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Revisiting the Legend of Anastasia

black & white photo of Russian royal family
Russian Royal family in 1914. L-R Seated: Marie, Queen Alexandra, Czar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexei. Standing: Olga and Tatiana. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

The legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia is one of the twentieth century’s most enduring popular myths. What really happened to the Russian imperial family, and what is it about the legend of Anastasia’s survival that has made it endure for so long?

The Downfall of the Romanovs

Decades of unrest, compounded by the significant losses suffered by Russia during World War I, finally erupted into outright revolution in 1917. Tsar Nicholas II had become an unpopular figure, and his German-British wife, the tsarina Alexandra, even more so. After three centuries of imperial rule by the Romanov dynasty, the family was overthrown, and a provisional government was installed. The provisional government soon fell as well, replaced by a more extreme government by the Bolshevik faction, led by Vladimir Lenin. That faction was particularly hostile to the now-powerless Romanovs and sought a permanent end to the family, fearing that any living Romanovs could later become a rallying point for anti-revolutionary activity.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s chronicle The Romanovs: 1613-1918 details the blunt facts of what came next. Although Lenin and others vacillated on whether it would be bad publicity to execute the Romanov children—daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were all young women or teenagers, plus their teenage brother Alexei—the decision was made in July 1918 to kill them all, particularly with the news that the White Army (sympathetic to the family) were nearing where they were being held in Yekaterinburg. In the early morning hours of July 16, 1918, the family and their remaining servants were taken to a basement, where a group of guards, led by Yakov Yurovsky, read out the orders of execution and carried out those orders in a hail of gunfire. Their bodies were taken away, and inept attempts were made to destroy the remains of the last Russian royals.

Did Anastasia Survive?

black and white photo of Anastasia at 13
Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia in 1914 at age 13. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

According to Montefiore’s chronicle, “Anastasia was the last of the family moving” in the basement that night. All of the girls survived the initial round of shots due to having hidden so many jewels in the seams of their clothing that they essentially were wearing armor. Initially, the government reported that only the tsar had been executed, and the others had been “evacuated.” Even after the truth slowly became common knowledge, rumors began to swirl that one of the daughters, at least, had survived, and the most popular theory was that the escaped daughter was Anastasia.

Many imposters claimed to be Anastasia over the next few decades, the most famous of which was Anna Anderson. Later proved to be a mentally ill Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska, Anderson convinced many—including Gleb Botkin, son of the Romanov’s physician—that she was the real Anastasia. In their book The Quest for Anastasia: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Romanovs, historians John Klier and Helen Mingay explain just how Anderson convinced so many.

“She was a trying, difficult, and eccentric person, yet she successfully relied upon ‘the kindness of strangers.’ She attracted people and retained their intense loyalty for many different reasons. If she were not the Grand Duchess, she proved a remarkably successful pretender.”

During her life, Anderson was never “officially” proven not to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but her claims slowly lost priority as World War II loomed. She eventually fled to the United States, where she lived out the remainder of her life and still drew occasional attention for her glamorous rumored backstory.

After the Soviet Union fell, an official expedition was finally permitted to the discovered graves of the Romanovs. DNA from Romanov relatives, including Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (who was descended from Tsarina Alexandra’s sister), confirmed the remains were the Romanovs—but two bodies were missing. Montefiore reports that most experts agreed the missing bodies were Maria and Alexei. Still, popular reports differed as to whether the missing sister was Maria or, as had long been rumored, Anastasia. The last two bodies, however, were finally discovered in 2007 and confirmed with DNA evidence in 2015. “Many glorious pages of Russian history are connected with the Romanovs, but this name is connected to one of the most bitter lessons: any attempt to change life by violence is condemned to failure,” said Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a commemorative funeral for the Romanovs in 1998. The Romanovs are now considered martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Enduring Legend

Broadway billboards showing banners for Anastasia

The legend of Anastasia—and the stories of pretenders like Anderson—inspired an array of books, movies, operas, and more over several decades. The most famous was a pair of films, both simply titled Anastasia, which focused on a young woman who discovered she was Anastasia and a couple of con men who helped her for their own ends (at least at first). The first was a live-action film in 1956, based on a play by Guy Bolton and Marcelle Maurette and starring Ingrid Bergman as “Anna” and Yul Brynner as Bounine, a con man looking to claim the Romanov fortune. The second was an animated musical in 1997, with Meg Ryan and Liz Callaway voicing amnesiac orphan “Anya” and John Cusack and Jonathan Dokuchitz voicing servant-turned-con man Dimitri; this movie was then adapted into a Broadway musical in 2017.

In many ways, the truth about Anastasia no longer matters to what the legend has become. Today, it’s less a genuine theory of history and more a reflection on human nature and what we long for, which then gets depicted in our fiction. Theatre director Darko Tresnjak, who directed the Broadway iteration of Anastasia, reflected on the legend’s transition to meaningful symbolism instead of “real” possibility.

“The whole Anastasia myth, it functions like a theatrical romance to me. At the center of it is a young woman, like Marina in Pericles or Perdita in A Winter’s Tale, who’s separated from her family. And at the end of the perilous journeys, there’s this improbable reunion, like in Shakespeare’s plays.”

So what is it about the legend that has made it endure, even with scientific proof that it isn’t true? There’s an appeal to the idea that even during a time of atrocities, that a single, innocent life could have escaped and even lived a happy and fulfilling life. Everyone loves a happily-ever-after.

“The two Anastasias represent the two faces of the twentieth century,” wrote Klier and Mingay. “One is a century that really existed, full of war and the slaughter of innocents. The second is the century we longed to have, of peace and family pleasures, and the dreams of any little girl who would close her eyes and become a princess.”

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »