- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

MOSCOW — As a child, Sergei Telyatnikov listened to family tales about his departed great-grandfather, a wealthy nobleman. But in the repressive decades of the Soviet Union, Mr. Telyatnikov’s family tree remained obscure and was discussed only in hushed tones behind closed doors.

Many Russians in the Soviet era knew little of their lineage predating the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and those who did often went to great lengths to hide it.

But with the economy now booming in post-Soviet Russia, tracing roots is a fad sweeping the middle and upper classes. Russians such as Mr. Telyatnikov are searching their family trees to get a better sense of identity in a country with a tumultuous and violent history.

Mr. Telyatnikov, now 47, hired a newly sprouted Russian genealogy search company and submitted the names of relatives in the stories that his paternal grandmother had told him.

Eighteen months and $2,000 later, Mr. Telyatnikov learned that his family indeed had a wealthy great-grandfather, and was related to other famous figures in Russia’s imperial past: Dmitry Mendeleyev, creator of the periodic table of chemical elements; Alexander Blok, the poet; and Joseph Billings, a British seafarer hired by Catherine the Great to discover a passage through Russia’s North Pacific coast.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of information the Communist Party would have welcomed.

Orphans of the revolution

In the Communist era, many Russians were denied party membership and prestigious positions in Soviet organizations because of suspected aristocratic bloodlines. The years of upheaval during the revolution and under V.I. Lenin and then Josef Stalin caused massive dislocation, and many first-generation Soviets grew up orphans with no knowledge of their past.

“Some of my friends who know about my family tree joke with me and ask if they need to stand up now when I enter the room,” said Mr. Telyatnikov, owner of a Moscow-based Spanish tile import business he set up in 1993.

Professional searches can take a year or more and cost from $1,000 to $5,000, plus transportation costs for sending researchers to dig around in remote, regional archives.

Many more Russians are discovering their family lines through Russia-based genealogy Web sites and computer programs, some of which were based on family-tree software popular in the United States a decade ago.

But many Russians get disappointing results. Specialists say few are lucky enough to find aristocratic roots such as Mr. Telyatnikov’s.

In Russia, 90 percent of the population were peasants before the revolution, so most Russians are finding out their ancestors were landless villagers.

Research is costly

“Those who want to find a famous person in their family history usually think they will be able to improve their status, but more often, they pay a lot of money and find out [their ancestors] were nothing,” said Mikhail Gershzon, a genealogist from the International Genealogy Research Institute.

Russia has a vast, decaying archive with reels of microfiche and stacks of handwritten documents from church records to tax payments.

The Communist Party also was meticulous about record keeping. But many of the surviving archives are in poor condition, housed in crumbling buildings and staffed by underpaid workers. Wars and fires have destroyed many archives through the years.

Getting copies of needed documents still means completing a tedious, Soviet-style system of formal, written requests.

Genealogy hobbyists have created a network of volunteers from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok via Web site forums and chat rooms to track down birth and death certificates and other documents.

Mikhail Kroutikhin, a magazine editor in Moscow, knew only his father’s name and where he worked, when he began his search several years ago.

Parents ‘played it safe’

His parents were “good communists who played it on the safe side” when speaking about the past. As a child, Mr. Kroutikhin never knew the names of his grandparents.

After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Mr. Kroutikhin, 59, says, he was ashamed about how little he knew of his family history compared with Europeans he met.

Five years ago, Mr. Kroutikhin discovered his father’s job application in the archives of the Moscow Metro, where his father had worked until his death in 1951. Employees were required to reveal their family history on their applications.

With the names of his grandparents and their birthplace, Mr. Kroutikhin began his search and eventually traced his roots to the Volga River region and forebears who lived in 1615.

He then began offering his expertise, and posted Russian genealogy resources on his Web site.

Genealogy has become so popular now that “some archivists in Siberia are rejecting our requests for information and document copies. They have so many, they tell us they aren’t able to do it all with only one copy machine in places like Tobolsk,” he said.

• Distributed by the New York Times News Service.

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