Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Dennis Baranov has conducted research in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine for more than 15 years. His wife Mariya is his research helper and translator. In this article, they provide detailed information about Belarus archives and records to research family histories, especially in an area where many documents have been destroyed.
Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Minsk is the capital and its largest city.
While Belarusians share a rich background, identity, and their own language (the official languages are equally Belarusian and Russian), political control of the country has changed throughout its history. It had been part of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia until 1918 when the country declared its independence.
A few years later, Belarus was retaken by Russia and then occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. The European Jewish Congress estimates that 90% of Belarus’s Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust. After having been under political control for decades, Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Today, many people are interested in finding their Belarusian roots. However, the success of genealogy research in the country will depend on record availability as World War II influenced it in a significant way. Records are often an unfortunate casualty of war since Belarus was a battlefield for much of the war. In some locations, only a limited number of records survived (this is especially true for Jewish records).
During World War II, at least 5,295 settlements were destroyed by Nazis, many of them burnt multiple times, and often all of the inhabitants were killed, too. In Khatyn village there is an enormous memorial with 185 tombs. Each tomb represents a specific Belarus village that was burnt together with its people, churches, and village records.
Nevertheless, there is still much to be searched in the collections that have survived.
Belarus research periods can be divided into “before” and “after” the October Revolution of 1917. These are respectively called Prerevolutional and Soviet records.
Almost all Prerevolutional record groups are stored in the National Historical Archive of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk, which is very convenient for the researcher to have almost all records from the country in one place!
Many records are digitized, thanks to FamilySearch, and can be viewed on computers in the reading room of the archive. (They can also partially be found on FamilySearch.org.) The reading room of the archive is small, so people have to come early and stand in a queue to access it.
Minsk archive has 3,152 record groups, 23 collections of microfilms, 1,022,403 volumes for the period of the 14th century to the 20th century, and church books that go up to the beginning of the 1950s.
The second place of interest is the National Historical Archive of Belarus in Grodno. The archive has records of Grodno province as well as several uezds (districts) of Vilna province. Grodno Archive is a repository for 1,324 record groups, 8 collections of microfilms, 418,897 volumes from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century, and church books to the beginning of the 1950s.
In most cases, the most prominent record types only go back to the 1700s.
Church books are well-known vital records that contain birth, marriage, and death records of a particular church parish. Most records in the archives of Minsk and Grodno are Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish, but sometimes there are documents from smaller denominations.
Records can be written in Russian, Polish, or Lithuanian. Because of the changing borders, some territories belonged to one or another of those countries during particular time periods.
These are Orthodox or Catholic family lists that state the head of the family, other members of the family, and their age in a particular year. These documents are very helpful for identifying whole family clusters since the relationships between family members are stated.
Confession lists can be a real treasure in circumstances where only a few church books have been preserved. The valuable information from Confession lists allows us to prove family connections and to extend the pedigree on one to three generations at once.
Revision lists are censuses for particular years within the 1795-1858 time period. They were established by Peter the Great to collect taxes and recruit the population.
Revision lists have the same structure as Confession lists, but people of all beliefs and social classes were listed there. Revision lists of all provinces are located in the National Historical Archive of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk.
Personal volumes of noblemen are preserved in the National Historical Archive of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk as well. There are several books of Belarus nobility that are published and can be acquired in Belarus book stores or accessed in the reading room of the archive in Minsk.
The second type of records that can be found in Belarus are the Soviet records from the time period after the October Revolution in 1917. If you would like to access records after 1917, you must provide documentation that you are related to the person you are searching for.
This is true for the later church books that are stored in the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk and Grodno. This process also applies to other types of Soviet records you might want to access.
Soviet records of interest include Household books (lists of families during the Soviet period), party lists (documents about Soviet party membership), personal volumes, and employment records.
If you are interested in learning about your Belarusian roots but have hit a genealogical brick wall, let Legacy Tree Genealogists’ staff of experienced researchers help you. Our team conducts detailed, personalized research in millions of family history records, spanning hundreds of years to tell you who your ancestors were, where they lived, and much more. Contact us to request a free quote, and a member of our Client Solutions Team will reach out to you.
NOTE: Belarus is generally a safe place for travelers. However, at this time (09/2021), research is difficult due to the political situation in the country. Some European Union countries have instructed airlines to avoid Belarus airspace, and in June of 2021, the US Department of State issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory to the country. Legacy Tree Genealogists will continue to monitor the ability to travel and do research in the area.
Ronald Gonella says
My grandfather, Wladislav Kaminski, was born in Belarus but escaped from pre-Revolution Russia to escape being drafted into the Czar’s cavalry.
He lived with cousins in Poland before emigrating ti the US. Any chance to trace him?
Beth Harrison says
Hi Ronald, this sounds like something we can assist with but we would need additional information. Please complete this form and our Client Solutions Team will reach out to you. They can point you in the right direction and provide a free estimate if research is needed.
Stephen Grant says
I have a grandfather who was born in Belarus and came to America with his family. All I know of him is his last name Tadakowsky, and his Mother Della. It seems they may be from St Petersburg originally. Any way to trace them?
Beth Harrison says
Hi Stephen, thank you for reaching out about your grandfather and his mother. This question is better answered by one of our experienced researchers who specializes in Eastern Europe. Please fill out the form on our Get in Touch page and someone from our Client Solutions Specialists team will reach out to you to point you in the right direction or give you a free estimate if research is needed.
Susan Trager says
My grandparents came from Minsk Russia to US in early 1900s. Their names :. Isac Trager and Mary Axlerod Trager.. Are the records from Minsk Russia Belarus)?
Beth Harrison says
Hi Susan, sometimes family histories can seem confusing, especially without detailed research. Our team conducts personalized research in millions of family history records, spanning hundreds of years to tell you who your ancestors were, where they lived, and much more. Please consider scheduling a consultation with one of our Client Solutions Specialists on our Get in Touch page. They can point you in the right direction or set up a research project if needed.
Sophie Major says
My maternal grandparents came from the Belarus area, I think. John Kalutich and Anna Guberavich were from Symonivichi, Drohicyn, Poland. They came to Canada in 1927 and 1932, respectively. My grandmother Anna came to Canada in 1932 with her oldest daughter Ida. I know they left many siblings back in the old country but I do not know there names or whereabouts.
Beth Harrison says
Thank you for your comments, Sophie. If digging into these records on your own seems daunting, our expert researchers would be honored to help you through the process. Please contact our Client Solutions Specialists through the form on our Get in Touch page. They can point you in the right direction and provide a free estimate if research is needed.
Darin Quinlan says
I am trying to research my grandparents and beyond. They left Belarus (Russia) in 1901 or 2. They were in Brest-Litovsk. Last name Weinstock (americanized) and believe their original spelling was Vaynshtock. Grandparents are (americanized) Herman/Hyman Sendal Weinstock and Ethel L Kelmenson (Chaim Zundel Vaynshtok & Chaya Etlya Kelmanzon). Married on 1/20/1900 in Brest. She was from Semyatichi, he was from Brest.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hi Darin! Thank you for sharing your story with us! You can get a free quote to work with our professional genealogists here.