Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Princess Anastasia: Alive or Dead?: A Legend, and Tragedy, Turn 100 [Contributor: Melanie]

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova might have slipped into history as a practically unknown dynast of Russia’s ruling family. Instead she remains, to this day, the most famous member of the Romanov family thanks to the ineptitude to the Soviet government and one woman’s commitment to a far-flung tale of escape. It’s fitting that her name means "resurrection" as the world refused to believe she ever truly died. And, 100 years to the day since her death, the world is just as committed to the fairy tale.

On this day, 100 years ago, the last emperor of the Russian Empire — along with his family — was executed in a basement in Siberia in the early hours of the morning. The tragedy captured the hearts of Europe and the United States. In an attempt to put the Romanovs out of history and public memory on the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, the Soviet government inadvertently made them infamous. If you’re between the ages of 20 and 35, there’s a good chance you were very familiar with the 20th Century Fox 1997 animated take on the myth of Anastasia.

The movie — which takes several liberties on Russian history — is set in post-WWI Europe where a young Russian worker with no memory and no family is conned into pretending to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia to collect the 10 million rubles (roughly $12,000 USD) her grandmother is offering for information on her safe return. The one problem: The amnesiac peasant pretending to be the daughter of the tsar might just be the real lost princess.


Fact and fiction have always weaved together a little too perfectly where Anastasia’s story is involved. Back in the summer of 1918, the Romanovs were being held in Ekaterinburg, Siberia, under house arrest. The White Army — the tsar’s loyalists — were advancing far too close to the house for the Ural Soviet’s liking. They debated which members of the family to kill and, ultimately, decided to prevent a rallying point by executing them all even though two of them (Anastasia and Alexei) were only teenagers. They woke the family in the middle of the night, took them down into the house’s basement, and opened fire with very little fanfare.

Within seconds, there were issues. The women had sewn jewelry into their clothing to avoid thieving guards and the layers of diamonds created a bullet proof vest. Despite more gruesome attempts, the girls were reported to still be alive several hours after the initial execution. Coupled with the Soviet’s inability to even confirm amongst themselves, across thousands of miles of wilderness between Siberia and Moscow, the finality of the Romanovs’ end, political tensions with Germany (homeland of the tsar’s wife) made it impossible for Soviet government to officially acknowledge the murders with inciting another war. This left the world to draw their own conclusions.

In 1921, a patient at an asylum at Berlin concluded that her fellow patient, a “Miss Unknown” brought in after attempting suicide, was a dead ringer for the tsar’s second-oldest daughter Tatiana. The woman denied being that grand duchess, and instead claimed to be Anastasia. What resulted was decades of speculation and even court trials involving the woman, who took the name Anna Anderson. The conclusion was that she could not legally prove she was the grand duchess, but nor could her detractors legally prove she was not (1940s court cases were wild). She spent her life never relinquishing her claims but never getting the support she needed from other European royal houses. After her death, DNA evidence confirmed she was Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker who had been reported missing no long before Anderson was plucked from a Berlin canal. It was Anderson’s fiction, however, that inspired the 1950s film Anastasia and its 1997 animated remake.

During the early 90s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the remains of the Romanovs were finally made public. But excavation revealed two of the bodies were missing: Alexei and Anastasia. It didn’t help the urban legends for many years until, in 2007, their partial remains were located and confirmed with an over 99% assurance to be the tsar’s youngest children.

Anastasia's tale is now a musical on Broadway. So how does this newest addition to the Anastasia canon of visual media deal with the aforementioned development?


The show — which also portrays Anastasia at the historically correct age of 28 — make it clear it is more concerned with adapting the legend of Anastasia, the thematic battle of old world vs. new, and what the hope of Anastasia represented to a post-WWI Europe, than it is about adding discord to the ongoing speculations. It never explains exactly how she escaped, simply making it clear that she was in the basement in Ekaterinburg, was saved by the layers of diamonds in her clothes, and managed to get away, walking from Siberia to St. Petersburg in an amnesiac haze and severe PTSD. Where Anastasia’s escape was the focal point of her memory in the film, in the musical, her escape methods are not as important as her survival itself.

The musical replaces the villainous Rasputin — a figure often seen as an esoteric sorcerer — with a more realistic and much more dangerous villain: Gleb Vaganov, a Soviet officer and son of one of the Romanov executioners who is tasked with assassinating Anastasia when the government learns she survived. His idealism for communism and weak justification of his father’s murder of children plays against Anya’s loyalty to her family, and what her existence represents. Gleb, in many ways, represents history itself, chasing Anastasia across borders, demanding to know why the world should want her to live, prepared to shoot her point black but ultimately, unable to pull the trigger and unable to make the woman who became the legend disappear forever.

One of the show’s best scenes comes without music. Anya becomes aware of her identity earlier in the musical than the film, before she ever makes an attempt to see her grandmother at the opera, stealing herself with a belting and uplifting “Find a way, Anastasia” before being promptly tossed out by a jaded old woman.

Later, when the Dowager Empress is convinced into meeting with her, they have a tortured conversation where Anya recalls her pained past, submits herself to the skeptical questioning of a angry woman, and ultimately begs her grandmother to either recognize her or leave her be. It’s a scene filled with poignant silences that does beg the question: should we want Anastasia to have survived? The life she lives now as Anya is lonely, painful, full of nightmares, PTSD episodes, and memories of being present for the murder of her family, hunted by Soviet officials and in constant danger.

Is it truly a better life she’s living?

The show never truly answers its own deep philosophical questions about the nature of this history, now 100 years old. With one final wink to the camera: “From this day forward there will be no more talk of the Princess Anastasia... But still...”


Even when the partial remains of the grand duchess and tsarevich were unearthed in 2007, the rumors never died. Even to this day — over ten years after DNA testing confirmed Anastasia died that night with her family in Siberia — further testing is still being done at the request of private labs and the Russian Orthodox Church who are not convinced in the validity of the findings.

Whether or not Anastasia died that night, the world, and cultural history, has already made up its mind. What started as a fairytale of a lost princess to quell the despair of war-torn Europe has become one of the greatest urban legends in the world’s history.

And if you’d like to dive deeper into the history, here’s a brief list of some places to start:

  • Nicholas and Alexandra (1971): The Franklin J. Schaffner film about the love affair of the tsar and his wife against the backdrop of revolution.
  • The Romanovs (2016): Simon Sebag Montefiore's epic biographical tome on the 300 year history of the family from Michael I to the hemophiliac prince who would never become tsar. 
  • I Was Anastasia (2018): This novel by Ariel Lawson tells Anna Anderson’s story parallel to Anastasia’s own before ultimately deciding whether or not Anderson believed she was telling the truth.
  • The Romanov Empress (2018): A C.W. Gortner novel told from the point of view of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Nicholas II. 
  • Anastasia (1956 and 1997 versions): Both the Anatole Litvak and Don Bluth and Gary Goldman films tell a fictionalized version of Anderson’s story. While the 1956 version only hints that Anna is Anastasia, the 1997 version makes it clear that Anya is the grand duchess. And, obviously, both were the inspiration for the Broadway musical.
  • The Romanov Prophecy (2004): Steve Barry’s espionage novel about the reinstatement of the Russian tsardom and the possibility that Alexei survived and had offspring with a better claim to the throne than the government approved family member.
  • The Tsarina’s Daughter (2008): A historical novel depicting the life of Grand Duchess Tatiana, the tsar’s oldest daughter, claiming she survived the revolution and went on to have descendants.


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