Friday, February 5, 2021

Finding the Right City


Finding aids are invaluable resources for the family historian, piecing together her family's story one painstaking step at a time. Sometimes, we seem to find those steps intuitively, and don't need assistance, but in my godmother's case, the quest for Genia's heritage was not a search through familiar territory. I certainly needed a finding aid for this new research adventure.

Those who have researched their European-origin ancestors can vouch for the troubles piecing together the location of cities or towns in the midst of a political arena prone to boundary disputes. A near-constant state of war can do wonders for the map-making industry; every decade seems to bring a new shape to countries, and even new names to cities now conquered by the enemy.

Couple that dynamic with the territory which Genia's parents once called their homeland. Russia was immense, and the empire covered multiple ethnic and political regions. Those who, when hearing the name Russia, think only of Moscow or Saint Petersburg, perhaps don't take into account the immensity of the empire's geographic control.

That one misconception might have cost me my genealogical bearings in trying to locate the birthplace of Genia's mother Lydia. Even following the perseverance it took to locate the actual name of Lydia's hometown, it wasn't as if I could simply plug in the name of the city and, presto!, pull up its location on a map.

Believe me, I kept a handy list of Russian city names at my fingertips, if only because my knowledge of such locations was limited to the two cities already mentioned. But once I felt that "Soukhoum" was the correct rendering of Lydia's birthplace, I noticed it was conspicuously absent from that little cheat sheet. Could I have gotten this wrong? Did I need to continue the search even further?

There is also, of course, that little detail of differing languages. What a place might be called in English is seldom the same as it is called in its native tongue. Witness Germany, which the Germans prefer to call Deutschland. An American functionary, diligently taking down the names and details of arriving passengers, might not know how a specific foreign-to-us location might have been written by those who actually lived there. The name might get written phonetically or, if heard incorrectly, then spelled incorrectly. And phonics in English are seldom identical to phonetic systems used in the home country.

So, where could a place like Soukhoum actually be located? The very word itself didn't look like a transliteration of a typical Russian name—but remember: the Russian empire covered a vast area which included many other ethnic groups.

The closest match I could find for Soukhoum was a city in what is now a disputed region of the dismantled Soviet Union. Even though the spelling was different—now rendered Sukhumi or Sokhumi—the fact that the name often dropped the final "i" and likely was pronounced almost the same lead me to believe this might have been the place where Lydia's family originated.

There is another reason why I'm drawn to this location possibility: those family stories. Legend or not, some oral family histories do contain a kernel of truth, and I find that bit of truth valuable in serving as a guidepost when we are pursuing hints in the dark (or nearly blindfolded, it seems). In Lydia's case, by the time I met her—in my childhood while she, incapacitated, was rapidly approaching the other end of her life—she certainly could not speak for herself. But my mother, who had known Lydia by then for nearly twenty years, would fill in the blanks for me.

One of those fill-in-the-blanks obtained from my mother was her conjecture that Lydia was from a southern location along the coast of the Black Sea. From her description, I had wondered whether the horrors Lydia had escaped from might have been the Armenian genocide, but my mother had thought that Lydia might have been born in the part of the Russian Empire known as Georgia.

It just so happens that Sukhumi is a city in a disputed region. One side of the argument claims Sukhumi is part of a separate country called the Republic of Abkhazia, while the status quo claim is that Sukhumi belongs to the country of Georgia—exactly what my mother had said, so long ago.

Being from a port city would fit in well with whatever story would explain just how a Russian seaman like "Michael" Melnitchenko might have met and married a young woman from Georgia. But that is only one simple strand of the possible story. Sukhumi, through the ages, had always been a cosmopolitan city, and despite the austerity of the Soviet Union, was even during that era considered a holiday resort. Their census records for the past century illustrate what a diverse location that city historically was.

For Lydia's husband-to-be to arrive in her port city homeland from afar is not an impossibility. But owing to the international flavor of the city, it could have been possible that he had been living there, himself, all along. It is near impossible, at this point, to tell. For one thing, there would be the challenge of deciphering records, if they could even be located—Georgia is not on the geographic list of available records at, nor is it even close to being listed at—as records not kept in the Cyrillic script of the Russian language would have been written in the characters of the Kartvelian language of Georgian. I wouldn't even begin to know where to start.

There is, however, one other step we can take to see whether we can discover anything further on Genia's family. Next week, we need to trace the history of Genia's father, the Russian seaman M. Melnitchenko who eventually came to settle in New York City.


  1. The comment about how the language used can affect how a city is spelled sure seems spot on.
    Soukhoum seems, apropriately enough, to be the preferred way in French.

    The book "Sur le quai de Soukhoum" (something like "On the Soukhoum harbor")
    is from 2016, covers a bit of the history of the region, and gives a look at the city today.
    (bought it as ebook from a local reseller, and the map within shows that Soukhoum and Sukhumi are the same place)

    Another french book, "Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimée. 1859"
    has a link to a free ebook in google books. Soukhoum does not have a major role tho from a quick glance, being more a book about a larger region.

    Another link, this one showing the city name in both versions (the Kale part apparently meaning "Fort") is from a London paper
    and is about the

    1. What a wonderful listing of resources! Thank you so much for that, Per. Actually, since I know next to nothing of that area, books about the region will be very helpful to get me up to speed.

      Interesting that you mentioned the French version of the city name. When I first saw the name, all I could think of was the Sudan capital city, Khartoum, with that same ending, though it certainly didn't turn out to be in the same region. Perhaps the thin link might be the influence of the Ottoman empire, which did have an impact on Georgia and Soukhoum. Or, perhaps French influence on the region might have been what little affinity Genia's parents might have felt in choosing their new homeland in France. All thoughts to explore...


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