Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Russian Documents for non-Russian Readers

I've often been asked how I manage to go through Russian documents--and actually find records on my family--when I do not read Russian.  I vividly remember the first time I excitedly started perusing a roll of microfilm that I'd been waiting for--and then felt a sinking feeling as I realized everything was in Russian.  I've come up with a solution that allows me to find what I need in Russian census and vital record documents--I use basic matching skills.

I try to find an existing handwritten example (or better multiple examples) of a family name that I'm researching.  I extract just the family name from those records and then put them into a Word document.  I then email that document to my (free) Kindle address so that I have all of the examples on my iPad; you can also just print out the page for a more low-tech solution.  If you don't have examples, you can use Google Translate to guess how the name would be spelled.  Make sure you are translating from Russian to English.  In the bottom of the area where you can type Russian, there is a button that looks like "Py."  Click the arrow just to the right of that, and choose "privet -> привет."  Then type your family name (followed by a space), and what you just typed should turn into the Russian version of the name.  (This may not be exactly how your family spelled the name, but it should give you an idea.)

My iPad with family names to try to match

As you go through records, there's generally a pattern.  You'll have the family name, individual's first name, and the individual's patronymic (father's name).  So Mosko Avramovitch Cohen's patronymic is Avramovitch--meaning his father was Avram.  This is very useful in genealogy!  In some instances the family name will be first; in other cases it will be last.  To identify the order, finding the patronymic is helpful.  The ending of the patronymic will generally look similar to "nobr" in English.  Actual examples look like like (2 different handwritings):


In addition, many of the older documents will write the family name in fancier or bolder writing; often the family name is underlined.  I am indebted to the people who did this, as it is much easier to quickly find the family name in an entry!

Once I've identified where a family name should be, I start looking.  I also keep in mind what the family name I'm looking for looks like in English to make it easier to find.  As an example, when I'm looking for Halperins, I look for something that looks like "Taubnepunz," as that's how Halperin looks to me in Russian.  If I find something similar to Taubnepunz, I then look closer at my examples to see if it could be a match.
Halperin in Russian--looks like Taubnepunz to me!
 I tend to err on the conservative side and if there is the possibility that a record is a match to my family, I make a copy or take a picture.  To verify that I have the right family, I post a copy of the family name on Genealogy Translations or Viewmate to double-check.  Only if it is the right family would I then post the entire record and get a translation.  Note that many of the older (Czar-era) documents are written in a handwriting that is difficult for modern Russian speakers to read, so there may be a lag until you can find someone who can fully translate the record.

I also look for others researching my mistakes; if I didn't find what I wanted, perhaps I can help someone else.  When I first started, I thought I had found a lot of Lefand records, although it did look a bit different.  It turned out I had copied lots and lots of Gelfand records.  I found someone searching for Gelfands from that town, and they can hopefully find information about their family members in those records.

Any other suggestions to help?  Please leave them in the comments.


  1. Cyrillic letters are not that hard to recognize with a little practice. If you have a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, on the entry for alphabets, you will find a chart that explains Cyrillic letters. Only about six are hard to remember and very different, and some are rarely used. If you are reading a lot of documents, you should pick it up in no time. Learning the cursive is another step, though.

  2. I can read Russian, and bad handwriting is bad handwriting in any language.

  3. High tech way to get a Cyrillic handwriting version of your name: Steve Morse's website. First at Transliterating names from English to Russian in One Step, type in your family name in English. Then copy and paste that into Steves tool, “Converting Between Russian Print and Cursive in One Step.” I described this technique in my workshop at IAJGS last Sunday -- did you attend?

    Jane Neff Rollins

  4. Hi Lara

    This is a great article from a person who does not know Russian. First of all, your surname would be read more as Galperin ( "g" as in goose) rather then Halperin. Also after the letter "l" there is a letter which does not exist in English and "l" become very soft as in "learn".

    Second thing, older (Czar-era) documents are not difficult to read. The handwriting is definitely different to how we were taught in Soviet Russia but many people would manage these translations. Bad writing is a bad writing - I agree.