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National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk
Research Report

by Neville Lamdan
May 2002

1. Background.

In August 2001, I spent one working week doing research in the National Historical Archives of Belarus (NHAB) in Minsk. It was an exhilarating, rewarding experience and I should like to commend such a trip to anyone who is seriously, but really seriously, into his family's "Roots".

Having no Russian language skills, I was aided by a first-rate local research assistant. We worked intensively for five days straight, examining over 90 files, mostly containing Russian census material (Revisions and Supplementary Revisions) from the 1790's to the 1870's. I came away with a huge haul of finds which it took months to sift through, assess and digest. Discoveries far surpassed expectations. 

What follows is a report on that trip, which hopefully will give an idea of the potential of the Archives and their limitations, as well as how to go about planning a research trip to Minsk and its costs.

For a detailed inventory of most of the files examined, click here

2. Research Results - Highlights.

** Identification of about 90 entries for heads of families, who were members of the "composite family" (half a dozen inter-related families) I am researching.

** Since most of those entries were for family groups, derivation and sourcing of over 350 individuals (given-names, patronymics, surnames, years of birth, etc.).  Many of the individuals were "repeats" noted in various censuses over an 80-year period, which was a research bonus in itself.

** Corroboration and expansion of the various trees in my composite family, which were already fairly well drawn.

** Documentation of most of those trees back to the middle of the 18th century.

** Re-creation "ex nihilo" of one particular tree, taking it back to 1750 at least and tracing its various splits from the town of Kopyl to Slutsk, Lyakhovichi and beyond, in the 1830's and 1840's.

**Establishment of a definitive connection with the ramified offspring of that particular family who emigrated to the States before and after WW I.

** Discovery of endless details which otherwise would have eluded me: the stuff that real genealogy is made of and that gives life to mere names (personal movements, occupations, electoral status, run-ins with the authorities, relatives' signatures in Yiddish on official documents, and so on).

3. Limitations.

A number of major issues, which I took with me, could not be resolved.

For example, where precisely did my father's family - with a Germanic surname - come from, before their appearance in Lyakhovichi, in the Minsk Gubernya, at the beginning of the 19th century?

Or what exactly was the link between two long-running, but parallel, lines of a certain family? (Apparently to succeed in this case, one would have to reach back to the first half of the18th century - and that, for the time being, is inaccessible.)

It emerged that there were various gaps in the census files and related material (i.e. the "runs" were not complete) and that by and large they ended in 1874.  Incidentally, several important volumes from 1874 were being rebound and were unlikely to be available for a couple of years. 

In other words, the records are only good as far as they go, with clear cut-offs and gaps as you move backward and forward.

4. Other Benefits.

There were other, huge dividends. During the weekends before and after my working week, I made three "field trips" with a local driver and my research assistant.  We visited many of the towns and villages where my composite family lived, all in a compact area straddling the Slutsk and Novogrudok Uyezds in the Minsk Gubernya.

There were many moving moments, like locating a synagogue in Lyakhovichi  where an ancestor had been the "Crown" Rabbi, visiting the former homes of relatives in Baranovichi, finding a family hotel in Nesvizh, seeing the railway station in Gorodeja where a great-uncle had literally dropped dead in 1905 on his way to Scotland. 

There were heartrending moments, like discovering the previously unknown names of 45 members of one family in Kletsk who died in the Shoah and seeing the pit where they were slaughtered. 

Perhaps most meaningful of all for me was walking my great-grandfather's land in the village of Ved'ma (over 12 acres of it),owned from the early 1860's till the 1930's (and, in the process, having to re-assure peasants that they not going to be ejected from "Meer's land"). 

Against the background of the archival material, these visits gave me real, and otherwise unattainable, insights into how my composite family must have lived in the 19th century. 

5. Preparations

I had actually visited the National Archives in Minsk once before, in 1998.  Then, I went in "cold", spent a day and a half in the reading room, discovered that files can't be ordered up on the spot - and came away frustrated. So I engaged a local researcher, naively put down a relatively large sum in advance - and got swindled. 

That did it. I spent the next three years researching my family in depth, plumbing every possible resource now available to Jewish genealogists.  I built up the trees. I scoured the published indexes and other guides to the files in the Belarus National Archives. I consulted folk who had done work there before.  I developed a clear idea of what I was looking for and a research plan. 

Then, before setting out again, I established my credentials with the Director of the Archives, Mrs. Alla Golubovich (by writing to her direct and by finding a friend in Minsk who could vouch for me). And I contacted my new research assistant  (whose recommendations I had checked out carefully) and asked her to order up the 90 files I wanted, so that they were all awaiting me on arrival and ready to go.

These preparations really paid off.

6. Costs, etc.

This sort of research exercise is not cheap. All in all, it cost upwards of $1,000 in-country, principally for ten nights in a Western-style hotel and fees for my research assistant and weekend driver. Add to that the cost of air fares.  Fortunately, I was able to borrow a car for the field trips, or that would have been an additional expense. 

People were friendly and helpful. Mrs. Golubovich and her staff in the Archives were professional and efficient. There was no registration fee to work there.  Xerox copies of documents come at about 50 cents a shot. Lap-tops could be used (220 voltage, I think). 

Food is cheap but problematic in Belarus (the legacy of radiation from Chernobyl), so I took my own basics and by and large picnicked in my hotel room. Almost no-one knows English or any other Western European language. At no time did I feel unsafe on the city streets or in the countryside. 

7. Conclusion.

For serious researchers, a visit to the Archives in Minsk is well-worthwhile, but only when you - and your trip - are well-prepared. 

2002 Belarus SIG