The mystery of Anastasia is one of the most popular and enduring mysteries of the twentieth century. Anastasia was the youngest daughter of the last imperial family of Russia, the Romanovs. In February of 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia and her father, Tsar Nicholas III was not popular among his people and many were dissatisfied with the government. After the revolution, the Tsar and his family were sent to the "House of Special Purpose" in Ekaterinburg and spent their last days in the house where they were constantly surrounded by guards.
Eventually on the evening of July 17, 1918 the entire imperial family, consisting of Tsar Nicholas III, his wife Empress Alexandra, and their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, their son Alexei, and some of the family servants and the family doctor were executed. Their bodies, after being dumped and moved multiple times, were finally buried in a pit in the middle of a road in the Koptiaki Woods in Ekaterinburg. The bodies were decimated by being burned and having acid poured on their bodies. After a while it was difficult to tell whose body the body parts belonged to; this later led to confusion with figuring out whose bones were whose and it spurred the rumor of the missing princess, Anastasia. After their deaths, the Soviets announced only the death of the Tsar and said nothing about the rest of the imperial family, making it seem as if they were still alive.
This lie misled many people into believing that some members of the family were still alive; in fact the Dowager Empress; Marie Fyodorovna, who was Tsar Nicholas II's mother, believed that her family was still alive and continued to believe that until her death. Many people came forward claiming to be an heir to the Romanov throne. There was a young man in Poland who claimed to be Alexei, the only son of the Tsar and there were also a boy and girl who together claimed to be Alexi and Tatiana. The most famous of these imposters came to be known as Anna Anderson.
The life of Anna Anderson is shrouded in mystery. Throughout the twentieth century her identity was a hotly debated topic; was she really the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Imperial family, or was she just a disillusioned woman claiming to be the lost princess, Anastasia Nicolaievna? Fraulein Unbekannt or Miss Unknown was found at Dalldorf Asylum in Berlin. While at the asylum she talked very little and no one could figure out who she was or where she came from because she refused to answer. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to talk to the nurses and would often make remarks hinting at her "noble birth"; however, it wasn't until 1921 that she officially declared herself to be Anastasia and the nurses didn't doubt her because according to the nurses she looked like Grand Duchess Anastasia in pictures from magazines and seemed to have a regal air about her. She came to Dalldorf in 1920 as an unknown woman, scared, and depressed and left on January 20, 1922 as "Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaievna."
This mystery woman claiming to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II quickly grew in popularity and the story "spawned an Anastasia business - books and film, ballet and music." The Anna Anderson/Anastasia affair first became the subject of a French play by MarceIle Maurette, later adapted to the Broadway stage by Guy Bolton. Then in 1956 the film version, Anastasia, which was loosely based on the actual story was released. Anastasia was directed by Arthur Laurents and starred Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, and Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca fame. Yul Brynner shot to fame and became an overnight sensation after his portrayal of the King in the 1956 film, "The King and I". The reviews for Anastasia were mostly positive; however, one reviewer noted that, "Up to a point, Antole Utvak's picture blends skillfully mystery, romance, and melodrama Hollywood style," and that the superb Helen Hayes was "poorly cast" in her role as the Dowager Empress; however, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her mesmerizing performance. The character of "Anna" was played by Bergman who later went on to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role. The film was Bergman's successful return to Hollywood after her notorious affair with Italian director, Roberto Rossellini. Brynner plays the disgraced General Bounine who is looking for a woman to successfully portray Anastasia so that he can collect a lot of money. He finds her in Bergman's incredible performance as Anna Corey.
Bergman portrays a woman who doesn't even know who she really is but is able to convince others and sometimes even herself that she is Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaievna. Throughout the movie, her character goes through a roller coaster of emotions. She goes from a suicidal, delusional woman full of doubt about her identity to a courageous woman who finds herself and also along the way falls in love with General Bouine. Brynner plays a man hardened by the Russian Revolution and is just looking to cash in on the mystery of the missing princess. His character is a tough man who pushes Anna to perfectly portray Grand Duchess Anastasia and just before he is about to lose her to another man, Prince Paul, the General realizes he is in love with Anna/Anastasia.
Helen Hayes is tough and sharp as the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna. The scene where Anna and the Dowager Empress meet for the first time is intense and climactic. The Empress doubts Anna, believing her to be an imposter just like all the others that have claimed to be the missing Anastasia while Anna is emotional calling her "Grandmamma" and trying to convince the Empress that she is her actual granddaughter. As the Dowager Empress is trying to leave, Anna begins coughing and tells the Empress that she coughs when she is frightened. This is what finally persuades the Empress that this woman actually is or could be her missing granddaughter. In reality Anna Anderson never met her "grandmamma", the Dowager Empress. The Empress believed that her family was still alive and that they were never executed; therefore until she "admitted that the throne was vacant, all claimants to the throne were in position of pretenders." In the film, Anastasia and her Grandmamma rejoice at finding each but their reunion is short lived for soon after the Empress allows Anastasia to leave behind her new found identity to be with General Bouine. After Anastasia ran away, Prince Paul who was supposed to be Anastasia's betrothed exclaims to the Dowager Empress, "She was not Anastasia after all!" and she inexplicably replies "wasn't she?"
In reality Anna Anderson was declared a fraud by the West Germany Supreme Court on February 27, 1970, almost thirty years after the Anastasia affair had started. It seems astonishing that there was so much arguing over this woman who claimed to be Anastasia, but there was and it split families into those who believed she was Anastasia and those who believed her to be a fraud. Officially the Romanov family denied that Anna Anderson was the Grand Duchess, but there were some members of the family who questioned whether or not she really was Anastasia. It is surprising how many people; some of them close to the family who at one point of time had seen or met Anastasia actually believed that Anna Anderson was Anastasia. She was so convincing because not only did she share similar physical features with Anastasia but she knew intimate details about the imperial family. While in the St. Mary's hospital, Grand Duchess Olga, sister to Tsar Nicholas, met and visited with Anna Anderson. Olga believed that she was actually Anastasia, saying, "my reason cannot grasp it but my heart tells me that the little one is Anastasia"; however, later on Olga recanted her statements, going along with the Romanov family's statement that Anna Anderson was not the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
In 1979 a group of men lead by Aleksandr Avdonin found the gravesite of the imperial family and found nine bodies. The bones belonged to the Tsar, the Tsarina, three of his daughters Olga, Tatiana, and Maria. The other bones belonged to the family's physician Dr. Botkin and their servants Demidova, Kharitonov, and Truppl I. Bones belonging to Anastasia and Alexei seemed to be missing; however, there was some debate as to which daughter was actually missing. The finding of the bones of the imperial family and the realization that there were two bodies missing, one that could be Anastasia's, reignited the imagination of the people. Maybe, just maybe Anna Anderson was really Grand Duchess Anastasia. Yet DNA testing proved that Anna Anderson was in no way the youngest daughter of the Tsar or even related to the Romanov family. After DNA testing, it seemed to be that Anna Anderson was in fact a Polish woman by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. Even with the DNA testing some still believe that Anderson could have been Anastasia and that the test could have been tampered with.
How did the Anna Anderson/Anastasia affair get to be an international issue? There were others who claimed to be Anastasia, Tatiana, or Alexei but none grew to such fame as Miss Unknown did. Her story had all the makings of a fairytale: a princess, once lost was now found. Her story captured people's imaginations and endured for years and became the subject of theatre and film, two notable versions being the animated Disney version issued in 1997 and the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman. This woman may not have actually been the Grand Duchess Anastasia but she was able to fool many people, even those who had known the real Anastasia as a child. She shared many similar features with Anastasia, both physical and in the way she acted and she somehow knew an uncanny amount of information about the imperial family. She is still a mystery today, we know now who she really was, a simple Polish woman, but how did she get to know so much? Why was she able to fool so many people?
Recommended Readings and Films:
For vivid and sensitive historical drama, Peter Massie’s, Nicholas and Alexandra, from which a magnificently filmed Hollywood version of the same title was produced, as well as his more recent Romanovs: The Final Chapter, are both hard to put down. Peter Kurth’s Tsar: the Lost World of Nicholas and Alexadra is a strong retelling of the basic story in the guise of a coffee table book. The often magnificent photographs are by Peter Christopher.