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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Russian Paleography

About this Tutorial

Russian/Russian Empire Map (1912)
Ю. М. Шокальскiй, Гипсометрическая Карта Россiйской Имперiи (опытъ изображенiя рельефа Имперiи), 1912. (This image is in the Public Domain).

This tutorial will introduce you to basic Russian paleography, including an overview of the alphabet (both typed and handwritten, with modern and archaic letters), basic grammar, common vocabulary, document types, and document formats. Because the documents are written in a foreign language with a different alphabet and grammatical structure than English, this may seem like a daunting task. However, with practice and with the resources available here, you can learn how to navigate the genealogical records you find, whether or not you have a Russian language background.

Old Russian Records

Contrary to popular belief, records were not destroyed en masse during the Soviet period. In fact, great lengths were taken to preserve records during that time, meaning that many documents dating back to the days of the Russian Empire still exist today. This includes records from various parts of the former Russian Empire as well as the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as former USSR countries in Asia. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union kept highly regulated records, so the surviving records provide a much more complete account of the people who lived there than can be found in many other localities. For the most part, records were written in the Russian language, meaning that becoming proficient in Russian paleography will help to open these resources to you.

Types and Formats

The types and formats of documents for the former Russian Empire and former Soviet Union vary widely, depending on factors such as place, time, religion, and others. For example, the Russian Empire collected different information in taxation records for 1747 than it did in the taxation records of 1858. Records kept in modern-day Poland may be written in Polish, Russian, German, or Latin, depending on the context (both place and time). Jewish records contain different information than Catholic or Orthodox records, and some of it may be written in Hebrew as well as Russian! Though records will vary based on these factors, you will also find that standardization of records was also common, especially in records kept from the mid-1800s onward. Because of those consistencies, knowing the basic format to expect in major record types will help you to have more success as you work with the documents. The following are some of the types most commonly used in genealogical research for the countries listed above:

  • Metrical Books: Records of birth, marriage, divorce and death, usually organized by religion. These records help to follow an individual throughout their life. 
  • Revision Lists: Taxation records that, like a census, listed the people living in a household together. These records help to track families as units. 
  • 1897 Census: A Russian Empire-wide census was taken in 1897, which recorded households together, allowing entire families to be found in these records as well. 

Where do I Start?

If you are just starting your study of Russian paleography, the Alphabet Overview and individual letter pages on this site will be particularly helpful. Once you have a foundation in the Russian letters, you can use the Genealogical Glossary and Record Types pages to learn more about words and phrases you might find in the various documents you encounter.

Do not let the unfamiliarity of the language deter you! With time, these tools can help you to overcome your initial fears and become much more proficient in reading the genealogical treasures that the Russian language has to offer.


Paleography Introduction