Deciphering Russian records without surnames #russia

Joseph Walder

This topic has no doubt been covered elsewhere but I cannot locate where. I'm looking at some Russian-language records from about 1800 CE for Tarashcha uyezd, Kiev gubernia. I do not actually read Russian but I have taught myself how to transliterate the language and also how to recognize cursive script, so commonly I can pick out surnames of interest and then get translation help. But with records (revision lists and male-only censuses) from 1804 and earlier, there are (at least) two very big challenges: (1) No surnames. Patronymics only. (2) The handwriting style is pretty much indecipherable for me.

Are there guidelines for how to work with records when there are no surnames?

Is there any sort of guide to the archaic writing style?

Suggestions gratefully accepted.

Joseph Walder
Portland, Oregon



The easy part first - recognizing text from late 1700's - early 1800's.  There are a number websites that list samples of Russian letters as they changed over the past couple of hundred years, that you will find helpful, for example this site:  You will have to adjust it to the document you are reading by looking for letters in common names, as there are definitely going to be idiosyncrasies between different writers at that time.  Documents became easier to read by the 1820's, as the letters and style closer resemble modern letters.

The "no surnames issue".  This is a tough one.  You might get lucky if you are able to match given, patronymic, age, as well as the relatives names.  However, the issue is that at the time most people had double names, but different records might include either both, or just one of the names of the person as well as their patronymic.  This becomes a guessing game.  Also, your relatives might have not lived in the same locality during the prior census, so the match might be against someone else entirely.

Mike Vayser

Adam Goodheart

Using those pre-surname records is challenging, but I've been able to trace a couple of my lines there. 
WIth the Russian "revision list" censuses, even when there were no surnames,, the order in which families were listed were often preserved in later lists (which might have surnames), and sometimes the later lists even give the number assigned to that family in the previous list.
Also, many Polish-Lithuanian Jews in the 18th century lived in tiny rural hamlets, as managers of taverns, tax collectors, or managers of a noble family's estate, where they often remained for decades and were quite frequently the only Jewish families at that particular place. Often the early Polish and Russian censuses will identify the specific locale. If you have post-1804 records with surnames that link your ancestors to that locale, and if the given names match up, you can bridge the gap and perhaps trace your ancestors back another generation or two into the 18th century. You can also learn some interesting things about where exactly your ancestors were living, what they were doing, and what noble family they were working for. I discovered that my Lithuanian 5th-great grandparents were running a rural inn in 1784 under a lease from the Prince-Archbishop of Vilnius — and then found out, thanks to Google Maps, that there's a nice little B&B at practically the same spot today!
Adam Goodheart
Washington, D.C.

Marjorie Geiser


For the writing, don't forget about On the left is the option of 'Foreign Alphabets,' from which you can type in a word/name in English and have it transliterated to Russian, as well as other options from/to Russian. By switching from Russian print to cursive, that might help your challenge.

Margie Geiser