Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia, and Tatiana Nikolaevna in captivity in 1917 (Public domain photo)
It was one of the twentieth century's great mysteries. The beautiful young Anastasia, last surviving member of Russia's Romanov ruling family, was rumored to have escaped her family's midnight assassination. She made it to the West and lived under the name of Anna Anderson. Yet some didn't believe she was who she said she was. Did Anastasia survive, or was her life cut short at the age of 17?
Anastasia was the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Following a series of economic collapses and military defeats in Russia, culminating in World War I, the February Revolution in 1917 saw Nicholas abdicate his throne in favor of a provisional government. The Emperor and his entire family, along with a number of staff, were imprisoned in several locations. Finally, on April 30, the party were transferred to a two-story house in Yekaterinburg which became known as the "House of Special Purpose". Anastasia was 17 years old. On the night of July 16, 1918, a kitchen boy was called out of the house on an errand, and once he was clear, a squad of nine Bolshevik secret police, eight Russians and one Latvian, entered the home, bearing a signed order from the Supreme Soviet in Moscow, each carrying a loaded revolver. The household was awoken, and told there was unrest in the town and it was dangerous for them to remain upstairs. All seven members of the Emperor's family, along with the four remaining staff, were collected in a single room in the cellar. Chief of the Bolshevik secret police, Yakov Yurovsky, suddenly killed the Emperor with a single shot, then the others opened fire until all the victims were dead or wounded. Yurovsky and some of the others then took bayoneted rifles and repeatedly speared all the bodies, including Anastasia and the other children, who had not yet died. Yurovsky reported that it was a horrible, bungled, confused mess of an operation; in fact, even in that small room, it was half an hour between the first and last gunshot. Yurovsky discovered that the daughters, whose bodies resisted both bullets and bayonets, were wearing bodices made almost entirely of precious stones, so dense that they acted as body armor. It was a singularly bloody and brutish execution.
The assassins stood over the eleven mangled bodies. They were hastily loaded into a truck and dumped in a watery three-meter deep pit at a local mine. The bodies were stripped to discourage identification. Their clothing, found to be rife with hidden precious stones, was burned in a bonfire. But when word spread, Yurovsky decided a more remote location would be best, so as to prevent the discovery of the bodies and their use as propaganda. The next night, the Bolsheviks returned to move the bodies. What followed became a black comedy of errors. In the effort to raise the bodies from the pit and transfer them to a more remote mining area a few kilometers away, trucks, carts, and horses were employed. Various vehicles broke down and the parties were separated. Yurovsky's men constantly focused on looting the bodies. Onlookers were driven away, no matter the time of night. Trucks got repeatedly stuck in the mud. Yurovsky himself spent an hour lying in the mud after his horse fell on him. Nobody knew how to burn a corpse, so help was sent for. In the end, most of the bodies were dumped in a shallow pit dug beside the road and covered with railroad ties, but two of them — the young boy Alexei and a young woman, identified by Yurovsky as the maid Anna Demidova — were buried nearby. All the bodies were burned using kerosene, and the faces disfigured using sulfuric acid. Yurovsky ordered his men to forget everything that had happened, and to never speak of it to anyone.
These events are known in such detail mainly from Yurovsky's own written report. Clearly, the bodies were under tight control of the secret police force for many hours, and were moved and removed; and it seems inconceivable that any could have escaped alive and unnoticed. However, stories have persisted that that's exactly what happened. It is not beyond imagination that the execution was botched even worse than Yurovsky admitted in his report, perhaps even to the point that one or more of the family could have escaped.
And so it did not really surprise the world when a young woman turned up in Berlin at a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt in 1920, and claimed to be Anastasia. She used the name Anna Tschaikovsky, and told a harrowing tale of having been secreted to safety by one of the Bolsheviks, and a subsequent marriage to a young man named Tschaikovsky. They escaped to Romania, where her husband was shot dead in the street. For an entire decade, Anna Tschaikovsky was Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Jessica Simpson all rolled into one. Doctors were split on whether they believed who she claimed to be. Members of the Romanov family, some of whom had met the real Anastasia and some who had not, were also split. For a time she was even financially supported by Nicholas II's uncle, Prince Valdemar of Denmark.
Anna came to the United States in 1928 where her fame preceded her. Now using the name Anna Anderson, she lived in luxury at the expense of Anastasia's relatives, enough of whom continued to believe in her story. But the psychological problems that originally put her on the map persisted, and a judge committed her to an asylum for a year. She returned to Germany in 1931, with her celebrity diminished, but with an increased number of lawsuits mainly filed by greedy individuals attempting to secure what they hoped would be a large Romanov fortune.
In 1968 she moved to the United States to accept the assistance of one of her diminishing supporters, whom she married. Although her husband was wealthy, they lived in squalor, with piles of garbage and scores of cats. Her health and psychiatric condition declined, and Anna Anderson died in 1984 while living with her husband in a car as a fugitive from court-ordered institutionalization.
But all the while that Anna Anderson was living the life of Anastasia, others were doing so too. In 1964, two old nuns died at a convent in Russia's Ural mountains. Their gravestones were marked Anastasia and Maria Nikolaevna, a secret kept by the priest who took them in back in 1919. Little else is known about their identities or how they could have managed to escape and make their way into the mountains.
In 1963, Eugenia Smith, born in Romania and living in Chicago, published a book in which she detailed her own adventures as Anastasia. In her account, she regained consciousness in the cellar after having been left for dead among her family members. A neighbor took her to her own home and secretly brought her back to health. Along with a sympathetic Bolshevik soldier, they snuck out of Russia on foot and sought sanctuary in Serbia, from where she eventually moved to the United States. For thirty years she raised increasing support, mostly from Americans, who believed her to be Anastasia. Five years after her book was published, Anastasia: The Autobiography, she died in New York City in 1968.
And yet, these are only a few of the many claimants. At least half a dozen women have claimed to be Anastasia, no fewer than ten men have claimed to be her brother Alexei (and heir to the throne), and even a raft of people have "come forward" as the sisters Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, or various descendants of the same.
The 1991 excavation of the main gravesite did little to settle the claims of the world's many Anastasias. It did contain only nine bodies, as Yurovsky had said. Anastasia's little brother, the 13-year-old Tsarevich Alexei, was not found, and only three of the four Nikolaevna sisters. DNA analysis confirmed the identities, but there was no way to definitively identify which three of the four they were. Anastasia had been the youngest and shortest of the four, so methods such as skull measurements, descent of wisdom teeth, and collarbone maturity level were used by various researchers. In the end, the Russians reburied one of the bodies as Anastasia, but much scientific dissent felt that Anastasia was probably the missing body. Thus, the door for impostors (or even a potential real Anastasia) remained wide open. Perhaps there was no second gravesite; perhaps Yurovsky fabricated that in his report to cover up his failure to kill all eleven people.
The identification came thanks, in large part, to Prince Philip, husband of the Commonwealth's Queen Elizabeth II. His grandmother was the sister of Nicholas II's wife Alexandra. Thus he shares mitochondrial DNA with Anastasia and her siblings, as it's inherited from the mother. His great-grandmother was their grandmother. Prince Philip gave a tissue sample which allowed British scientists to calculate a 98.5% certainty that the bodies were indeed those of the royal family. But that 1.5% uncertainty, coupled with the fact that two of the children's bodies had never been found, allowed the claims that Anastasia had survived to persist.
Then, in the summer of 2007, a team of amateur archaeologists followed the description of events in Yurovsky's report. Using metal detectors, they combed through the land near the already-discovered gravesite, and at one point they got some readings, about 70 meters away. Working carefully, they dug and sifted. Ultimately what they found was a graphic illustration of Yurovsky's morbid tale. A container of sulfuric acid. Bullets. Nails and strips of metal from a wooden box. And the burned remains of two people, identified by an anthropologist as those of a boy between the ages of 10 and 13, and a young woman between the ages of 18 and 23. We now had eleven bodies, but were they the eleven we expected? Tissue samples were obtained and placed under the microscope of science. It took some time, but when the DNA results came back they spoke firmly. The bodies were indeed those of the young Tsarevich Alexei, and the fourth of his sisters, probably Maria. All four sisters were now conclusively accounted for. Without any meaningful doubt, the entire Nikolaevna family (including Anastasia) and their four staff had died on that night in 1918, and spent 89 years underground.
Although the various impersonators perpetuated an intriguing mystery and made the twentieth century just that little bit more exciting, we shouldn't forget that their doing so cheated bereaved relatives, and honest believers, out of a lot of money. And they reminded us of a lesson to remember: you should always be skeptical.
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