Anastasia Romanov (1901-1918) has become one of the most romanticized figures in history, due to her noble birth, playful personality, and the tragic, mysterious circumstances of her death.
To understand Anastasia Romanov, one must understand the world "Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess (equivalent to a princess) Anastasia Nicholaievna Romanov" entered at birth. She was the youngest daughter of Czar (equivalent to an emperor or king) Nicholas II, who, as progenitor of the Romanov dynasty (autocratic rulers of Russia for almost three hundred years), believed he inherited the God-given right to rule. The Romanovs embodied Russia and maintained inseparable ties to the Orthodox church. Many of their subjects, especially peasants, looked to them as demigods.
When Anastasia was born in 1901, Russia was the largest, richest country in Europe. Great wealth was concentrated among the aristocracy and a small upper class, while eighty percent of the population lived in poverty. The opulence and grandeur of imperial Russia outshone the remaining royal courts of Europe, most of which had lost absolute power by 1900, and had accepted redistribution of land as a new reality. Anastasia: The Lost Princess, describes the gulf between Russian rulers and their subjects, which began with small revolutionary reform groups during the mid-nineteenth century. Even though reformers within the nobility attempted to make changes, the imperial rulers' attitudes and traditions remained largely unchanged. Conflict was inevitable.
Despite her privilege and status, Anastasia grew up to be a remarkably warm, down-to-earth young woman with a spirited personality. She was the darling of the family, popular with the Russian people, and world press. When imperial rule ended with the family's brutal execution, loyalists to the crown-and others around the world-grasped at the possibility of her survival. A woman named Anna Anderson, claiming to be Anastasia, kept the fantasy of her escape and survival alive until 1994 when it was definitively disproved.
The first years of Nicholas II's reign were peaceful. By all accounts, the czar and czarina's primary interest was their family. They spent a great deal of time with the children, and kept them as far away from the social whirl of the court as possible. For Anastasia and her older sisters-Olga, Tatiana, and Marie-and later her brother, Alexei, home within the Winter Palace's 1, 000 rooms was the family's private apartment. Less opulent and imposing, the chambers reflected Alexandra's English upbringing with her grandmother, England's Queen Victoria. An observer noted, "English was the language which she always spoke and wrote to the Emperor…. the Empress always thought of herself an English woman."
Russia Under The Czars describes Nicholas "as handsome, charming, gentle to the point of weakness, and religious to the point of mysticism." When he met the beautiful, and equally religious and mystical, Princess Alix of Hess-Darmstadt (Germany), they were immediately drawn to one another. The match was as unpopular as it was strong. Russia was on unfriendly terms with Germany, and the czar's family disliked Alexandra's English upbringing. As time went on, and she had not produced the requisite male heir, she retreated from public life.
Both parents agreed that discipline was important; hence, the children slept on hard camp cots with no pillows, made their own beds, and took a cold bath every morning just as their father had done as a boy. Their studies included four languages, in addition to music, drawing, and needlework. Nobility had its rewards, as well; the family traveled aboard a blue imperial train or royal yacht when they went to Tsarskoe Selo, the "tsar's village." The imperial couple preferred the seclusion of Alexander and Catherine Palaces; and the children loved the relative freedom they had to roam around the palatial grounds, which included a small lake with an island where they had a playhouse.
An Evil Spirit Arrives
The joy over the birth of Alexei in 1904 faded when it was learned that he had inherited hemophilia, an incurable disease that prevents blood from clotting. Specialists were consulted, and the czar and czarina prayed for a miracle. A year later they were introduced to Rasputin, a religious pilgrim of immense physical size. With his hypotonic eyes and inexplicable powers to stop Alexei's bleeding, Rasputin gradually gained a dangerous control over Alexandra and her fears. In time, he also dominated Nicholas and exerted his influence on matters of state as well as Alexei's health.
Other than close family friends, the children grew up playing among themselves without much interaction with the outside world. In addition to the czar and czarina's distaste for court life, keeping Alexei's illness secret was crucial to maintaining strong Romanov rule. The nursery years were spent playing with many dolls and toys, each under the supervision of a personal nurse. Even at the age of three, Anastasia knew that Alexei's illness was a secret.
As Anastasia grew older, she and her sisters followed a prescribed routine of visiting their mother in the morning, attending classes, playing, and then joining both parents for afternoon tea. Anastasia, with her golden hair, sparkling blue eyes, and impish playfulness, exerted her head-strong personality and great energy. Nicknamed shvibzik, meaning "imp, " Anastasia was mischievous, and loved making others laugh. She delighted in mimicking pompous guests, as well as instigating pranks on nurses and tutors. In his memoirs, her French tutor, Pierre Guillard, wrote, "She was the imp of the whole house and the glummest faces would always brighten in her presence, for it was impossible to resist her jokes and nonsense."
Anastasia did not enjoy most of her schoolwork. According to Hugh Brewster, author of Anastasia's Album, her English teacher remembered her trying to bribe him with flowers so he would raise her poor marks. When he refused, she gave them to her Russian teacher. She adored creative subjects, however, and wrote, "I excelled at composition. I must say that all my poems were satires, lampoons, from which no one was safe." Her drawings, paintings, and photographs are well documented in family albums. She often spent hours illustrating letters with drawings, and hand-coloring photographs to highlight a special aspect.
Anastasia was easily bored, and always ready for breaks in the routine. Every March the family boarded the imperial train to go to their retreat on the Black Sea. Photographs portray a simple, informal life filled with swimming and long walks. The family's happiest times were when they were away from duty and the public eye. Journal entries and photographs during summer cruises, vacations at their beachfront dacha (summer villa), and private island show a relaxed family enjoying hikes, picnics, games, and sports. In a letter to her Russian teacher when she was about ten years old, she reported, "We take long walks with Papa. One day we walked around the whole island-twelve miles…. Marie and I recited our French dialogues, everybody liked it very much. Today I went swimming after tennis…. We had cinematograph twice. We are so comfortable here on the yacht."
The War Years
Elsewhere revolutionary forces were beginning to rumble again. In 1904, Russia became involved with a disastrous and unpopular war with Japan. A year later an Orthodox priest organized workers to present work grievances to Nicholas. As they approached the Winter Palace, government troops opened fire. Thousands were killed on "Bloody Sunday, " a general strike ensued, and discord raged for months. Finally Nicholas was convinced to support the establishment of an elected legislature, and in 1906 the Duma was founded in Russia's first national election. Although Russia was behind the rest of Europe, the country began to prosper and was moving into modernity when World War I exploded in 1914. By that time, Rasputin's word ruled, and for a time he ran the government when Nicholas was at the front.
In the hope of saving Russia, a group of concerned Romanov supporters killed the despised cleric in December 1916. But it was too late. Millions of Russian soldiers were dying; unrest was growing against the war and the czar. The Duma formed a separate government that was joined by many of the czars soldiers, and in an effort to quell rioting, asked Nicholas to give up the throne. On his way back from military headquarters, he abdicated. From March 1917 until July 1918, the Romanovs were prisoners in their own country.
Anastasia was thirteen when the war began. While her mother and two older sisters trained as nurses and worked in military hospitals, Anastasia and Marie visited soldiers at a small hospital near Alexander Palace. She wrote often to her father who was away at military headquarters, "I sat today with one of our soldiers and helped him to learn to read. Two more soldiers died yesterday. We were still with them."
While the children realized conditions were worsening, they were astounded by their arrest. At first little changed; the close knit family banded together, and hoped they would be allowed to live at on one of their small estates. As time passed, however, less friendly forces seized power and sent the Romanovs to Siberia, where they lived from August 1917 until May 1918. Shortly after Vladimir Lenin came to power, the family was separated-Nicholas, Alexandra, and Marie were taken to Ekaterinburg in the Ural region, and Anastasia, Olga, Tatiana, and Alexei were left in Tobolsk, Siberia. Two months before their execution, the family was reunited. Anastasia turned seventeen that June.
The Secret Execution
Historians can only surmise exactly what happened during the early morning hours of July 16, 1918. The family was ordered to go to the basement of the house, called the "House of Special Purpose." Most experts agree that Nicholas was shot first, then the rest-Alexandra, the children, the family's doctor, and three servants-in the mayhem that followed. The White Army (loyalists to the Czar) concluded Bolsheviks had killed the family, burned, and buried the bodies in a mass grave. Years passed before their remains were found in a forest nearby. Russians leaders were afraid, if found, the Romanov's bones might be considered religious relics by loyalists to the throne, and no further investigation was conducted.
A Mystery Emerges
A year later a woman who could not be identified was found trying to jump off a bridge in Berlin. She was hospitalized, and rarely spoke during her long recovery. Many people tried to identify the mystery woman, but failed. To everyone's surprise, when she was released from the hospital, she announced that she was Anastasia. In the years that followed, she told stories about imperial family secrets in amazing detail. Speculation about Anastasia's survival exploded. Even after Romanov relatives visited and declared her not to be Anastasia, speculation continued and various benefactors came to her rescue.
Eventually the woman assumed the name Anna Anderson, and became increasingly eccentric and reclusive. Legal battles were waged between her and the Romanov family, but neither side could prove or disprove her identity conclusively. She died in 1984 still claiming to be Anastasia.
Hollywood did its part to keep the romantic story of Anastasia alive. In 1956, Ingrid Bergman played the title role in Anastasia and won an Oscar for her performance. In 1986, Amy Irving starred in the television movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. In 1997, Disney brought the story to life with the animated feature Anastasia. These movies loosely supported the claims that Anastasia survived the massacre of her family.
When Russia opened up politically in the 1980s, the government excavated what was believed to be the burial site. Scientists confirmed the remains were those of the Romanovs, but of the eleven people known to have been executed, only nine bodies were found. The two smallest bodies, thought to be Alexei and Anastasia, were missing.
The question of Anna Anderson's identity remained unanswered. In 1993, People, reported that DNA tests comparing a sample of Anderson's body tissue, which had been saved after an operation, with a blood sample from England's Prince Philip, a distant cousin of Anastasia, proved that they were not related. Anna Anderson could not have been Anastasia. One mystery was solved, but the question of Anastasia's and Alexei's whereabouts lingered until scientists matched old photos with skulls exhumed from the grave. Russia's chief forensic expert told U.S. News and World Report in 1994 that computer modeling matched five skulls precisely with photos of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their daughters Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia. The myth of Anastasia's survival ended, but the whereabouts of Alexei and Marie remain unknown.
Further Reading on Anastasia Nicholaievna Romanov
Brewster, Hugh, Anastasia's Album, Hyperion Madison Press, 1996
Kurth, Peter, Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Little Brown & Co., 1985.
Lovell, James Blair, Anastasia The Lost Princess, Regnery Gateway, 1991.
Moscow, Henry, Russia Under The Czars, American Heritage Publishing, 1962.
Electronic World Communication, 1994.
People, July 26, 1993.
Publishers Weekly, October 7, 1996.
Reader's Digest (Canadian), April 1996.
Sunday Times, June 26, 1994; October 9, 1994.
U.S. News & World Report, September 19, 1994.