The only thing genealogist Mikhail Gershzon's client knew for certain was that he was descended from the withered offshoot of a noble bloodline.
After some painstaking research, Gershzon and his colleagues at the Institute for Public Relations discovered that the man was related to a number of famous people: chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table; the poet Alexander Blok, who married Mendeleev's daughter; Pavel Pestel, a leader of the Decembrist revolt in 1825; and the sister of Catherine, Peter the Great's second wife.
Most Russians who dig into their family history learn that their ancestors were peasants who lived in the same village for centuries. But genealogy is becoming trendy all the same.
"It has become fashionable to know who your ancestors were," said Sergei Kotelnikov, who runs the All-Russian Genealogical Tree web site."It raises your social status, and it doesn't matter if your ancestors were peasants or nobles; it's the number of known generations."
It is nearly impossible to trace family roots in Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of western Russia, such as the Smolensk region, because so many archives were destroyed in the Revolution, the Civil War and the two world wars.
Ancestors lost in World War II are particularly hard to track down, but amateur researchers tracing their own families have found an additional source of information. Visitors to the All-Russian Genealogical Tree's online forum have been photographing gravestones in their hometowns and posting the pictures online, Kotelnikov said. Recently, forum visitors posted the names of 121 soldiers who died in a Finnish town during the war and 552 POWs who died in the town of Belaya Tserkov.
Peasant bloodlines are the most common and also the easiest to trace, genealogists say. Most peasant families stayed in one place for centuries. Noble families are relatively easy to trace because they kept their own records. The army and the church maintained records for members of the military and the clergy. People who floated between social classes and moved around a lot, such teachers and stewards, are harder to trace.
Although the campaign in the 1920s against wealthy, landowning peasants, or kulaks, uprooted and destroyed many peasant families, records for these families can often be found in special archives that list the names of dispossessed peasants, the charges brought against them and their sentence, Kotelnikov said.
Records for Jews and Muslims were kept in synagogues and mosques, respectively. Catholics and other Western Christians kept records in Latin, and Russian Tatars, before the Revolution, kept records in the Tatar language, written in Arabic script that only trained specialists can read, Gershzon said.
Researchers dig through tax, census and church records to trace family lines. If the name and birthplace of an ancestor born before the Revolution are known, his or her bloodline can frequently be traced back to the 18th or even the 17th century.
Alexei Konoplyov, who runs the genealogical web site Litera-ru.ru, said his company could afford to take on only the "easiest and most convenient" orders that call for research in the most accessible archives.
Record-keeping became mandatory centuries ago after a man accused of petty theft insisted that he was a minor, and could not therefore be put on trial. No record establishing his true age could be found. Village priests were subsequently required to keep careful records of births, baptisms and deaths, Konoplyov said.
Not everyone who enlists the assistance of a genealogist is happy with the results, however. Some are disappointed to discover that they have no aristocratic ancestors. Others uncover more disturbing facts.
Konstantin Pogorely, who runs the web site Genealogia.ru, said he had been placed in the uncomfortable situation of debunking family myths about relatives who were thought to have been jailed for political crimes in the Stalin era.
"In many cases the ancestor turns out to be a common criminal," Pogorely said. "Imagine that a family believes their deceased grandfather was the victim of political repression. How do you tell them that he actually went to jail for raping a minor?"
Many records on people imprisoned or repressed in the Soviet era have been declassified in recent years, though they are released only to the prisoner's relatives.
Pogorely said he always tried to prepare clients for the unexpected. In one case, he decided not to tell an elderly woman that her father had earned his medals in World War I not on the battlefield, but as the commander of a firing squad. Pogorely shared his findings with the woman's daughter, who thanked him for his discretion.
Alla Andreyeva, one of Gershzon's clients, was happy just to feel the past come alive as her ancestry was revealed. She remembered seeing census records made after 1700 for the village where her ancestors had lived and noticing that they were kept by someone who used Cyrillic letters instead of Arabic numerals -- a system scrapped by Peter the Great.
"This scribe had learned to write from the old books, and did not switch to the new numbers," Andreyeva said. "It was a very human, interesting detail."
Gershzon's researchers traced Andreyeva's paternal line back to the late 16th century. Although no shocking discoveries were made, Andreyeva was proud to discover that her father's people had always been free, land-owning peasants, not serfs. Andreyeva waited for about one year and spent approximately $2,000 -- which included the expense of trips to regional archives -- to obtain a thorough record.
Depending on the complexity of the research, genealogists may charge anywhere from $100 to more than $5,000 for their work, which normally takes around 18 months. After clients' ancestries have been traced, they have the option of ordering an artist's rendering of the family tree for an additional fee.
In addition to poring over old records, researchers occasionally employ less conventional methods, Pogorely said. He said one of his employees, while tracing a seemingly dead-end bloodline of a woman raised in an orphanage, had a revelation in a dream after going to church. Based on the dream, the researcher traveled to the Czech Republic and found the records he needed.
The Moscow Times, Tuesday, August 15, 2006. Issue 3475. Page 1.
By Anastasiya Lebedev