Iwona's Sources - Belarus - a pleasant surprise

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Belarus - a pleasant surprise

Belarus surprises you with its cleanliness and tidiness. Huts in the villages are all the colors of the rainbow, roadside stones are painted with various fairy tales, against a background of endless landscapes. The towns are bustling, full of business, and cleaner than I expected. In the central squares, monuments to Lenin reign everywhere, alongside glittering gilt churches.

The gas stations impressed me. Almost all have illuminated boards with prices in four currencies: Belarusian rubles, Russian rubles, euros, and American dollars.

The highway from the border to Minsk reminds you of a runway (for pay!).

As for prices, foreigners will certainly pair several times more for hotels and tickets to museums, reasonable prices for us but horrendous for the locals. In general, there are three different rates: for Belarusians, Russians, and other countries.

The Belarusian people are very welcoming. They are curious about foreigners because there are not many of them there, mainly Russians. There are two official languages, Belarusian and Russian; Polish and Ukrainian are minority languages. Pol-­ish appears in the western part of the country, used most often in Roman Catholic parishes. It has become customary to identify nationality thus: "If he's a Catholic, he's a Pole."

Officially, Belarus is not a tourist country, and that is connected with the difficulties of getting visas and with the burdensome procedures

Another barrier is verbal communication; in archives, we must know Russian or have our own interpreter. The forms that have to be filled out have to be written in the Russian form of the Cyrillic alphabet.

There is a network of regional archives, with the main centers in Minsk and Hrodna. They collect older records from 75 years up, and the regional archives hold documents from 1920 through 1938. From 1939 on, the records are in local civil registrar offices. The archive personnel are not overly eager to help, and the language barrier is also a factor.

The whole archival network and its collections are described on the official Web pages, which are, wonder of wonders! available in English: National Historical Archives of Belarus <http://archives.gov.by/eng/index. php?id=745474>. The deeper I dove in there, the more pleasantly I was surprised by the sea of information.

The archives charge fees for using their materials, around $50 a person, and copies of documents cost $12. It is cumbersome to go to the bank to make these payments, because it takes a whole hour. The workrooms are open from 9 a.m. as late as 8 p.m., with a lunch break in the early afternoon. They are open on Fridays till 4 p.m. The materials ordered are brought quickly; I did not notice any daily limits.

The archives charge fees for using their materials, around $50 a person, and copies of documents cost $12. It is cumbersome to go to the bank to make these payments, because it takes a whole hour. The workrooms are open from 9 a.m. as late as 8 p.m., with a lunch break in the early afternoon. They are open on Fridays till 4 p.m. The materials ordered are brought quickly; I did not notice any daily limits.

Genealogical searches can be ordered directly from a given archive by way of email or by letter. All the addresses are available on the Web site.

 

The sign on the office door of the Tsyryn Rural Executive Committee informs us that it is open Monday through Friday, 8 and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Saturdays and Sundays.

The grave of Laguta, Vladimir Sergeievich, is adorned with a glass of vodka and a slice of bread!

Civil registrar offices there are called by the abbreviation ZAGS. There are 156 divisions for all Belarus; they are usually located in the central part of town. There is no access to the records themselves, but we can rely on the assistance of the directors of these offices. Unfortunately, the ZAGS offices do not have a computer database or indexes, so searching requires longer.

I was badly disappointed by the meager entries in records after 1939, for example, in the deaths of adults, there was no data on parents or spouses.

Another interesting source for research are the local cexscxneсельские исполнительные [selskie ispolnitelnye komitety] or rural executive committees that deal with local administration. There one finds lists of inhabitants from 1945, drawn up every five years. The lists are drawn up according by numerical status of each family, usually with the head of the family first, followed by spouse and children, dates of birth, and sometimes information on deaths and marriages. There are often errors in the dates.

The universal custom of using patronymic names is very helpful. For example, Olga Fiodorovna Tarashkevich was undoubtedly the daughter of Fiodor, and Ivan Iosipovich Strogonov was the son of Iosip.

Roadside cemeteries are reminiscent of those in Poland, very compact and full of flowers. I only visited one, although it was perhaps atypical, located on a large, wooded hill, grown wild with bushes and weeds. There were no passageways or markings, access to many of the graves is difficult, and many of the graves were enclosed with metal barriers; the majority of graves were overgrown with grass. The oldest graves dated from the mid-19th century. A curious sight was the few graves with glasses full of vodka and with slices of bread.

It was a unique experience to meet the oldest man of a small, lost village, an 85 year-old teacher who bragged of having graduated from a Polish school, then began to sign the Polish national anthem; then we sang together Przybyli Ulani pod okienko and Bogurodzice. * This spontaneous meeting on a village road took on particular emotional meaning. I saw tears in the old man's eyes.

This short stay was for me very invigorating and interesting. It brought back to me memories from the years of my youth and childhood, which, despite being in a Communist country, made it a sentimental journey. I would like to visit Belarus again.

*The title of this Polish patriotic song means "The Uhlans Came (Knocking) Underneath the Window." You can read the Polish lyrics and an English translation at <http://lyricstranslate.com/en/przybyli-u%C5%82ani-­pod-okienko-came-uhlans.html > .

Bogurodzica, or "Mother of God," is an ancient Polish religious hymn. You can read more about it here: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Bogurodzica>.

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]
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Last Updated on August 14, 2014