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An extraordinary story of tenacity and intrigue, and the deep human urge to salvage hope from tragedy.Did the seventeen-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia survive the massacre of the Russian imperial family in 1918? Over the years, the possibility that the youngest of the tsar’s four daughters might have escaped the killings has provided rich spawning ground for claimants. By far the best known of these was Anna Anderson, a mysterious young woman who appeared in Berlin in 1920. Anna attracted a bizarre coterie of supporters―some of whom had known the grand duchess as a child―who risked life and limb, and often all their savings, in a desperate attempt to prove that Anastasia had, after all, survived. But who was Anna Anderson―and just how did she manage to convince so many people that she was the real Anastasia? Frances Welch’s A Romanov Fantasy is a tragic comedy in the best Russian tradition―a compelling, eerie, and frequently hilarious study of discipleship, snobbery, and life after death.
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Frances Welch, coauthor of Memories of Revolution and author of The Romanovs and Mr. Gibbes, has written about the Romanovs for the Sunday Telegraph and Granta. She lives in Wiltshire, England.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt
The story of the last days of the Romanovs -- and especially that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia -- seems to have no end. But its tragic beginning is well-known. In July 1918, in the cellar of the "House of Special Purpose" in Ekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, Bolshevik gunmen executed Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, along with the tsarina, their four daughters and only son.
For almost a century since that terrible event, rumors have circulated that one or more of the royal children survived and pretenders have surfaced claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the most tenacious one being a certain Anna Anderson. Countless books, articles and movies have explored and romanticized Anderson's persistent claim that she was the youngest daughter of the tsar and the sole survivor of the massacre.
A Romanov Fantasy, by British author Frances Welch, who has written extensively about the Romanovs, is the latest attempt to unravel the mystery of Anna Anderson's identity. And there are recent developments to warrant a further look. After the collapse of communism, the Russians discovered the burial site of the murdered royals, along with almost all their remains. DNA testing appeared to confirm the Romanovs' identities, but missing were any traces of Anastasia and Alexis, the tsarevitch. (There has been some dispute over whether the missing grand duchess was Anastasia or her sister Maria.) However, last summer, newspapers reported that the bones of these two may have been recovered at another location. DNA testing now being performed could mean the definitive end to the powerfully resilient Anastasia myth.
Welch, in exploring every twist and turn of this tale, has produced what must be all the available facts, both tragic and comic, but her presentation of so many claims and counterclaims can be very confusing, especially the murky conflicting stories surrounding Anna's early life. The woman who eventually called herself Anna Anderson first entered the sad Romanov tale in 1920, when she was rescued from a Berlin canal after a suicide attempt. She was taken to a hospital, where for six weeks she was questioned but would say nothing. Finally she confessed that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia and had been so desperate she had hurled herself into the canal.
Anna claimed she survived the executions because the two guards ordered to dispose of the bodies could not bring themselves to bury the wounded duchess alive. Instead, they bundled her into a farm cart that took her west among thousands of refugees. She ended up in Bucharest, where she claimed to have survived on the proceeds of jewelry she had sewn into her clothing. She also claimed to have given birth to a son who was immediately put up for adoption and that she later married one of the guards who rescued her. No record exists to verify these claims.
Coincidentally, German records show that a Polish woman, identified as Franziska Schanzkowska, was in fact rescued from that same canal in 1920, and the identity of this woman somehow morphed into Anna Anderson, thus giving rise to another version of the legend.
Yet people believed Anna/Anastasia -- some of them ardently. Chief among her champions was Gleb Botkin, son of Dr. Eugene Botkin, the imperial family's loyal physician, who shared their fate in the 1918 massacre. Gleb had been a childhood friend of young Anastasia and became convinced that Anna was not an impostor. He managed to bring her to the United States where he lived and worked as an artist and writer. More important, he found wealthy patrons who were willing to act as her hosts.
It is apparent from Welch's account that Anastasia's supporters were not moved solely by altruism. Members of the Russian diaspora, in particular, were convinced that an enormous Romanov fortune was locked up in the Bank of England waiting for its rightful claimant. For some, Anna/Anastasia was that heiress. But 11 Romanovs, led by the tsar's sister Grand Duchess Xenia, signed a statement denying that Anna was the royal daughter.
Nonetheless, Anna continued to find rich Americans who believed in her story until finally she wore out her welcome. According to Welch, this so-called grand duchess became a pain in the derrière -- irascible, demanding, pretentious and apparently mad. She ended up in a sanatorium and a few months later moved back to Germany. Much of the book recounts her four decades in Germany -- from 1931 to 1968 -- with various protectors, lawyers and detractors, all busy trying to verify or debunk her story. Her fame grew; she was the subject of plays, songs and movies, the most famous of which starred Ingrid Bergman.
During this epoch, Anna embarked on a legal battle for recognition as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, which became the longest-running German court case of the 20th century. In the end, the courts did not uphold her claims. All the while she was becoming increasingly eccentric, acquiring a menagerie including some 40 cats that slept on her bed while she took the sofa. She suffered from paranoia, distrusting many of her most loyal supporters. When she again decamped to America, "The loyal Anastasians," writes Welch, "who for so many years had dug deep into their own pockets to support her, endured a final insult when they entered the house and, amongst the debris, came upon piles of uncashed cheques." The final act of Anna's life played out in Charlottesville, Va., where an American millionaire more than 20 years her junior supported her and then married her when her visa expired. They were together more than 16 years until her death in 1984. Anna's death certificate, according to Welch, records her father as "Czar Nikolai" and her mother as "Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt." Her birthplace is listed as "Peterhof, Russia." Under occupation is typed "Royalty."
In the end, what is one to make of this bizarre tale? Welch, the diligent journalist, never says unequivocally where all this research has led her. Instead, she wonders "Had [Anna] succumbed to others' belief that she really was Anastasia? Had she fallen prey to a subterfuge of her own making? Had Anna, in some sense, become Anastasia?"
Actually, the evidence that Anna was an impostor seems overwhelming, but for many "Anastasians" the enigma apparently remains even to this day.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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