So today we’re starting a new series of posts, debunking myths about Latvian genealogical research. I did this in brief five years ago, but now we are going to get more in-depth about each of these myths, addressing how they probably came about, why they continue to survive, and what the truth of the matter really is.
Today we are going to start with the big one, the one that prevents a lot of people from getting started with research into their Latvian families – they don’t get started in the first place because they don’t think there is anything to find.
Wanted: Latvian records. Often thought destroyed, they are still here!
As this blog can attest, these people are most definitely wrong! There are so many records out there. Of course, availability can vary, and I’ll address some of these issues below, but on the whole, there’s a huge amount of records out there, just waiting to be looked through.
So where did this myth come about? A big reason is because of Latvian history. They think, “Oh, there have been so many wars and occupations in Latvia. There’s no way any of the records survive.” I’ll admit, this myth caught me too at the outset. I didn’t know there was anything for me to find about my family. I’m glad I learned otherwise! While war and occupation can certainly lead to record destruction, it can also lead to record amounts of record survival as well.
That sounds backwards, I know. But for some documents – namely, the 1935 and 1941 census records – war and occupation are what saved them. A friend who works for the archives here in Latvia tells me that it was standard practice for the Latvian Statistical Office to destroy individual census forms after ten years. This is why we do not have the records for the 1925 census. On the other hand, the 1935 and 1941 census records survive, because by 1945 Latvia was under Soviet occupation, and they most certainly did not destroy records. Nor, incidentally, did the Nazis during their occupation. Totalitarian governments like the Nazis and the Soviets avoid destroying records whenever possible – the more they know about people, the easier it is to find and control them. The archives had a busy time during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, since many people had to use their holdings to prove their ancestry (it is a surviving document of this time period listing ancestry that kick-started my research into my paternal grandmother’s family). So just because there has been a war doesn’t mean that records aren’t still there!
There are other reasons why this myth persists, and that is due to online records collections and repositories such as Ancestry and FamilySearch billing themselves as “one-stop shopping” for genealogical research. This means that a novice will see their advertisements and assume that if something can’t be found there, it doesn’t exist. Again, very false! Most records in the world are not available on Ancestry, FamilySearch (the digitized records collection), or even in the FamilySearch microfilm collection. Their Latvian collections, for one, are non-existent in digital format, and rudimentary at best for the microfilm collection. There is so much more that is only available from Latvian record repositories.
So what is the truth of it? Well, I can’t speak to all of the specifics, because that would take days – everything is very much on a parish level. Sometimes one parish has great records, sometimes the neighbouring one doesn’t. The reason isn’t always clear. But I can paint a general picture.
Many of the religious records are often missing a year or two, or sometimes entire decades – but the rest of the years survive, so there were isolated cases of some record books going astray. Some records are quite likely legitimately missing as a result of war – this is very likely why Kurzeme and Zemgale have a lower rate of record survival than Vidzeme does, since the First World War went right through the first two, but barely touched the second (at least until the Russian Civil War started). There aren’t very many documents in the archives relating to pre-war Latgale, but I am uncertain at this time whether it was because there weren’t as many documents created there as in other places (there was a very different administration than in the other provinces), because of document destruction or because the documents might be in some archives in Russia or Belarus, since Latgale was a part of the Vitebsk province, and thus a part of the Russian Empire proper, rather than having the special status of the Baltic provinces.
All of this isn’t to say that there hasn’t been deliberate record destruction in Latvian history – there most certainly has been, but it hasn’t been a result of war or occupation, but rather revolution – the 1905 Revolution in particular. And the record destroyers were not any sort of foreign powers, but rather the people themselves – so it could be that you have your own ancestor to blame for missing records! In the context of the 1905 Revolution in particular, many men were seeking to avoid military service in the Czar’s army in the war against Japan – so they set out to destroy records that could provide information about them being eligible for service, such as military records, revision lists, family registers, and so on. Some records were better protected than others, and this destruction didn’t happen in every parish, but these sorts of activities were particularly prominent in southern Latvia. As it so happens, many of the migrants who left Latvia at this time to avoid military service and because of revolutionary activities also came from these same regions – southern and western Latvia.
So what does survive? Religious records are pretty reliable for most places, sometimes missing some years, but on the whole, they survive. Revision lists have great survival rates in Vidzeme, not so hot survival rates in Kurzeme and Zemgale, and almost non-existent in Latgale. 1897 All-Russia Census goes the opposite way – best survival in Latgale, worst in Vidzeme. Generally speaking, records kept by towns and cities survive quite well all over the country. Parish records are really on a case by case basis, but typically best in Vidzeme, though some other parishes don’t do too badly either. Land records are pretty reliable everywhere but Latgale, but again, a large collection does not always mean that the specific record you need is there.
The big lesson to learn here is that even if not all record types exist for your ancestors’ home(s), at least some will. Which means that research is possible for just about everyone!