The story of Anastasia Romanov is one of the great melodramas of royal history. In life, the real Grand Duchess Anastasia was the teenage daughter of Russia’s deposed emperor, Nicholas II. Her father had lost his throne during the revolution of 1917 and the entire family had subsequently been deported to Siberia. In July 1918, they were herded into a cellar and shot by local Communists. Their bodies were then stripped, doused in acid, hurled down a mineshaft and buried in a forest. In 1991, geologists announced they had discovered the bodies and surviving releatives of the Romanovs - including Britain's Prince Philip - were asked to provide DNA samples to help with the identification.
But between 1918 and 1991, no one knew, for sure, what had really happened to the Romanovs. The dishonesty and habitual secretiveness of the Soviet Union, the absence of the family’s corpses and rampant media speculation led to rumours that one, or more, of the Imperial Family had survived the massacre. By the 1920s, attention had narrowed to a single candidate – the youngest of the Tsar’s daughters, Anastasia, who had been seventeen at the time of her alleged murder.
Why Anastasia became the centre of the greatest conspiracy theory of the twentieth century is hard to say. Maybe it was because the name ‘Anastasia’ has links to the theme of resurrection in the Russian language or maybe because it was the unconscious allure of the youngest princess (a favourite phrase in fairy stories.) For whatever reason, it was Anastasia who became fixed in the public’s mind as the 'one who got away,' whilst her three sisters faded into the history books as victims of the October Revolution.
In time, the most famous of all the pretenders was a woman who travelled under the false name of ‘Anna Anderson,’ and who had first made the claim that she was Anastasia when she was recovering in a German mental asylum after a failed suicide bid in 1920. Anderson’s claim attracted global attention and she prosecuted the longest court case in European history trying to have her claim legally recognised. Some of her supporters included the Duke of Leuchtenberg, the Kaiser’s aging daughter-in-law Crown Princess Cecilia, the children of the doctor who had died alongside the royals in 1918, Anastasia’s childhood playmate who was now a wealthy American socialite called Xenia Leeds, the famous composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, the real Anastasia’s cousin Grand Duke Andrei, and, later, several prominent historians. However, there were notable dissenters – not least amongst them Prince Felix Yusupov, who called Anderson ‘an adventuress’ and ‘a horrible creature,’ the real Anastasia’s godmother the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the real Anastasia’s cousin Princess Irina, several of the Tsarina’s surviving ladies-in-waiting, the real Anastasia’s French tutor Pierre Gilliard, the real Anastasia’s nursemaid Shura Tegleva, and the real Anastasia’s uncle Ernest, the deposed Grand Duke of Hesse. Ernest in particular became so incensed by Anderson that he spent years obsessively tracking down who she might really be instead. Eventually, he put forward the theory that Anna wasn’t a Russian princess at all, but a missing Polish factory worker called Franziska Schanskowska.
Anderson’s claim, and her court case, helped ensure Anastasia’s place in popular legend. The myth spawned several plays and movies – including the magnificent Oscar-winning Anastasia in 1956 (above), in which Anderson was played by Ingrid Bergman and her Danish grandmother was played by the ‘queen of Broadway,’ Helen Hayes; there was also a 2-part television movie in 1986, Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, which had an impressive all-star cast that included first-time-actor Christian Bale (as Anastasia’s younger brother, Alexei), Amy Irving as Anna Anderson, Rex Harrison (in his last movie) as Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Gone with the Wind’s Olivia de Havilland as Anastasia’s royal grandmother, Brideshead Revisited’s Claire Bloom as the Tsarina Alexandra and Oscar-winner Omar Shariff as Tsar Nicholas II. And, of course, there was the romantic 1997 musical cartoon Anastasia (below), with the voices of Meg Ryan, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters and Kirsten Dunst.
However, it is now absolutely impossible for any rational human being to persist in the belief that Anastasia Romanov lived beyond the massacre of 17th July, 1918. If she did survive the initial gunfire, she did so only by a matter of hours. When the bodies of the Romanovs were first unveiled to the world in 1991, it did admittedly seem as if Anna Anderson (below) might have been telling the truth, because two were missing. Scientists eventually confirmed that the absent corpses belonged to one of the Tsar’s daughters and to his only son, Alexei. Even by the time the bodies were ceremonially reburied in the Romanovs’ splendid Saint Petersburg crypt in 1998, the two missing skeletons had still not been found. Admittedly, many scientists insisted that the real Anastasia’s body was actually one of those being buried and that the missing princess was her elder sister, 19 year-old Maria. Supporters of Anderson responded by claiming that Maria and Anastasia had been so close in age and physical appearance that the scientists had mistaken Maria’s body for that of her younger sister – who, they believed, had survived the massacre, lived under the name Anna Anderson and died in Virginia at the age of eighty-three in 1984.
But ten years later, in 2008, the last two royal bodies were discovered near the original burial pit. One of the Romanovs’ executioners had left records indicating that they had desperately tried to burn two of the bodies and, eventually, scientists were able to confirm his testimony. The bodies of Maria and Alexei Romanov were discovered near the site of the fire and at some point they will presumably rejoin their family in their Saint Petersburg tomb. In a final twist, DNA tests on a surviving scrap of intestine left from an operation undergone by Anna Anderson in the 1970s confirmed that Anastasia’s seemingly-paranoiac uncle Ernest had been right all along. Anderson wasn’t related to the Romanovs, but she was related to the Schanskowska family. Anna Anderson may have ended her life claiming to be the daughter of a tsar, but she had started it as the daughter of a penniless Polish factory worker.
Anderson’s claims have therefore been conclusively debunked and the body of the real Grand Duchess Anastasia rests inside the Peter and Paul Fortress of Saint Petersburg. But, incredibly, there are still those who refuse to accept that Anastasia died alongside the rest of her family in 1918 or that Anderson was nothing more than an extraordinarily gifted fraudster. What they're arguing is logically impossible, so why continue to cling to a belief that science and history have both debunked?
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that Anastasia was the last of a trinity of royal mysteries that have exercised and excited our curiosity for centuries. The other two are the missing Princes in the Tower and the ‘lost king of France,’ little Louis XVII, who disappeared at the height of the French Revolution. They died centuries apart, but there are similarities in their cases and in why they should still be studied today.
I don't believe that the princes in the Tower (above) survived or that they ever left its walls after 1483. If Richard III had shown unexpected clemency by allowing one, or both, to leave in the months after he became king, then it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t have paraded them through the streets when his regime was slowly being eroded by claims that he had murdered them. Furthermore, why would their mother agree to a scheme that would place Henry Tudor on the throne if she knew that her sons were still alive? There is, above all, absolutely no evidence – none whatsoever – that points to them having lived beyond 1483. There is plenty of passionate speculation, but nothing else. Bodies that are almost certainly theirs were discovered within the Tower’s walls in exactly the place that Saint Thomas More had said they were in, in his excoriating biography of their uncle. It’s too big a coincidence to dismiss. And, finally, if they did leave the Tower then where did they go after 1483? Narnia?
Louis XVII (above) died in horrible conditions, after months of physical and psychological abuse. He was ten years-old at the time and both his parents, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, had already gone to the guillotine. He was autopsied in the prison but then he was almost certainly hurled into a mass grave. We have no idea where and probably never will. It is only because his heart was removed during the autopsy that tests were able to be performed in the twenty-first century that confirmed that Louis had indeed died in prison in 1795.
And as for Anastasia: if eyewitness accounts of the Imperial Family’s murder are to be believed, she died towards the end of the massacre, after being repeatedly beaten and stabbed by Bolshevik soldiers.
These are the awful, hideous, heartbreaking facts behind the three greatest mysteries in royal history and a million miles removed from the fairy tales they have spawned.
All four of these young royals – Edward V, his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Louis XVII and Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia – disappeared in times of turmoil and secrecy. Richard III could not reveal what he had done with the boys, or allowed to be done to them, without fears of toppling his own regime. The French Republic felt that drawing attention to the appalling treatment the little boy had suffered in jail would only inflame royalist sympathies and the fledgling Bolshevik movement were concerned that Kaiser Wilhelm II would back-out of his recent truce with them if he discovered what had happened to his cousins. The myths about their survival are therefore perfectly explicable by a process of historical logic: initially, no one knew exactly what had happened to them which led to them speculating about possible explanations. I suspect, of course, that it’s more than that and that the reason why so many people believed, or believe, in these fantastic tales of imperial survival is because the allure of fairy stories never quite leaves us – however hard we try. We want to believe in royal glamour, excitement, danger and happily-ever-afters. We want to believe, I suppose, in some form of magic.
What do we do with these stories, though, once we know they’ve been disproved? (In Anastasia’s case, and Louis XVII’s, definitively; in the case of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, by all laws of probability.) Well, as a writer, I see nothing wrong in continuing to dramatize them. As long as you don’t get so caught up in your own fiction that you try to mislead people, I still think there’s a place for stories of lost princes and princesses. And why not? When I think of Edward, Richard, Louis and Anastasia, I often hear the words of poor Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement: ‘What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness.’ Robbed of a real life by their families' enemies, I suppose that there is a kind of kindness in giving these children a fictional afterlife.
But the historian in me wants people to see that the real stories of these children are important in their own right. They are celebrity poster-children against what we are capable of, but shouldn’t be. They’re what happens when politics runs amok. Edward V and his little brother perished at the end of a brutalising century, in which political corruption and ruthless communal ambition had warped the moral fabric of an entire generation. Louis XVII and Anastasia Romanov died because their very existence was inconvenient to a new form totalitarian form of politics. The children did not ‘fit’ into the revolutions’ grand new vision of the world. As a result, in a world without compromise, they were expendable. Leon Trotsky himself dismissed Anastasia’s murder with a shrug, boasting that the horror it had caused would help unite the Red Army in fear behind the Communist cause. What we should be doing now is not focusing too much on what might have happened, but on what did happen. These dead children matter because their fates illuminate the fates of so many others who we now know only by statistics; they give us warnings, not just about politics but about the nature of humanity. Reflecting on the death of Louis XVII, one French royalist lamented that the child had been cut down ‘on the threshold of life.’ These four children died horribly, they died unfairly and they died illegally. Their stories should remind us that we should never go too far in the name of politics, to never cheapen our respect for the sanctity of human life and to remind us that we should never turn our backs on protecting the weak and the vulnerable.