August 11th, 2018

How foreigners search for their Russian roots

For non-Russian speakers, the hard part is that most archive employees still only write and speak in Russian. So genealogists who are fluent in European languages are in demand.

“I work a lot with foreign clients, because I know seven languages, although not all of them fluently,” Vitaliy Semenov, an independent historian with over 10 years experience working in the field of genealogy, says. “Most of my foreign clients are from France and Belgium – they’re descendants of our white émigrés.”

“The second group, almost as big, are American jews, descended from jews from Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia. Usually, these people don’t speak or read Russian, and their parents couldn’t either. But their parents may have childhood memories of their grandparents recalling life in Russia, or they may preserve some dialect of Hebrew their ancestors spoke. And the third group are descendants of the Volga Germans,” Semenov explains.

“I had a client from France, who – unusually for my clients – disappeared after receiving the results of the investigation about her ancestor, a Ural cossack, who once met Leo Tolstoy, talked to him, and is mentioned in his diaries,” Semenov says. “So I offered to send her the proof (a page from Tolstoy’s diary), and she sent the money immediately!”

“Another problem are people, let’s say, from Forbes 100, who communicate through their secretaries because they are short of time. And these secretaries just delay the payment ‘until the boss has read the material, which paralyzes the research: with Russian archives, you have to pay constantly to get the research going. So it’s much better when clients, even the most important ones, communicate with me in person. And sometimes, we stumble upon some really fascinating discoveries.