Some of the more perplexing areas in the world, especially for those researching their family's history, involve East Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and western Russia. Needless to say, the Eastern European region of the European subcontinent has been one of the most turbulent over the last three hundred-or-so years, which probably accounts for the thrust of emigration to America and elsewhere during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Certainly one significant characteristic of the region is its diverse population of multifarious groups of people, each with its own language, religion, traditions, and preferred form of rule. This has been both the cause and the product of much political, social, and economic instability, all likely incurred by changing venues of authority, which in turn has led to revisions of boundaries and alterations of place names at national and local levels, often in two or more tongues.
Consequently, confusion abounds when attempting to identify the name and location of an ancestral village in the region. There is no easy solution to finding a multilingual place name on a map or an old document. Nevertheless, there are cartographic and place name aids to consult in attempting to mitigate the difficulty.
For our purposes, this research guide focuses on the three regions that now cause some of the most grief for genealogists and reference staff. Those are East Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia. At the outset let us keep in mind that these regions are geographic constructions, devised by academics, planners, and politicians to enable description, research, and the making of domestic and foreign policy. No natural boundaries separate them, all have overlapped at some place or another and at some point in history, and they will be used by us to compartmentalize our cartographic resources in an effort to facilitate genealogical research.
With that caveat in mind, we may define each region. Initially, East Central Europe corresponds to both Imperial Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that existed from 1867 up to its dissolution at the end of the First World War; secondly, Eastern Europe, a discrete but increasingly ambiguous region that contains a range of similar cultural, ethnic, political, and geographic influences; and lastly, Imperial Russia, once the major possessor of large chunks of Eastern Europe.
Let's expand those categories to get slightly more inclusive. Imperial Germany at the beginning of the First World War encompassed what is now the modern Federal Republic of Germany, as well as the former East Prussia, West Prussia, Polish Pomerania, and Silesia. It's wartime ally, the variegated Empire of Austria-Hungary, 1867-1918, comprised most of Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, and parts of Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. Eastern Europe, solely for our purposes, consists of modern-day Poland, the constituent nations of the Baltics, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, and western Ukraine. Finally, with regard to Russia, we will restrict our coverage in this guide to the western or European half, which at one time or another has claimed much of Eastern Europe and even portions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
We will employ those three regions more or less as tools for organizing resources. They are neither exact nor exhaustive, but partly reflect the arrangement of cartographic and bibliographic resources in the Geography and Map Division, as well as the mental frameworks of many geographers. Most of the resources at hand are not in English, and may require some level of ability in foreign languages. Many genealogical and place name repositories appearing on the internet are included in this guide as well, as the internet has become one of the chief sources for finding information about family history and geography.
In the section titled "Using Topographic Set Maps" we will employ five examples for locating a specific place name in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Western Russia, each of which is covered by a specific set of large-scale maps. The examples use fairly well known cities in Europe, but hopefully will illustrate the means by which reference staff attempt to locate (sometime more successfully than others) the more elusive towns and villages.