Sunday, March 17, 2024

Soviet Records Via JDoc (Some Declassified!)

When I shared a recent post on Facebook, I was asked why there aren't more Soviet-era records available online on JewishGen and similar sites.  I believe much of the reason is that pre-Russian Revolution, records were kept by religion, so JewishGen has been able to concentrate on acquiring and indexing records that will be all (or predominantly) Jewish.  However, post-Revolution, all religions were kept together, so it's a much larger task to extract Jewish records, and it means searching entire towns, not just the Jews of an entire town.  But there are resources for Soviet-era records online (including many found via Архів and directly on local archive branch sites).  And there are also records on sites that are more specialized or obscure.  I recently found one such site with information on some of my relatives, so I'll share what I found and how you can see if there are records about your relatives or ancestral towns available there as well.

A page from an investigation into Alexander Lefand, suspected of Zionist activities; 1925-1926

I actually originally found this particular document via a Google search, but it led me down a rabbit hole of exploring this new-to-me site and all it has to offer.  This document contains over 140 pages investigating several Jews from the Nezhin area, including two of my relatives--Alexander and Avrum Lefand (both third cousins three times removed to me, and first cousins to one another).  There are only two pages relating to Avrum, but over 20 pages refer to Alexander, his background, his family and more.  While this file did not include photos of Alexander or Avrum, many of the documents on this site do contain photos of individuals.  And there's a nice stamp on the front telling me that this case wasn't declassified until 1998.

So how can you search for similar documents for your own family?  I discovered this case via JDoc, an Israel-based site which says that their mission is "focused on state policies of the USSR that affected Jews."  I saw cases that investigated individuals, synagogues operating in various Soviet towns, individuals who were corresponding with relatives overseas and were therefore suspect and more.  And there's a nicely-done search function.

So how do you best utilize this resource?

  1. Go go and use the search box on top.  You will need to search using the Russian alphabet.
    1. If you do not know Russian, you can use Google Translate to help you transliterate a name.  Go to and type your surname in English on the left.  Make sure the transliteration right below the Russian on the right is a transliteration (and not a direct translation if your name has an actual meaning).
  2. Search for surnames.  Make full use of wildcards--for example, instead of just searching for my Lefand family using Лефанд, I'd search with Лефан* (to account for Lefant and various Russian suffixes) and Л*фанд (to allow for Lafand and other variations), and combinations of those.  You can also use a question mark to substitute any one letter.
  3. Once you have a results page, if you do have results, you can get the whole page auto-translated through Google Translate.  Copy the resulting URL with the results into Google Translate (making sure it's a Russian->English setting) and then click on the link--you'll get a translation of the page to help you know which results may be applicable, if you don't read Russian.
  4. Once you click on a search result, to see the entire document (which will be a multi-page PDF), scroll down to the "Files" section and click on the thumbnails there.  And then you'll find original scans of the record set.

Besides just searching for surnames, also search for town names, potentially also using wildcards.  I found mentions of several of my ancestral towns that will be worth my going through to see what was happening in those towns during the Soviet period--possibly with mention of names that weren't indexed and may be directly applicable to my research.

Happy hunting!

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  1. Here's a Soviet-era case I came across recently: that of an investigation of my likely relative Samuil Abramovich Motolyansky, who was apparently caught by intelligence officials while using a false identity in the Soviet Air Force (maybe around 1955-1965?):

    According to this excerpt:

    This investigation lasted a long time - under the personal control of Anatoly Mikhailovich. Upon completion, all materials - 32 volumes - were transferred to the Main Military Prosecutor's Office.

    32 volumes! Is there any hope of finding these documents? Where would be a good place to even start looking?

    1. I'd suggest posting in a Russian genealogy group on facebook to ask that question. Lots of experts there in niche areas who may be able to help.

  2. Lara, this is very interesting. Oral history from my family says that my grandmother's sister's husband was arrested, exiled to Uzbekistan, and later executed by the soviets for supposedly being a kulak. I know there must be documents about this somewhere, but a search of this site for his surname and for Pochep, where they lived, gave me nothing about him. Perhaps the information is still censored.

    1. This site only has a small subset of records, including declassified ones. So it's possible they're in a local archive available to be reviewed.