This is a summary of the rules I figured out to make sense of the microfilms of the 19th century Kremenets, Ukraine, birth and death records that are available on microfilm at the Mormon Family History Centers. It's aimed at people who speak English as a native language, have a little knowledge of the printed Cyrillic (Russian) and Yiddish/Hebrew alphabets, and are pretty good at learning to recognize new alphabets. If you have always had problems learning to recognize new symbols, you might be better off taking a formal course in Russian or Hebrew, or hiring a translator.

What can this guide do for me?
With any luck, this guide will help you recognize names and other words of interest in handwritten records kept in Russia in the 1800s. Even though I am particularly interested in the Kremenets records, the same general rules should apply to deciphering messy handwriting in other types of records and in other communities.

Do you actually know Russian or Yiddish?
Heck no. I just know enough about the languages and the alphabets to do very basic transcribing. The ideas expressed here have helped me do some low-level transcribing, but, basically, the main virtue of this site is that it exists and actually shows you a little bit what actual old cursive and italic Cyrillic handwriting looks like. Do not take anything expressed here as something handed down with the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

Aren't you just duplicating the efforts of folks who have published much more authoritative transcription guides on the JewishGen site?
After I started compiling this guide, JewishGen put a couple of great transcription guides on its site. Those are probably more accurate, but I decided to complete this guide anyway, because I think some people may find my examples of letter-by-letter transcription of real Russian vital records useful. If not, well, never mind . . .

What transliteration scheme do you use?

a) When I refer to fairly well-known place names, I often use what seems to be the most popular version of the name at JewishGen, regardless of the exact Russian, Hebrew or Yiddish spelling of the name.

Example: I write "Yampol," because that's what JewishGen people seem to use, rather than "Yampil." The Kremenets clerk and most Ukrainians probably prefer Yampil, but I think changing place names around to fit the transliteration is confusing and fails to provide any great linguistic information. Yampol is the Russian spelling and Yampil is the Ukrainian spelling, but anybody who cares about that sort of thing already knows Ukrainians turn Russian O's into I's, anyway.

On the other hand, I think preserving the exact spelling of personal names is important, so you can look them up in the vital records more easily, and figure out whether your relatives thought of themselves as Russian Jews, Ukrainian Jews, Belarusian Jews, etc.

b) When I transliterate personal names and ordinary words, I try to follow the same, extremely mechanical transliteration scheme for Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. This scheme is based on the transliteration scheme Boris Feldblyum gives in his book on transliteration of Russian Jewish given names. The great thing about applying the same scheme, as much as possible, to Hebrew and Yiddish is that it emphasizes the similarities between the Russian and the Hebrew/Yiddish spellings.

If your Web browser can handle Russian fonts, you can CLICK HERE to see my transliteration scheme.

Why are you ignoring the various official and semi-official standards for transliterating Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish?
Standard transliteration schemes are really important for the people who are compiling authoritative or semi-authoritative databases for public consumption. If you plan to publish your transliterations, you should ask the head of your transliteration project for guidance, or else follow the links listed on this site under Resources to learn more about generally accepted transliteration principles.

Otherwise, if you're just a beginner trying to figure out what all those little squiggles are, my feeling is that you should start by trying to decipher the cursive, then worry about transliteration standards once you can tell the name Khaim from the name Moshe.

Where did you get your Russian letters and why are they so blurry?
I discovered when I started doing this site that, as far as I can tell, there are no true freeware graphic Russian alphabets, or graphics showing cursive or italic Russian, out there in Web land. If I wanted to use existing Russian alphabet graphics, I would have actually had to steal a graphic, or summon the energy to ask someone else for permission to borrow his or her graphic.

Rather than beg or steal graphics, I have created my own genuine freeware Russian GIF alphabets, using scans from the microfilmed versions of an official Russian Empire newspaper called the Minsk Vedomosti and some vital records for the Jewish community of Kremenets, Ukraine, that were written in cursive in 1870. I created the letters by using Microsoft Paint to turn letters into tiny GIF graphic files. This is a very primitive, wrong-headed process, but I figure that the GIFs are good enough that you can sort of see what the letters should look like.

If, for some weird reason, you want to use my GIF alphabets, please feel free to copy the GIF alphabet folder, gifbet, to your own hard drive. Then use your favorite Web design program to insert the GIFs into your documents. You can handle the GIFs as you would handle any other graphics.

Who are you?
Al Bell, a descendant of the Bat's of Shumsk. You can reach me at

My surnames: SIVAK, RUDZKI, BLANKLEIDER - northern and western Poland; BATT, CHATZKY, FERER - Shumsk, Kremenets and Vinnitsa in Ukraine; ZHITOMIRSKY/GITOMER, HAFT/HEFT - Lubny, Ukraine; RUDO, ROZOVSKY, DOBRIN, PALEY - Southeastern Belarus and Baltimore. Not BELL, unless you're related to Sam SIVAK.