Sunday, December 2, 2018

An Incredible Resource for Russian Empire Records/Discussion: j-roots

If you have ancestors who lived in what was the Russian Empire, you must know about j-roots.  Check out the below guest post that talks about this resource and how English speakers can best interact with it.

The following is a guest post from Dmitry Pruss.  Dmitry Pruss lives in Salt Lake City. A native of Moscow, Russia, he holds a Ph.D. degree in Molecular Biology and works in the field of human genetics. Since 2006, his projects included solving heritable disease riddles by combining DNA testing with the classic kind of a gumshoe genealogy. Dmitry is a volunteer moderator of the Onomastics section of the Jewish Roots portal, and a contributing editor of Avotaynu magazine.

Did your great grand uncle attend college in Odessa or St Petersburg? Did you great grand aunt take apprenticeship exams for a pharmacist or a midwife ? Was their cousin sent to Siberia for anti-government agitation - or perhaps a petty crime? Or maybe an ancestor's signature graced a shul petition, or a plea to the authorities asking for a fire or famine relief?
The old country Jews interacted with the Czar's oppressive government in a myriad ways, always having to prove who they were, where they hailed from, who were their kin. Along the way, they left priceless breadcrumbs of genealogy information. It is still there in Eastern Europe's archives. The vital records may have been lost as the local archives went up in flames during WWII (note from Lara: Many do still exist though, as you can see in many of my blog posts), but the authorities hoarded up so much paperwork in their quest to suffocate the Jews, that the tales of your family are still preserved in as unlikely places as Moscow where millions of police file cards catalog all the brushes of the Jews with the system, or the Kremlin of the ancient capital of Siberia, overflowing with correspondence about prisoners and exiles.

Over a nearly decade of its existence, Jewish Roots portal ( has become the leading force in Russian Jewish genealogy research. It is busy uncovering and digitizing new genealogy sources in the archives of the former Russian Empire, and building a valuable help base of advice on genealogy searches, both for the online investigators and for those doing their research on the ground, in the archives, libraries, and cemeteries.
Just one example from j-roots
The users of j-roots are scattered across many countries and speak many languages, but the vast majority of them have native knowledge of Russian, the principal language of the original genealogy-related records in the Old Country. So to avoid a Babylonian-style incomprehension between speakers of so many languages, since its inception, the portal has made it an official policy to use Russian throughout, and to leave a small dedicated multilingual forum area for those who don't know Russian. ( )

But it goes without saying that most of us in the West have roots in the old Russian Empire, yet can't read or write (and machine translations between English and Russian are still quite lame). For those who would like to use the resources of j-roots, but are hampered by the language barrier, this post should be the place to get step-by-step instructions.

Registration for j-roots
1. To register, go to & click the "Registration" (Регистрация) link. You can also follow a direct link to registration here: So far everything is still in Russian, but another click will change it all :)
Language Pulldown Menu
 2. Go to Language (Язык) pulldown menu. It has just two option, and luckily, one of them is English. Now you can glide seamlessly though the rest of the registration process, and in the end, many of the menus will actually be in English, whew!
Menus in English
Once registered, you can explore the portal's two most useful areas: its forum ( ) and its database( ) (the site also has a library of scanned books and a variety of excellent educational and research articles in Russian, some of which may be of use to non-native speakers as well, like this guide to finding and exploring Metric Books of vital records  ( )
IMPORTANT: Increased spammer activity forced j-roots board to introduce pre-moderation of new users. Do not fret, it's quite easy to prove that you aren't a robot, and to get all the member privileges. We suggest that after registration, you write a small post about your roots, your tree, and/or your search in the English-language thread. Any post which looks clearly on-topic is guaranteed to pass the new-user moderation with flying colors

FORUM: The portal's discussion forum has nearly 20,000 registered users, and it is the most active section of the site. This is also where you find the dedicated multilingual section, entitled "My Russian Jewish Ancestry" The most active forum sections discuss researching historic Jewish communities, studies on specific surnames and families (with over 1,200 discussion threads, and a surname index provided here:, Jewish onomastics discussion (kindly assisted by Dr. Beider!), detailed expert advice on specific archives and online databases, Jewish education and school files, Jewish military draft and military files, occupational, professional, and trade guilds records, Holocaust materials and files, files and documents of political persecution of the Jews both in Czarist times and in Soviet times, Jewish emigration records, etc. 

"READING" IN RUSSIAN: As error-prone as the online translating services such as may be, they offer you the best chance to understand typed text. For grasping the meaning of the text in images, you may need to learn the alphabet basics - or to "crowdsource" it to the volunteers in the social media, they way I often do if I need a translation of handwritten Yiddish
Odessa University Student Files from j-roots

"MY RUSSIAN JEWISH ANCESTRY" area:  This is the proper area to post a new question if you don't know Russian. You may add a Russian-language machine translation to your message in English, but please do not post just a machine translation without the original English text! The automated translation services are still too lame to rely solely on them; it's better to rely on a bilingual forum volunteer to help fix the errors of machine translation! (and to bring your message to the attention of the forum-goers in the "right" subforum area).

TYPING AND SEARCHING IN RUSSIAN: You probably need some sort of a virtual keyboard or an English-to-Russian transliteration service to "type" names in Russian. My favorite is the following free online service: Forum search widget is located in the upper right corner of the j-roots forum page; this is a regular wildcard search. J-roots database search can look for similar-sounding surnames and localities and will be discussed in the following section.

USING THE ARCHIVE LINKS DATABASE: Even though the broad masses of the Jews never left the Pale of Settlement in the Western-most reaches of Russian Empire, an astounding amount of their files ended up in the central archives of Russia, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. School graduates and applicants, leftist and Zionist activists, educators and physicians required to receive certificates of political loyalty, Jews seeking to move to the countryside or condemned to Siberia - all these broad categories of population from the Western provinces ended up having their documents filed away in the seats of the Empire. All these records have largely escaped attention of the Western researchers, and j-roots is by far the best place to investigate them. The portal also maintains a rich library of historical and reference books in Russian.
Kiev Residency Permits, from j-roots
The main database of j-roots is a search engine for archive files in a variety of archives of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania etc. As the genealogists know all too well, large parts of Census records and vital records of the Jewish communities of old Russian empire have been lost, but their absence can often be replaced by congregation rosters and school files, military and police records, trade guild documents and real estate paperwork, etc. In addition, some Census lists ended up mis-titled or mis-filed, and can't be identified without an in-depth sleuthing in the archives. Much of the effort of J-roots is directed towards this mega-project of uncovering hitherto unknown sources of genealogy information. For example, we've just added references to another 750 files from Lithuanian State History Archive in Vilnius, relevant for Jewish genealogy, including congregation election materials, synagogue and school construction petitions, correspondence on residential registration of Jewish families, personal files of Jewish Siberian exiles, etc. , and are half-way through with over 3,000 personal files of students of Kiev University from Kiev Municipal Archive. A very large data set from National Historical Archive of Belarus is being processed. An additional database catalogs Jewish gravestones.

J-roots is a cooperative project and online meeting-place run by an informal crew of self-described "nerds and bookworms" - historians end educators, volunteers who combine pursuing their personal projects with assisting others, and, most importantly, "white-hat" private researchers, who are eager to provide tons of invaluable genealogy information pro bono, while at the same time carving out important niches for their professional work. Our goal is to combine our joint experience and knowledge, to create an exhaustive catalog of genealogical sources, and to enable sharing of materials from archives, publications, studies, and personal collections. Our intended beneficiaries are Jewish genealogists who are fluent in Russian, from all across the globe (including Israel, Ukraine, the United States, and dozens other countries). But the site is also experimenting with a Google Translate engine for the benefit of speakers of other languages.

And lastly, we operate on a shoestring budget of online ad revenue and donations, rarely exceeding hundred dollars a month. Much of the former USSR remains a severely economically depressed area, and even a smallest donation makes a big difference.

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  1. Thank you, Dmitry Pruss, for this great tutorial on how to use J-roots for Russian Empire records! And thanks, Lara, for making it available to us on your blog!

  2. Yes thanks so much for this. I’m searching for family in Lithuania and will try here!

  3. BIG Thanks! Registering, thanks to this tutorial and Google Translate is easy. This non-Russian-speaker just registered!

  4. This is very exciting. However, I still don't know how to actually search the j-roots database. Please clarify. Thanks.

    1. You should be able to get there from

    2. Hi Lara, I enjoy your research journey and your blog. Question on j-roots. Once I use the search feature and locate the promising documents, where can I go to find the particular fond/opus/case? Thanks.

    3. You can try contacting the archive directly to see if they can send it to you. If no response, you can hire someone locally (or visit yourself).

  5. This is terrific information. However, I'm unsure how exactly to "write a small post about your roots, your tree, and/or your search in the English-language thread". There is only one button available in the "Questions and Answers in English..." and it says, "Post Reply". I'm not "replying" to anything. All I want to do is post something.

    1. You're replying to the entire thread. So just reply and post away!