Myths About Latvian Research

[This post was written for the 26th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy, hosted by Jessica's Genejournal.]

There are thousands of people in the West with Latvian ancestry. Many are searching for their Latvian ancestors, but often encounter a variety of misconceptions about Latvian genealogical research, or don’t know where to start.

I will be addressing the latter soon, with a step-by-step guide on how to get started with Latvian research. Really, I should have done that when I started this blog, but better late than never!

For now though, I want to address the former – myths and misconceptions about Latvian research. I’ll admit, when I first got started, I believed some of them as well. But now I’ve learned that the task of researching your Latvian ancestors is not as difficult or impossible as it may seem.

Myth: Since Latvia was a battleground through both world wars and numerous smaller ones, as well as being controlled by totalitarian political regimes, this means the records are all destroyed.

Fact: Records survive! Certainly, some disappear or get destroyed throughout the years, but this happens everywhere. But the vast majority of records you will want to seek out for Latvian genealogical research do exist today. Precisely what is available will vary from parish to parish, but because of the variety of records, it is extremely unlikely that all records for a given area were destroyed or have gone missing.

Myth: You need to be able to speak Latvian to do Latvian genealogical research.

Fact: Only partially true. While knowing Latvian is a great asset for research after 1918, prior to that, most records were in German or Russian, both of which are languages spoken more widely than Latvian. But even if you don’t speak any of them, a dictionary or genealogical word list will help you extract the information that you are looking for.

Myth: The surname of my ancestors from Latvia is German or Russian, so that means my ancestors were German or Russian.

Fact: Not necessarily. Latvian peasants (the majority of the population) only acquired surnames in the nineteenth century, and it was not uncommon for them to choose German or Slavic names (even though officially they were encouraged to choose Latvian ones). While Latvia has always been a multiethnic country with many German and Russian inhabitants, surnames alone cannot determine ethnicity. I will be addressing how to sort out ethnicity soon.

Myth: It is difficult to access Latvian records.

Fact: Numerous Latvian genealogical records are available online at Raduraksti – religious BMD records, the All-Russia Census, and a growing number of revision lists. Now, they are not indexed (yet! I’m working on it) or searchable, so you need to read through the handwritten pages, but they are accessible anywhere in the world. For other records, you would need to visit (or write to) the Latvian State Historical Archives in Rīga. Obtaining a reading room pass is fairly straightforward, and the staff are wonderful and will help you find what you need. Not everyone speaks English, but there will usually be someone around who does. If you want to know the Latvian names for records to search before you go so you have an easier time, let me know and I can try to help you.

Myth: I met someone with the same surname. We must be related!

Fact: Just like in other countries, having the same surname does not imply kinship. The most common Latvian surnames arose independently across the country from what were farm names, which were in turn often based on physical characteristics of the area. Remember also, that while Latvian surnames might sound “exotic” to non-Latvian speakers, many of these names are extremely common in Latvia. My Latvian Surname Project is growing, and while I haven’t even covered a tenth of the parishes in Latvia, looking at some of the names there and the number of different places they are attested can begin to give an idea of how common or uncommon a name may be.

Now, if these ancestors with the same surname were from the same parish, it is much more likely, since when surnames were being assigned, there were efforts made to not duplicate the names within estates or parishes. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but since surnames came about because rulers needed a way to distinguish these newly freed peasants from one another, it would not have happened often.

Myth: A different surname means a different family, and thus not a relation.

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