Why We're Still Obsessed with the Fate of Doomed Romanov Princess Anastasia
Anastasia circa 1915. Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images. 


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Why We're Still Obsessed with the Fate of Doomed Romanov Princess Anastasia

July 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of the youngest Grand Duchess of Russia, whose death inspired a string of legends, lawsuits, and women claiming to be “Anastasia.”

July 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of Anastasia Romanov. She was the youngest Grand Duchess of Russia, but—fittingly for someone whose name means “resurrection”—her life became more interesting after her death, inspiring a string of legends, lawsuits, and women claiming to be “Anastasia.”

Since Anastasia Romanov and her family perished in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, her story has been told on Broadway and in Hollywood, by the Royal Ballet and Disney, in books ranging from scholarly treatises to romantic potboilers. But who was Anastasia? And why does her mystery still enthrall, even after it’s been solved?


For over 300 years, the Romanovs ruled Russia: There was Peter the Great, Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great—then Nicholas II, who turned out to be rather inadequate, took the throne in 1894. No autocrat of boundless ambition, Nicholas was a shy country gentleman, while his German-born empress, Alexandra Feodorovna, was an agoraphobic who was famously unpopular among the Russian people. The Romanovs’ main concern was spawning a male heir, but the birth of their fourth child was greeted with the New York Times headline: “Czar Has Another Daughter: Russian People Again Disappointed in Their Hope that an Heir to the Throne Would be Born.” The disappointment was named Anastasia.

According to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s historical The Resurrection of the Romanovs, one courtier said Anastasia was “quite unlike any of her sisters, with a type of her own.” Growing up, the royal sisters would float through the marble ballrooms of the Romanov Winter Palace in the same pale blue satin dresses and scamper across polished yacht decks in identical filmy white muslin, but one of the girls never quite matched. Olga was the dreamy, bookish one; Tatiana was the poised beauty; Maria the sweet, soft-hearted daughter, but Anastasia was the hell-raiser—a Bart Simpson among Bronte sisters. Another member of the household described Anastasia as “witty, vivacious, hopelessly stubborn, delightfully impertinent, and in general a perfect enfant terrible… in naughtiness, she was a true genius,” according to The Fate of the Romanovs. She told bawdy jokes, told off governesses, hid and wouldn’t come out, and climbed trees and wouldn’t come down. Yet she was also clever, with a knack for words and a gift for mimicry. One teacher described her as, “a little lady of great self-possession,” always with “some new oddity of speech or manner” in The Romanov Sisters.


The Romanov’s longed-for son came three years after Anastasia—sickly and spoiled, but an heir nonetheless. At that point, Anastasia and her sisters were pushed even further into the background, an indistinguishable herd of femininity that only needed to be considered in terms of which royal family they might marry into—if their overprotective mother would let them go. Their parents’ disdain for society meant that the girls had no outside friends and lived “a life deprived of outside amusements,” according to one of their tutors, leaving them lonely and bored. Meanwhile, Anastasia was the jester of the Romanov court, a cutup among the straitlaced. As she grew older, her word games and imitations turned into plays she wrote and performed for the household, often pushing her reserved sisters onto the stage as well.

A vintage postcard, published circa 1910, featuring the five children of Tsar Nicholas II and Queen Alexandra of Russia, left to right Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia with the young Grand Duke Alexei in front. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images.

In 1917, however, amid the financial collapse and political uproar of the Russian Revolution, Nicholas II abdicated his throne. And as the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, gradually gained power, the Romanov’s were imprisoned in a series of increasingly distant and dismal residences. At that point, Anastasia’s irrepressible spirit became even more essential to their survival, her performances and pranks and chatter continuing even as the rest of the family fell into despair. According to The Family Romanov, she was thumbing her nose at the head of their guards just hours before her death.


Anastasia, the rest of the Romanovs, and four of their attendants were executed on July 16, 1918. The country was embroiled in a bloody civil war between the Reds (the Bolsheviks) and the Whites (the counter-revolutionaries), and when it became clear that Yekaterinburg—where the Romanov’s were being kept—was going to fall to the Whites, a Bolshevik firing squad was ordered to shoot the Romanov’s in order to prevent their rescue. The Romanov women had sewn precious jewels into their clothing for safe-keeping in case they managed to escape, and the diamond necklaces and ruby bracelets turned their corsets into armor that bullets bounced off until the soldiers closed in to finish them off with bayonets and rifle butts. Afterward, the royal family's bodies were stripped, burnt, and buried in the woods nearby.

The new communist regime was vague about the fate of the Romanovs, although they eventually admitted the Czar was dead. But lack of official reports in regards to the fates of the rest of the family fueled rumors that some members had escaped. Meanwhile, the rest of the Russian aristocracy scattered across Europe—dukes that had once commanded regiments were taxi drivers, countesses that had once presided over palaces became lady’s maids. All hoped to return to their old way of life and many focused those hopes on the idea that some member of the royal family had survived.

Over the years, dozens of claimants turned up—a “Prince Alexei” in a corner of northern Poland, a “Tatiana” in rural England; but the most famous is the “Grand Duchess Anastasia,” pulled from a canal in Berlin after a suicide attempt in 1920. After her rescue, she spent several months in an asylum as “Fraulein Unbekannt” (Miss Unknown), a scarred, frightened woman who simply lay in her bed with a blanket pulled over her face. Quickly, her scars, accent, and “Romanov blue” eyes gave rise to a rumor that Miss Unknown was a surviving Grand Duchess—a rumor she did not refute.


Miss Unknown became a subject of curiosity to other patients, then visitors, then journalists and, eventually a parade of Russian aristocrats, some proclaiming her genuine, others declaring her a fraud. “Anna Anderson,” as she became known, spun a tale of escaping death and being smuggled out of Russia and offered up enough little-known facts about the royal family to entice some, but not enough to convince others. Once out of the asylum, Anna lived with a variety of people who wanted a touch of Russian nobility in their lives, whether motivated by sentimentality or profit. Books were written for and against her cause, lawsuits undertaken, none of it proving conclusive but, somehow, Anna became a permanent part of Anastasia’s story.

It was Anna who inspired the hit play by Guy Bolton about an amnesiac who may or may not be the Grand Duchess. The 1956 movie version starred Ingrid Bergman in her comeback after being blacklisted from the industry for having a child out of wedlock, restoring a member of exiled Hollywood royalty to her rightful place, with Oscar firmly in hand. The role of Anastasia ranges from waif to grand duchess with mad scenes, love scenes, and plenty of juicy monologues. Natalie Wood was preparing her stage debut in the role when she herself died mysteriously in 1981, with her own headlines and lawsuits continuing for decades.

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Finally, early 20th century myth ran up against late 20th century science. As the U.S.S.R fell, in 1990, the mass grave of the royal family was revealed to have been discovered, and the remains were sent to a lab. The nine skeletons were eventually confirmed to be those of the Romanovs and their retainers, leaving two victims glaringly unaccounted for until the discovery of the remains of Alexei and Maria nearby in 2007. (The Russian Orthodox Church, however, continues to refute that the remains belong to the members of the royal family.) And Anna Anderson? Her DNA was likewise tested; she was determined to have no relation to the Romanovs.

Of course, though, it takes more than a few facts to kill a good fiction. Anastasia the musical recently opened on Broadway and Matthew Weiner of Mad Men announced that he is working on an anthology series, The Romanoffs, about people around the world who believe themselves to be descended from the Russian royal family. Perhaps that premise gets to the core of why, throughout time, so many have latched onto the hope that Anastasia could still be alive: the romance of the idea that there could be royals living among us, or that we could somehow even be one of them.