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Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jconnolly@nsl.org, Assistant Editor

Spring, 2003
Volume 49, Number 1

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Research in Russia

Observations and Experiences from my May 2002 Trip to Saratov, Russia, and Research at the State Archives of Saratov Oblast

by Michael A. Beier

Having grown up in the days of the cold war, the space race, the Cuban missile crises, and the iron curtain, I had not anticipated the possibility that I would someday travel to Russia with an opportunity to do research in a regional archive within the former USSR. But in May of last year, 2002, I had that unexpected opportunity. This was possible for me primarily through the efforts of my daughter Rachel, who had lived in Russia on two separate occasions, for a year each time. Her experience had helped her gain a command of the language and a knowledge of the customs, requirements, quirks, and nuances of life in Russia that would allow us to move successfully about in a relatively closed society and function in day-to-day affairs. Her expertise was the prime reason I felt I could be successful in this venture.

Our goals for this trip were fairly simple. Rachel wanted to visit some of the friends and associates whom she had come to know a few years ago during the times she lived in Russia. My motivation was more than just curiosity and adventure, for my ancestral family - originally from Germany - had settled many of the small colonies along the Volga River in the region east and south of Saratov, Russia, in the mid-to-late 1700's. For some time now I have been conducting a genealogical and demographic study of these people after their arrival in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. The study promises to allow for many comparisons within this ethnic group based on religions, community, and family structure. The fact that some traditions and customs have survived a century in the melting pot of U.S. society demonstrates how strongly the people from these German/ Russian colonies sought to maintain their community structure, associations, and interrelatedness. In this research I have been able to gather thousands of original church, family, and government documents pertaining to these families, dating from the late 19th through the 20th century. My focus in this Russia trip was to obtain documents from the 1800's that would allow my study to extend back another century. This could only be made possible through the acquisition of documents previously inaccessible, but which can now be researched freely, firsthand, in the country of my ancestral heritage.

The World-Wide-Web and email proved very useful in getting ready for the trip. I was able to read the reports of several people who had been to Russia doing similar research and learned that many records are now available for this type of scholarly research.

Through e-mail, I also located the names and addresses of the archives where I would be able to find the records most useful for my research. I had found the name of a researcher, Igor Pleve, who lived and worked in Saratov, Russia, and who was experienced in research concerning the German colonies. I wrote to him asking about specific places and time periods for family history research in the German colonies on the Volga river, and in his reply he told us that from 40-60 years worth of church records for the Kamenka villages and the Pfeiffer colonies in the 1800's were located at the archives in Engels and Saratov. He advised me to contact the archivist at each location to determine the availability of the records.

Another online source gave me the addresses, hours, telephone numbers, and names of each of the directors at my two prime locations: the State Archives of Saratov Oblast and the Branch of the State Archive of Saratov Oblast in Engels. My daughter and research assistant Rachel helped me understand how to best present myself in the manner that would be expected in Russia, which is generally more formal than is customary in the States.

In America we would often expect to walk into an institution and start researching materials, with little or no advanced notice and minimal identification. Having lived in Russia, Rachel had learned that having proper official documents helps minimize delays and complications. In the past, and to some degree even today, in Russian society officially signed, stamped, and notarized documents were and are the way of life. Every citizen carries a passport, which must be presented upon request and is required to do things as simple as purchasing a train ticket for travel to the next city. Thus I set about obtaining official letters of introduction from my current university administration and from some former colleagues at a school with which I had been affiliated. Everyone was very helpful, and I soon had the documents I sought. These explained my reasons for conducting research in Russian archives, documented the institutions' official support of my project, and respectfully asked for the archivists' cooperation in my research effort.

For time's sake I will make just a couple of comments on other preliminary preparatory efforts that are needed for travel to most foreign countries, such as visas, passports, immunizations, reservations, etc. The U.S. passport is simple enough to obtain by getting photos and documents together, filling out the forms, and taking it all into the office with your payment. Keep in mind that it takes a significant amount of time for the paperwork to be processed. Obtaining a visa for other countries, such as Russia, can be more complex. A visa is an invitation from the country you are visiting to enter its nation for a specific period of time or for a specific reason, as in the case of a tourist visa, a student visa, a work visa, etc. Each visa will have certain restrictions. Most tourist visas to Russia require that you be part of a travel group with an authorized guide and a strict, set agenda. This is actually a very important requirement for Russian travel because the language is so different - with unfamiliar Cyrillic characters, different sounds for similar letters, and a totally different vocabulary. This makes it virtually impossible to communicate if you haven't studied the language and customs carefully. For example, visitors can't even read street signs, so if they become lost, they are at the mercy of those around them. In addition, they cannot even telephone for assistance because, first of all, they can't read the phonebook, and second, almost all public telephones require phone tokens, which are not standard monetary coins and must be obtained from a kassa (cashier) at a magazeen(store).

Here again I must credit my daughter Rachel with knowing the intricacies of the visa and travel requirements, as well as the language and customs, which allowed us to have much more freedom in our travel and a much less structured schedule than we would otherwise have had. Still, my inability to communicate presented certain problems and anxieties. The first time an unsmiling man (no one smiles in public in Russia) tapped me on the shoulder on a crowded bus and said something that seemed a little threatening, it was nice to have my personal translator handy to explain, "He wants to know what time it is." (Near the end of the trip whenever a stranger spoke to me, I began instinctively to hold up my arm and show my watch, and it usually worked.)

I would like to insert a quick note on health matters. You should check to see if there are any health advisories or alerts for the area to which you are traveling. This will let you know if you need special shots and immunization or if there are special precautions you should take as you travel to an area. In almost all cases when you travel to international destinations, you will want to have a number of upto- date vaccinations before your travel, such as those recommended for travel to Eastern Europe by the Center for Disease Control and found on their Web site.

I must mention one of the little failures in my planning. I had given myself two weeks in Russia for this research work. It seemed like adequate time to be able to gather some useful information, and I think it would have been, except that I also scheduled the trip so that we would arrive in Moscow on May 1st. This was supposed to allow us to see the May Day celebrations in the city and enjoy the touristy side of the trip as well. The problem was that I had not considered that the two-week time period would also include the May 9th holiday, a huge Russian celebration of the end of WW II. These two May holidays are the two biggest holidays of the year in Russia. We found that several government agencies were closed for almost the entire time following the May 1st celebration so they could fully prepare for the second holiday. Some of these closures affected our ability to travel, research, and conduct business. My plan to spend a small amount of time on cultural and tourist activities and the bulk of it in serious research backfired, and I had little time for my primary research objective.

For this article I will also have to pass on any substantive description of travel in Russia and make just a few remarks. Few people own cars. Public transportation is the norm in Russia, with buses, vans, taxis, trolleys, and subways being very plentiful and easy to use. Most travel between cities is by train, and this was a very interesting and positive experience. I would say it was quite reminiscent of those classic 1940's movies that depicted train travel. Perhaps I will save a thorough discussion of travel for another article. Suffice it to say that we traveled some 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) by train while we were there, and I was suitably impressed with the general public transportation, especially the trains. But when traveling, do not forget to adequately figure in the time that travel will take. We traveled 1000 miles at about 50 mph, with many train-station stops along the way. After accounting for holidays, weekends, and travel, our actual time for research during those two weeks shrank down to about three days. This proved very disadvantageous to the research efforts.

Once we had arrived in Saratov, we settled in for a week of research. On Monday morning my research assistant and I went over to the archives and waited about a half hour to meet with the Director, Aleksei Vladimirovich Voronezhtsev. My assistant explained our quest, and we presented our letters of introduction, which were very well received. The director explained that they did have some of the records we were asking about, but because of their condition, we might not be given full access to them. Otherwise Mr. Vladimirovich provided us with small, signed cards, which would admit us into the research room. However, his small disclaimer about access proved to be more premonitory than I first thought.

Two assistants (Zabrodina Natalya Gennadievna and Evseeva Yelena Vladimirovna) worked in the reading room, and they were most helpful. My daughter explained the locations we were interested in and the types of records we sought. We were brought several volumes of registers, which contained hand-typed lists and descriptions of the records for the locations held by the archives. They also brought a book they thought could be helpful - a book about the German ethnic colonies of the region. In the book was a wonderful map I wanted to have photocopied. At this point, we discovered another significant obstacle to our research goals. Making a copy was not a simple process; it was a major procedure.

The archives owned a copy machine, but it was located on another floor and was not accessible to patrons. Any copy request would be taken by one of the reading room assistants to the copier location and then, after paying for the copy, you could have it. But I quickly found out that it would not do any good to reach for my wallet or into my pocket for change to pay the 16 rubles (about 50 cents) because a policy prevented the staff from directly accepting any money. Instead, to pay for a copy we would have to obtain an official bill prepared by them for services, leave the building, and walk down several blocks to a specific bank that had a section set up where people could pay their public bills, such as power, rent, gas … and of course, copies received at the archives. There were forms at the bank that you would need to fill out before they could take your payment. The form listed the agency to which the money was to be credited, the amount, the date and time, your name, etc. Then you got in line (lines were always long and tedious) and waited your turn. Hopefully you didn't get in the wrong one because then you would have to start again at the end of a different line. When you made it to the teller, the bank would process your request and give you an officially stamped receipt, which you would take back to the archives, present, and then obtain your copy. Because of the complicated and convoluted procedure, it took us almost three hours from requesting to receiving one copy. To complicate the matter, the bank had very restrictive hours - opening late in the morning, closing for lunch, and closing early in the afternoon. It was clear that obtaining a large number of copies could be very problematic.

Late in the afternoon, while reviewing the typed registers of available records, my daughter discovered exactly what we had been hoping to find. She found the listing of the Tiraspol consistory documents. These were the collected records of the Catholic Church during the 1800's for every parish in that region and included the birth/baptism, marriage, and death records for most of that century. They were collected by the Catholic central record authority from numerous regional parishes in the area during that period and were not listed conveniently by location but instead had been hand copied into bound volumes and were listed by year. We discovered there were many volumes of these records and were excited about reviewing them and obtaining copies. Unfortunately we then discovered a number of additional obstacles to access that would in effect prevent us from being able to see any of these records on this trip.

The assistant came back into the reading room and told us there were a number of reasons we could not use any of the documents. Some of the records were in poor shape and we could not handle them. Some were stored at other locations and could not be made available for several days, and some were being microfilmed and would be unavailable for an undisclosed amount of time.

Our response was simple: If any of these records were in reasonably good condition, located within the building, and could be reviewed during the next two days before the holiday, we would like to see them. We were told we would get our answer the next day, and the next day we were disappointed to learn that we could see none of the records. However, the next morning I learned that, while I would not be able to do any research on the records needed, the agency would contract with us to go through a set number of years, looking for a single surname from two of the villages of interest and transcribe those records for us - for a fee. I was greatly disappointed because what they offered to research and provide for me was only a fraction of what I needed. Instead of obtaining information so that I could track a significant portion of several communities and their interrelatedness, I would only receive information on a single family surname - hardly enough to do my study. I had to conclude that what I needed was simply more work than could be reasonably undertaken by the staff at the archives. Still I wanted to show my cooperation and support of their efforts, so I decided I would accept their offer and contract with them to search a limited number of years (40) for a specific surname. The archivist N. V. Samokhvalova would do most of the transcription work. After agreeing to this, I arranged with the bank to pay half the contract fee in advance. At least there would shortly be something to show for this first Russian research venture.

Within the last month I have received a packet of transcriptions from Archivist Samokhvalova at the Saratov archives. It included a cover letter and 16 pages of transcribed documents, listing the 120 separate records for which I had contracted. This research report covered the first 20 years or half of the original research contract, equaling the percentage of advanced payment I had made. The transcriptions were very thorough, and I was pleased with the service. However, the letter informed me that because of work demands on the staff at the archives, they could not continue with the extraction project without a price increase of fully 50% above the originally contracted charge. Of course, this could not be done for several reasons.

First, I looked on this temporary contractual arrangement as a gesture of good faith with the archives, a way to lend some measure of support for their reasonable consideration and professional cooperation. It was a stopgap measure designed to allow me to obtain at least some material so that I might continue my work until I could arrange another trip. It was always clear that purchasing research assistance was far beyond the budget available for this project, especially considering the extremely limited breadth of material I could gather by this method. The archive research staff provided material for only one surname, and my research data base on the U.S. side of this project details information on over two dozen family names, with several thousand supporting documents. However, this experience has helped me see how to overcome the remaining obstacles so that with proper planning my second trip to Saratov should be far more successful. Here is what I have learned.

My evaluation of this project shows three main problems that contributed to my inability to acquire the necessary records during my first trip to Russia:

  1. Not enough time available for the research. A two-week, record-gathering trip shrank to only three days of actual research time because of travel arrangements, holidays and weekends, and other planned activities. The next trip needs to be planned with actual time on task better defined.
  2. Inadequate advanced notice. Some of the records I needed to review were stored outside the research building or were in use for another project at the time of my visit. With adequate advanced communication, I should be able to arrange that all the records I wish to review will be accessible during my visit.
  3. Poor condition of some material. As a librarian, I am keenly aware that certain materials must be handled very carefully because of their age and condition. To help alleviate any fear of damage to the fragile records, I will propose to use a low-light, high-detail digital camera to copy the records of interest. This will eliminate damage caused by bright copy or scanner light and allow me to work in the available room lighting. It will also allow me to obtain records in a fast and ef- ficient manner without endangering them. This method will require much less handling of the items than would be necessary in searching for additional surnames and the hand transcription of records.

My first trip to Russia to gather records for an ongoing study was a very positive experience but met with limited success so far as accomplishing my primary research goal. However, the lessons learned should greatly increase my chances of success in subsequent visits to the same area by allowing for:

  • a better-planned schedule, providing for more actual research time.
  • prearranging so that all materials are available during the visit.
  • the digital copying of materials to safeguard them and still allow for the acquisition of all the material needed for my research.
Michael A. Beier is Director of Library Services, Von Canon Library, Southern Virginia University.

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