Ukrainian Genealogy Research: a Beginner’s Guide. Part 1 – the Basics.
Jun 26

Ukrainian Genealogy Research: a Beginner’s Guide. Part 1 – the Basics.

We all need to remember the history, traditions, and origin of our families. When getting to know our ancestors – we get to know ourselves, our character, unique stories and peculiarities that formed us. Besides that, it gets really interesting! No wonder collecting genealogy and family history has become one of the most popular hobbies in the world. That’s why we want to start a series of articles: Ukrainian Genealogy Research: a Beginner’s Guide.

From the outside, it may seem that someone can do it easily, but in fact, this hobby takes a lot of time and requires the development of “detective abilities” to dig out the necessary information. This is especially true for Ukrainian genealogy, when people from abroad, whose ancestors moved to Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and other countries, are trying to deal with it.

The main difficulty is that the Soviet regime limited access to information, including genealogy. Ukraine, unfortunately, was occupied by the USSR for a long 70 years (Galicia and part of Volyn for almost 50 years).

Even though Ukraine has been an independent country for almost 30 years now, political traditions are changing very slowly, and some organizations are still saturated with the Soviet “stinky soul.” You have to be prepared for the fact that this can affect those archives with the documents about your Ukrainian ancestors. Don’t let it scare you – everything is gradually changing for the better.

In addition to difficulties in language, distance, access to information on the territory of Ukraine, we sometimes just don’t know where to start. And when difficulties arise at the very beginning of the path, then there is a desire to give up.

In this article, we will describe step-by-step instructions on how you can start researching your Ukrainian family. We tested all these tips in our family research and more than 20 years of professional genealogical experience, and even after decades, these remain relevant and effective.

By following these steps, you can avoid unnecessary mistakes and stress that comes with failure. Let’s dive right in!

STEP 1: Identify what you already know and write it down

Ukrainian Genealogy Research family photos

The main rule, which will always help you find traces of your ancestors and from which you should start, is: “We always go from the known to the unknown.”

We have repeatedly witnessed cases when people forgot about this simple rule or neglected it, and thereby created insurmountable obstacles in the search for themselves, and sometimes followed a wrong lead.

If this rule is so important, then you first need to figure out what you already know. Gradually, step by step, carefully and consistently, as if assembling a beautiful puzzle.

FAMILY ARCHIVE

Boxes with old documents, folders or envelopes with “unnecessary” papers, a box in the attic, a dusty bag in the basement… All these places can contain the treasures for a beginning Ukrainian genealogist. 

In documents, letters, greeting cards, and faded photographs in old family albums, you can find valuable information. For instance, people would often write down the names of ancestors, places of their birth, marriage or death, or other life events. In photographs, not only the grandfather’s face and the style of his mustache are valuable, but also the inscription on the back, where he can indicate where he was and for what reason. And on the back of the family photo, someone could mark the names and age of each person.

You may be lucky, and among the old family papers, you will find an autobiography or a family story written by the hand of your great-grandmother, the diary of your grandfather, who he kept in the war, or a family Bible listing several generations of ancestors.

WHAT DO YOUR RELATIVES HAVE?

Be sure to contact your relatives. Perhaps different parts of important documents are stored in different houses: at your father’s sister, at your cousin or in the old summer family house, where you had your family reunions.

ORDER AND ANALYTICS

The documents, photographs, and artifacts that you find can be sorted in different ways. You can organize them by family lines, then by generation, and then by the type of information. Or you can sort them by chronology. Store the information as you like, but make sure to organize it, as it will make it so much easier in the long run!

Analyze what you already know and be sure to write down everything you learned. Any information found may be the clue to further success in your research.

BASIC INFORMATION

If you already know the residence of your ancestors before immigration and plan to delve into your Ukrainian genealogy research, you must remember that the following basic information is extremely important:

a. The names
This can include all the names you know, nicknames, spellings of the surname, and name changes during marriage or immigration.

b. Places
The key element of the puzzle. Do not neglect any mention of geographical names in documents, letters, etc.

c. Dates
You will often find conflicting data in documents, but all these timestamps are worth paying attention to. Later you can figure out which one is more accurate.

d. Religion
Because different denominations kept documentation in their own way, stored it in different places, try to clarify this aspect in the early stages of your analysis.

e. Estates of the Realm
This is another important detail in the history of the family, and knowing it, you can significantly narrow your search. If your ancestors were peasants – you would need to look in church metrical records. If they were clergy, you might be interested in clergy records. But, if they were of noble origin, don’t search for their information in the tax documents (as in Ukraine and Russian Empire nobles were freed from any taxes), and so on.

In case you can’t or don’t want to do your own research, remember that any professional genealogist will ask you for the same basic information listed above. Without it, moving on might be difficult or even impossible.

STEP 2: Gather Family Information

Interviews for Ukrainian Genalogy Research

In addition to collecting material objects and documents, you must remember to collect information that no one has yet recorded, which means it may disappear. Do not forget to conduct a family history interview!

INTERVIEW

These interviews could fit well on the first step in this article since papers and artifacts will not disappear, but memories can fade, and people might begin to confuse the facts. In the end, as one genealogical site wrote, “Baba Varvara may not live until the interview.”

Plus, an interview will not only give you information about the ancestors, but will help to keep interesting stories, thoughts, and feelings associated with your ancestors.

WHO TO INTERVIEW?

Choose a person that might know the most about the family line you are researching. It is better to create a list of people. Once you have it – start preparing. And, do not limit yourself to only the oldest relatives.

To gather as much as possible, increase your interview list by including your grandfather’s friends, colleagues, or neighbors who lived with your family and can remember something important and interesting. Even a local historian can tell or recall something.

HOW TO CONDUCT THE INTERVIEW?

It is best to conduct a one-on-one interview. However, sometimes it’s not bad when several family members gather, and the memories of one person help others revive their memory. To help your relatives remember the loved ones and stories about their lives, you can create a warm, relaxed atmosphere.

Another good tip is to arrange the interview in advance and explain its purpose. If the interviewees want, you can share a copy of the recording or its text version with them. Arrange a place and time when everyone will be comfortable and won’t be in a rush. 

It might be difficult for some people to set aside a long time for an interview, for others, the age might become a reason for short attention span or focus. Break the interview into several short meetings. When circumstances suggest, you can replace the meeting with a telephone interview.

HOW TO SAVE THE INTERVIEW?

Think in advance how you will record the interview. Handwritten notes are most likely not suitable, as live communication will always be the most effective approach.

It’s better to find recording equipment or at least use your smartphone to record audio or if you like, video. So, get ready in advance for the fact that you will need to recharge the device from the network or a power bank.

Check the quality of the recording before the interview. Will the sound be clear if recorded at a certain distance from the speaker? Will the microphone enhance the background noise during pauses? And, plan where you will place the microphone or camera.

What a shame it will be if a simple technical issue becomes an obstacle to the success of your interview. Don’t let it happen by thinking ahead.

QUESTIONS

Most importantly, prepare the questions you want to ask. Do it in advance without hoping that good question will just magically pop into your head.

Asking very direct questions during the family interview is the most common mistake. A person that hears questions of that type is often lost. The memories we are looking for during these interviews are “stuck” in people’s heads, and it makes them nervous when they can’t remember the date or a place from life, thus increasing their confusion.

These are examples of question that might be hard to answer to:

  • When did your grandparents marry? 
  • What village did my great-grandfather work in 1915?

We want to get the most valuable dates and pieces of information right away – that’s only natural. And these questions can help to find out important data, but most often the person you are interviewing will not be able to accurately and confidently remember. 

Another approach is what is called an OPEN question. You can’t answer it with two-three words. These questions involve the person in a conversation and help memories to flow naturally, without putting pressure on the interviewee. People like talking about what’s interesting for them, what struggles did they have, and something they went through. When talking about these matters, people often remember exactly what you are looking for! 

Here are some examples of related or open questions:

  • What do you remember the most about your father?
  • What games did you play as a child?
  • How did you spend weekends and holidays in your family?
  • How did you meet your wife?
  • What was the most terrible/funny/interesting/dangerous… from your childhood?
  • Do you remember stories that your grandmother told you?
  • What did your mother do in her free time? What about dad?
  • How many brothers and sisters did you have? Tell me about them.
  • What did you like to do together?

The list can go on and on, but we think you got the point. 

From time to time, you can add one or two direct questions to each of the open questions. Make sure they do not interrupt the memories or tire the speaker. For instance:

  • You said you broke your arm for the first time. What class did you go to then? 
  • Were your brothers older or younger than you? What about the sisters?
  • When you gathered as a family to celebrate birthdays, whose birthdays were those?
  • The story of how you met your spouse was very romantic! How old were you then? What about her?

Be creative in your family history interview! 🙂

STEP 3: Check out easily accessible sources

Getting some information is not as difficult. Plus, if we’ll look around, we will find ourselves in the digital world. That means that online databases and other websites will be easily accessible sources for us. We will mention some of these sources that can help us discover essential information about our Ukrainian genealogy. 

OFFICIAL SOURCES

First, if you have missing documents about your immediate family that moved, for example, to US from Ukraine – check the local US registration authorities. You can request birth, marriage, and death records that will have crucial information about your ancestors! Also, you can go there to find information on family relocation, papers related to the acquisition, sale, and inheritance of property, etc.

All of these papers can add missing details to you. Pay attention to what may be connected with the Ukrainian past of your ancestors. On some documents, you will find the place of birth. On others – you can find an alternative date or spelling of the name. 

WHAT IS ONLINE?

You probably won’t find a ton of useful resources in Ukrainian or Russian. And, the language might be an additional obstacle for your Ukrainian genealogy research. That is why we would name English online resources available to you by the mouse click.

All immigrants arriving in the United States had to pass through official points of entry, where they registered themselves, their families, and reported their plans. The process was similar in Canada.

Ellis Island logo

Ellis Island – a famous island at the entrance to New York Bay, where you can see the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island is a symbol of the American immigrant experience. You can find many documents online on the Liberty Statue Foundation website for free, although some documents are available only after paid registration.

Ancestry Logo

Ancestry.com is yet another great resource. The website has a free account available, but it doesn’t gave all the features. The documents in their databases might shed a light on your research. Through a full-text search, you can try to find your ancestry documents like immigration, military, birth, and all other sorts of records.

Geni logo

Geni.com (now a part of MyHeritage.com) is another site with paid registration. It is interesting, however, that the search by name is available for free, and if you can find one of the ancestors that have already been added to someone’s family tree, you can gradually search for his loved ones, moving from one personal card to another.

FamilySearch logo

The largest and probably the most famous online resource with free registration is FamilySearch.org. Here you can search in three main places: 

Records (indexed names or collections) Catalog (search by locality name or other information)
Search Find (search among trees of other FS users)

STEP 4: Organize Your Records

Organizing Ukrainian Genealogy Reserach in a beginner's guide

After these steps, the important task is to know how to keep all the information without getting confused by it. To do this, you need to organize and systematize your data.

Collect photographs, letters, birth, death and marriage certificates, printouts with family groups, and put them in special folders – a separate one for each family line.

DIGITAL CENTURY

Living in the age of digital technology, we can’t limit ourselves only to physical storage units like folders. It is convenient and important to transfer a lot of information to a digital source and store it in several places.

Photographs, letters, and certificates are important to scan or at least photograph on a smartphone. Keeping the scans and digital images on your computer, phone, or tablet is a good idea, but they often fail. If that happens – you might lose your documents.

A better way of keeping the collected information is by using different sites. In that case, you will not only preserve the documents, but you can easily share them with other family members online.

Software

To keep all your digital information on your computer, you can use different genealogy programs and applications like:

  • Brother’s Keeper
  • Family Tree maker
  • RootsMagic
  • Legacy

Websites

Just like computer programs, genealogical websites have different features. You can use any of the following:

  • MyHeritage.com
  • Geni.com
  • Ancestry.com
  • FamilySearch.org

PROGRAM VS WEBSITE

You might wonder – when is it better to use the program, and when to go to the site? What are the differences in using offline applications on your computer and online trees?

Applications are best used for:

  • Collecting of genealogical and family history information
  • Subsequent corrections and editing of information
  • Layouts of various branches of the tree, when it is possible using documents to restore the refined picture of family ties
  • Analysis of the collected information (creating various types of reports, diagrams, printouts, tinting of individual lines, etc.)

Programs work quickly, and you do not need to wait for a webpage to load, as you would on a site. So if you don’t have a good internet speed – it might be a great solution for you. Computer programs have many features and capabilities that may not be available on a particular site.

In other words, in the starting research phase, we found that offline applications are worth trying.

It’s best to transfer your family tree online when you confirm and verify the information. You can do it when you gather enough evidence about a specific person in your tree. A document or multiple family interviews confirming the same thing is quality evidence. 

The advantage of online trees will be:

  • The accessibility of the information that you gathered for your relatives (to distant and close relatives, friends, other researchers who, for example, are involved in the history and genealogy of the same settlements and can further help you solve the difficulties and problems of your research).
  • Automatic creation of insurance copies of the information you added, family ties, photographs, documents, and memories (which means that the information you collect will not disappear).
  • Access it from mobile or any other computer in the world, without creating and storing backup files.

EVERYTHING THAT IS COLLECTED

As we already mentioned, in addition to brief information about names, dates, and places, many programs and websites provide the ability to add sources of information, photos, and other files.

For example, on FamilySearch you can save not only scanned photos (formats .jpg, .tif, .bmp, .png) and documents (format .pdf), but also short audio fragments of your interviews with your family, and other audio memories (formats. mp3, .m4a and .wav). You can also record stories about ancestors or living relatives by attaching them to the people in your family tree.

COLLECTIVE MIND

We’re giving out a professional tip here. If you add your tree to the website – other researchers will be able to use the information you have collected for their research. Doesn’t sound like a tip yet? 

If we turn things around – you can also check what other people have collected in their trees! If someone has already researched the village where your ancestors lived, their information can help you advance in your search! 

Do not neglect this collective mutual assistance. It often happens that the data you are looking for on your own and cannot find, someone has already found and published in the results of their research.

STEP 5: Define the goal

When you organized all your notes in one place and can easily find any information you need – it’s time to evaluate it and determine the best direction for further work. In the research, as in almost any activity, it is better to focus on one thing in order not to waste time and effort on ineffective jumping from line to line.

ONE LINE, ONE GOAL

Since we build on what is already known, choose the line that you have the most information about. It can be a family or even one person.

If you have a document that accurately indicates the information you need about the ancestor (name, place of birth or residence, date of events, religion), by finding his family, you can gradually expand the range of searches.

SUCCESS OR …SUCCESS?

Focusing on one goal will help you direct your strength in one direction. By directing your attention to it, you can effectively move forward, finding new information, or (which also happens) find that the original information was incomplete and inaccurate. Family history research is good because even failure can turn into a new step to success.

If you find that the information you know is inaccurate or incomplete and does not match the information in the documents you found, take note of that. Then return to another known fact and verify it. Thus, step by step, you can find a clue and move forward in the search.

By solving one small task after another, you will feel satisfied. On the other hand, the difficult and impossible task is likely to bring disappointment and undermine your faith in yourself. Therefore, remember that your goal should be simple. The simpler the better.

GEOGRAPHY

Old Ukrainian map for genealogy research

During the search, you will find tips for further discoveries. Perhaps the documents that you had indicated the birthplace of Galicia, Poland, or the Russian Empire. These are very large geographical regions, and they included the territory of modern Ukraine in one time or another. To find detailed information about the life of ancestors, you should narrow the search area as much as possible.

Digging further, you can stumble upon a document, diary entry, or address on an envelope that will give more accurate information: the city or village where the ancestor lived. Therefore, do not neglect the verification of all possible documents, even if they are called the same or describe the same event.

For example, you had an ancestor’s short birth record, and you found a birth certificate. Does it seem to make no sense to look at the same thing? However, be sure to compare every detail of these two papers. Amazing discoveries often come to attentive researchers!

Different types of documents may open up new information. Compare them, analyze, and this may tell you a more correct direction of searches.

SEQUENCE AND INTEGRITY

Having chosen the line, start the study from the relatives closest to you, without skipping generations. Find event after event without deviating from the person you have chosen.

If it seems to you that the information is exhaustive, go to the next member of the family, whose family relationship has already been confirmed. At the same time, do not forget to record all the data and organize it so that everything is clear even if you look at it after a year.

By setting a specific goal and choosing a line for research, you can start searching in the sources outside of your home and family.

CONCLUSION

By following the steps in our Beginner’s Guide for Ukrainian genealogy research, you can be certain that you wouldn’t leave any important information behind. Overall, your research will go smoother, and you will feel more pleasure and confidence as you go forward to the harder steps of your research.

We hope that you will see the joy that is coming from learning about your family history. When you learn about your Ukrainian roots, you are getting to know your ancestors. But, most importantly, you are getting to know yourself.