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This article is reproduced on the Belarus SIG website from "RAGAS Report", Volume V, Number 2, Summer 1999, with the written permission of Valadislav Y. Soshnikov, RAGAS Director, Genealogy & Family History Society, Moscow, Russia and Patricia Eames, RAGAS Report Editor. Reproduction of this copyright article is prohibited without the express permission of Vladislav Soshnikov and Patricia Eames. The Belarus SIG greatly appreciates RAGAS sharing this information.
In the spring of 1999, Vlad visited archives in Minsk, Belarus and Odessa, Ukraine as well as Kishinev, Moldova.
Traveling from Moscow. Russia to Minsk, Belarus can be a relaxing experience. After enduring the crowds of ten million inhabitants of Moscow, one soon appreciates the hospitality and easy-going attitude of the Belarussian people. All trains from Moscow to Minsk belong to the Belarursian railways, and car attendants provide thoughtful service, lulling you with their soft accents, especially in the first- and second-class carriages. Second-class compartments designed for four passengers are usually only half-filled, even though the tickets are comparatively inexpensive; a majority of local travelers still prefer economy-class cars because of the very cheap fare. 7he difference in cost may not seem much to "rich" foreign travelers - $20 in contrast to the economy fare of $8 - but after a comfortable night in a luxury sleeper, one arrives in Minsk ready to take on the day.
There are a few changes since I last reported about services in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
The main railway station is located on a wide plaza busy with traffic, including old-fashioned trams, trolley buses, and in-town modem buses. Dozens of noisy people accost each traveler near the exit from the railway tracks, offering various services, official and unofficial taxis, money exchange, and snack food. For just one US dollar, you may hire an officially certified yellow cab (a large Russian-made Volga four-door sedan) and ride anywhere within the city of Minsk at no extra charge. Private taxi drivers may agree to a lower fare, but one runs the risk of getting a poor driver or of being cheated en route
First, travelers must exchange money info the Belarussian rouble. Newcomers at the Minsk central station are confronted by questionable persons, usually wearing dark leatherjackets, who crowd around everyone on their way to the Money Exchange window at the corner of the building. These illegal money-changers offer a much higher exchange rate than the exchange office: 340,000 roubles per US dollar instead of the official rate of 270,000 roubles per dollar. These gangs, both men and a few women, are pursued by local police patrols, and all transactions between them and their clients are fast with a minimum of talk.
You may only get a momentary glimpse of bank notes.
As the Belarussian rouble falls, people look for dollars as an investment for inflated money. Illegal money-changers show up at every exchange office in the city, and if you are lucky enough to avoid police raids or do not get involved with dishonest mobs (thieves), you may have a big advantage in the difference in rates. In any event, you will become a millionaire after every exchange operation. Official banks usually hand out 20,000-rouble bank notes; each exchange of$50 or $100 thus gives you a stack of currency in packs for which you need a bag or briefcase.
The Belarussian government has established many different rates of currency exchanges for different categories of financial institutions. For instance, official government agencies (including archives) must prepare their bills for services for foreigners to pay in US dollars which are converted into Belarussian currency at a special "government rate", lower than that allowed in the commercial exchange office. Therefore, it is to your advantage to pay bills due government agencies (including archives) with Belarussian currency which you first received in an exchange of dollars at the commercial rate at a government bank like the Savings Bank of Belarus. The difference can be as much as 20% in your favor.
As for the current conditions for travelers to the capital of Belarus, I would like to point out some guidelines. During the last year, several McDonald's restaurants have been built in Minsk (including the biggest one at the Central Railway Station Plaza), and travelers can get a guaranteed Western-quality meal and drinks in the capital of the republic, just like they are accustomed to eating at home. It is hard to find a satisfactory eatery in the city; usually they serve cheap fat dishes based on potato pastry and uncertain meat here and there. There are just a very few restaurants serving good meals in a pleasant environment (the best one is the Smirnoff Restaurant at the Belarus Hotel), but they are expensive.
Service at hotels in Minsk seems to be getting worse. I have noticed a return to the Soviet approach: all places are reported to be occupied by delegates of numerous conferences organized by the Belarussian government (again. the Soviet tradition of listening to speeches instead of doing fruitful work and real economic development).
Tourists from out of town confront "no vacancy" signs everywhere, including the expensive hotels ($90-190 per room) built especially for foreign tourists. So, it is wise to book a room well ahead through a tour agency. As in Soviet times, Belintourist has a monopoly of all the best hotels in this country.
Generally, the streets of Minsk and other Belarussian towns seem to be safe for out-of-town travelers. From April to October, streets are clean and lined with green trees, and include numerous parks and squares. It is a quiet country with friendly people. Prices in local stores may be considered absurdly low by foreigners: a carton of milk (liter) for 9 cents; a pound of good bread for 20 cents; a bottle of beer for 25 cents. Some of Belarus-made industrial goods are also targets for tourists hunting for bargains: precision optics like binoculars or an optical viewer with a x20 magnification for $20; a new SLR candid camera for $30, or a professional camera lens for $20-90. However, all that is possible just because expensive goods are not affordable for Belarussians oppressed by their Soviet legacy of low salaries, poverty, the weakness of the freemarket economy, and the power of an all-mighty but ineffective bureaucracy.
WHAT ARE YOUR CHANCES FOR A SUCCESSFUL RESPONSE TO YOUR REQUEST?
The Archivist of Russia, head of ROSARKHIV [The Russian State Archival Service] in Moscow, has said that genealogical requests are not the duty of ROSARKHIV at all. Yet the agency still receives many foreign genealogical requests for which there is a lack of qualified people to handle them. Vlad was invited to the office of the International Department of ROSARKHIV to discuss the problem of what to do with these letters from foreigners. In spite of the fact that RAGAS had its beginnings in 1989 under a protocol for archival exchange between the archives of the United States and the Soviet Union to ameliorate this very same problem (what to do with foreign genealogical correspondence), ROSARKHIV, the successor of the Main Archival Administration of Soviet Russia, today does not seem to be aware of this past experience. At one time the Society of Archivists under the aegis of ROSARKHIV tried to establish another agency for handling genealogical requests, but that has been buried in current problems.
Vlad was encouraged in the discussion by the news that the leaders of ROSARKHIV will once again seriously consider the question of how to organize a system for providing genealogical services in the Russian State Archives, primarily the central historical archives in Moscow. There is a need for the archivists to have basic definitions arid rules concerning genealogical research. Until now the Russian archivists have not been told that genealogy and genealogists should be taken seriously.
Possibilities for research in the Volga region are paralyzed by the lack of funds, curtailing effective work by the archivists who support genealogy, and seriously threatening their survival.
In Ukraine, the director of the Odessa archive, while friendly and cooperative with Vlad, reports that he faces opposition from archivists who feel they are being robbed of their archives and their heritage. These archivists are not pleased that Americans are copying the most informative files and think the archives should have a monopoly on the use of this information. The Main Archival Administration of Ukraine i17 Kiev has once again issued circular letters prohibiting the reproduction of entire files - even only 20% of a file - a revival of old Soviet rules.
For some reason the archive in Kishinev, Moldova is an exception for now. They seem to have the personnel and equipment for providing reasonable service. Vlad finds them to be very cooperative.
The most recent news from Belarus concerning genealogical requests is devastating. Again, in a move for survival, the republican government is forcing its agencies and departments to obtain additional income by setting higher prices for foreigners. In December 1998, the Main Archival Administration of Belarus (BELARKHIV) issued a new price list and regulations for foreigners seeking genealogical services.
Currently, to initiate a search by mail with the Belarussian State Historical Archives in Minsk and Grodno, one must pay a fee of US $80. In a postal reply to the requester, the archive will write instructions in English for sending the money to the Belarussian bank. The archive will only accept an order for genealogical research after the actual deposit of the money is recorded in the Belarussian bank account which belongs to the state government. Sometimes a month will elapse before the transfer of funds to the bank in Belarus takes place. Each working day of the archivists in charge of genealogical searches costs $24, and it usually takes about two weeks to perform a thorough search. Average final costs may be from $200 to $400. (Remember that you are paying for the time it takes to do the search, whether results are negative or positive.) In the results of the search, the archive usually issues a list of entries for a particular surname, by listing all people with a similar surname, in the locality or neighborhood requested. This will not reflect the fact that families moved often to other localities. This listing is simply a computer printout in Russian of excerpts from archival records. Photocopies of original records may be ordered later at a cost of $1 to $4 per page, depending on the age of the document.
It is not possible to transfer money to the Belarussian archives; foreign checks are not accepted, while bank transfers are troublesome and take a long time. Therefore, genealogical research through official channels in the State Historical Archives of Belarus can become quite costly. For example, a family historian from New York who ordered a series of searches through RAGAS in Ukraine and Belarus received a bill from the Minsk archive stating that the cost of research done at his request was $800. This archival research, taken from the partially preserved archival records for the late 1800s, amounted to just a seven-page list of different families and non-related persons with the same surname from the same town. When the New York requester refused to pay, the Minsk archivists forced RAGAS to pay the amount, because the request was handled in the Minsk archive under a previously-concluded contract with RAGAS Moscow.
The Minsk archive is now withholding copies of records prepared for other RAGAS requesters until the new prices are met. There is no guarantee that the records are relevant to the original request. In other words, no true genealogical analysis is provided by the Minsk archivists for the money charged.
Mrs. Golubovitch, the director of the Minsk archive, has greatly increased the charges she established in a contract with RAGAS several years ago. She requires payment at the new rate before sending the requested information, sight unseen. And until she is paid for the material in a few prior requests, now ranging from an additional $100 to $360 per requester she refuses to accept new requests. Vlad's clients refuse to pay the increase. In the past Vlad has paid for worthless material, but can no longer absorb that cost.
While in Minsk in March, 1999, Vlad talked to Mrs. Golubovitch and the head of the Executive Office, Ms. Adamovitch, about this problem. He told them that he cannot pay these high prices and must see the papers ahead of time to determine their relevance to the request. They replied that the price increase has been established for foreign requesters in order to provide funds for the Belarussian government which maintains the archives. And, "no pay, no see..."
Vlad told them that the prices are very high even for "rich Americans". They insist that it is a matter of the high prices or nothing at all. (This is probably reinforced by the recent visit of an American who met with Mrs. Golubovitch and took her to dinner.) Her comments are unreasonable when you consider that this is a country where government employees earn salaries of $30 - $50 a month and no more. The foreign money becomes part of the general government funds and is not forwarded to the archives, harking back to Soviet days.
Mrs. Golubovitch says that many requests have arrived at the Minsk archive by mail from abroad and there is a long line waiting for replies. Because they wish to establish a monopoly, professional researchers are not welcome. They cancel permission for any researcher doing extensive research in the reading room if they decide the researcher is earning money as a result of their work. Vlad faced this problem in the Grodno archive when the director refused to allow him to see files for "extensive" research because she thought he was getting rich on behalf of foreign clients.
Considering the variety of sources for information, census, tax, military, passports, education, work place, birth, marriage, death, police fifes and many others, the requester needs the services of a professional who can analyze the situation and form a strategy for research, as is done in the United States. Archivists do not perform genealogical analysis anywhere, they provide access to the raw material - the records for each individual event. The archivists in the C.I.S countries have a long way to go in order to understand and benefit from the process.
After a series of problems with the formerly friendly and cooperative archivists in Minsk, Vlad recognizes that tbe best way to obtain genealogical information is through personal onsite research in the archive. Genealogists who visit the archive are required to pay a flat fee ($5) and fill out an application. The archive will give access only to the archival files which pertain to the families named in the application. Of course, personal research requires time and travel expense, but it gives the genealogist the liberty of inspecting all sources personally.
So, what are your choices?
Your chances for success are tied to the financial situation in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. Because of economic stagnation and huge budget deficits in the government, employees are underpaid or not paid at all, and archival facilities are on a very tight budget.
When RAGAS was established in 1992, the primary task was to determine what kinds of records suitable for genealogy have been created over the centuries, where they are presently located, and which of the holdings have survived years of destruction by wars, social upheavals and natural disasters. A second task was to identify and train archival staff to provide adequate service in these records. There is absolutely no parallel to genealogical services available in present day United States archives and historical agencies. American researchers must try to understand the problems inherent in the process and respect the efforts of the few archivists and scholars in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, who sincerely wish to provide answers to their requests.
No one is making money in this process. Survival is the main goal.
In five years, Vlad Soshnikov, director of RAGAS, has collected a unique and impressive database of lists and inventories of records, some quite detailed, from the regional archives in Russia Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. Most of this information has been reported in past issues of RAGAS REPORT. As an historian and former archivist at the Archives of Ancient Acts in
Moscow, he has a good working knowledge of the guides and inventories of the central historical archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He has professional knowledge of what records still exist, where they are located, and how to access them.
Through five years of experience he has been able to satisfy many requesters; there are still many for whom he continues to probe and plumb the archives. The work of any genealogical researcher is totally dependent upon the actions of the archivists; requesters who become impatient even irate - at the slow rate of progress should keep this in mind as frustration mounts and their researcher is faced with insurmountable delays.
Vlad's pioneering efforts have laid the groundwork for commercial services that limit their area of work to a specific region, to operate with some success. And as you have learned from the latest news about research procedures in Belarus in this issue, you must either be prepared to pay exorbitantly high prices for copies of dubious records which you request through written correspondence, find a local researcher who can work in the research room on your behalf, or go there yourself and hope that you have discovered which archive has your information and that you have the language skills to conduct your own search.
RAGAS is the only service which can cover the needs of all ethnic groups in all areas. Vlad recognizes that the best way for the most accurate results is to work in the reference room in person and in the future he will have to depend upon combining as many requests as possible to meet the expense of traveling to any single archive. This adds time to the waiting period for results. In some cases, requesters have contracted with him to travel on their behalf or to travel with them to a regional archive in which he has identified pertinent records. This is the best of all circumstances, and results not only in copies of archival records, but provides the opportunity for one to visit and see the ancestral home with an experienced interpreter/historian.
These are your choices. If you know where the records you are seeking are kept, you can: 1) send your request by post to the appropriate archive; 2) hire a trustworthy local researcher; 3) work through RAGAS, which has pioneered the process, has the professional expertise in genealogy, archives, and history, and has created an extensive database of information.; and 4) go there and do the research yourself.
ON-SITE RESEARCH CONDITIONS AT THE NATIONAL HISTORICAL ARCHIVES IN MINSK, BELARUS
Conditions at the Minsk archive are still quite good for researchers who visit the reading room in person and pay the $5 charge to use the records.
Archivists are friendly (particularly if you are a rich American) and it is almost always possible to order and expect to receive on the following day all records of genealogical value except the files which are temporarily being repaired. The archivists usually allow access to from 5 - 10 files depending upon the weight and number of pages.
Some files have up to two thousand sheets.
The Minsk archive is compiling a computer database of surnames extracted from the revision census lists of tax payers for the years 1 795- 1 858.
Just a fraction of the records has been computerized and entries are sporadic. The database can only be used by archival employees who work on genealogical accounts under the supervision of the head of the Information Desk (the so-called User's Department of the archive). There is no plan to ever make the database available to the public. The only reference aids available to researchers are still in the form of the old archival inventories and card catalogs which are not genealogically oriented. The extensive microfilming of genealogical sources done by the Genealogical Society of Utah has had no influence on the improvement of services seen in the archive, There is no reference to what the society microfilmed or where the complimentary microfilm copy is kept in Belarus according to the original contract with the Utah society. Belarussian archivists maintain the old bureaucratic style of keeping the public from knowledge of "internal affairs" in the archives.
I discovered interesting information during my recent research in the Minsk archive. For example, in the revision census books of the Bobruisk district which were compiled in the 1850s, there are entries entitled "Lists of Townsmen".
Among the people of Christian faith (Russians, Belorussians, Poles) there are many entries for Jewish town-dwellers. In file #632 for the year 1 85 1, there are entries for 205 families of Jewish town-dwellers in the city of Bobruisk. In file #616a for the years 1850- 1855, there are entries for Jewish town-dwellers in the city of Minsk, the Minsk District, and the Districts of Igumen, Borisov, Bobruisk, Slutsk, Novogrudok, Rechitsa, and Pinsk.
The following are the Jewish family lineages I researched when I was in Minsk:
1 Gomel district: Khodos-Hodoshov, ZIotnickZlotnikov, Rodin, Sandler, Shkolnikov, Zalipsky, Gorelick, Gorelikov, Beil-Beilin, Pesin, Payin, Agranov-Agronin, Semenovsky, Gerchikov, Gerchikovsky, Goldin, Yakobson, Plotkin, Rudnitsky, Rudinsky, Ratner, Kapustin, Charny, Sverdlov, Shapira, Pritykin, Paley, Blyakher, Bri, Fain, Fainstein, Neimark, Bounin, Maizel, Maiselis, Kabanov;
2. Minsk district: Maizel, Naiditch, Lapidus;
3. Bobruisk district: Garelick, Rodin, Tolkachev, Neimark, Khodos;
4. Rogachev district: Siminovsky, Simanovsky, Gerchikov, Gertzikov, Agranov, GoreIick.
There are more complete transcripts of some of the above records, often with full names and dates, in my notebooks. If anyone wishes to get a complete record, please contact Vlad's personal email <firstname.lastname@example.org> or send by regular post to:
P.O. Box 236
Glen Echo, MD 20812