the mind, the heart and the soul of every man and woman, and even has to be the element of everybody's self-consciousness.

"Regarding this self-consciousness, the Russian people are in a very bad condition. This is due on the one hand to the destruction of their traditional way of life and the breakdown of the family structure, and due on the other hand to the loss of the personal and collective memory of the past.

"For instance, because of the repression against religion and the success of athiestic propaganda, the Russian people forgot the traditional practice of regular prayer for both living and deceased relatives. This practice formerly trained the genealogical memory and brought everybody else back as part of an inseparable family unit and a link of the chain of generations."

He said that following the revolution of 1917, many cemeteries, including those of greatest historical interest, were destroyed. These "suffered to an extent completely unknown in civilized countries."

"As a result, there is in Russia a profound cultural, intellectual, moral and spiritual rupture between the modern generations and the generations of our fathers. This loss of historical memory is a thing which can be called `historical amnesia.' "

Historical amnesia began after the 1917 revolution. For example, during the Stalin era, "it became dangerous to have a good memory, especially the memory of one's own family line. It became dangerous to remember one's parents and grandparents if they were not only of nobility, but also if they had been well-to-do peasants, entrepreneurs, clergymen, army officers, functionaries of the older regime, or just educated people.

"In this situation, such families forced themselves to forget the complete past and to do everything possible to prevent this knowledge from reaching their children and grandchildren. Instead of taking care of the Russian genealogical forest and tending one's own genealogical tree, the people tried to cut them down."

In the process, he continued, family relics were destroyed or hidden, and sometimes surnames were changed to obliterate family connections. In the following years, many people were exiled, or sentenced to concentration camps. Others starved to death or emigrated. "There remain in Russia relatively few people who carry an authentic family memory of the past," he said.

Compounding the loss, historical facts in textbooks and historical literature were replaced by abstract concepts. Conflicting facts were adjusted or eliminated. "The people of history became a faceless background to the historical process. The Soviet historical sciences became, so to say, depopulated and depersonified."

Under these conditions, genealogical societies that had formed after the turn of the century were abandoned.

"The eyes of the new authorities saw genealogy as an idealogically defective science that could serve only the ambitions of the upper classes. Therefore, it was harmful and useless."

Many genealogists were jailed or put in concentration camps where they suffered intensely. One, Alexander Grigorov, was sent to concentration camp along with his wife. Their daughters were raised by other families.

But decades later some of them emerged from the camps to continue their research.

"When I met Grigorov, he was living in a slum," said Dr. Sakharov. "I consider him a Russian `Job.' Although he suffered so much, he retained his faith in God, his optimism, his unselfishness. And he heroically continued his genealogical research."

These genealogists inspired Dr. Sakharov to enter the "world of facts."

"I knew better than I had before that each person who lives or who has lived on earth was created by God as a unique human being. And my feelings protested against the fact that so many of the so-called ordinary people had disappeared into oblivion after their death, as if they had never existed.

"I feel that it depends on me personally whether the memory of this or that person or family roots survive or whether this memory will vanish forever.

"When we, in the Russian church, pray for the members of this or that family . . . the church choir, chants: `Eternal memory from generation to generation, eternal memory forever and ever.' This is not only an exercise to train our genealogical memories, but it also reminds us of the fact that the genealogical tree on the one hand lives and is fed by its roots, and on the other hand, grows and aspires to heaven.

"This approach is undoubtedly very interesting for you because the Mormon faith and doctrine, as I understand them, attach a particular importance to the salvation of the family units and to the salvation of the dead."

He said that in August 1992, the National Library of Russia established the Institute of Genealogical Research, the only government institution in this field.

"The material circumstances of our institute are humble at present," he said, "with five full-time employees working in a single room with only three desks and no computers. Yet our program is very comprehensive."

After giving a brief overview of the institute's activities, Dr. Sakharov spoke about some of the major sources of genealogical information. The pre-revolution sources of Russian genealogy include:

Parish registers which contain the vital statistics of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Confessional lists of all parishoners that showed whether this or that parishoner had confessed and received communion at least once a year.

Special clergymen registers.

"Marriage search" documents. "The Orthodox Church doesn't permit marriage of close relatives, so before a wedding the priest was to make certain the bride and bridegroom were not closely related. These church materials are of the greatest importance for genealogical research."

However, registration of vital statistics in Russia was introduced much later than in the western Europe, during the 18th century. Many of these documents are poorly preserved, he noted.

Land owner surveys.

Registers of all males belonging to Russian military or civil service, which was considered obligatory. "Unfortunately, these archives were badly damaged by the occupation of Moscow by Napoleon's troops in 1812."

Extensive and long-kept lineage books of the nobility. "These books represent a very valuable source for genealogical research."

Service registers of all official service in the Russian bureaucracy.

Lists of people who changed their names, such as those of Germanic descent who changed their names to Russian about World War I, and materials about the adoption of children, including the adoption of one's own illegitimate children.

Genealogical records kept during the Soviet period of Russian history include a new type of records of vital statistics. After the revolution, these were kept by local registrars of vital statistics under the Ministry of Justice.

The so-called House, or Residence Books, which fixed all the inhabitants of every residence, building by building, were kept to keep all the Soviet people under strict police control.

He noted that at present these pre-revolution and contemporary resources are available only to those who come to Russia and seek them out.

He said that the Institute of Genealogical Research is planning a conference on "Genealogy and Religion," possibly in 1994, and invited LDS researchers to participate.

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