The Mystery of Anastasia the last Princess of imperial Russia
Saturday,24 April 2021 05:07 PM IST
By Anupama Nair
Mumbai, April 24
There are many mysteries in modern history, but one of the most famous was Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolevna or Anastasia Romanov (1901-?) of Russia. Who was she? She was the daughter of world’s, one of the richest and most famous rulers – Tsar Nicholas Romanov (last ruler of Russia) and his wife Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna. She was the fourth daughter of the Tsar. It is said the couple were disappointed with the birth of a fourth daughter. When the cruel revolutionaries invaded the grand palace, they killed the Tsar, his wife and all the children and is considered to be the cruelest murders in Modern History. There was blood bath in entire Russia and when Soviet Union was formed. But that is not the topic I am talking about. It is a rumor that Princess Anastasia or Ana escaped from the attack on her family and resurfaced many years later. Is it true, nobody knows?
To understand what happened we need to understand about Russia and her history. The Russian king was called Tsar and was easily one of the richest Royal family in the world. Tsar Nicholas had four daughters and a son. During the World War I, the family helped the wounded Russian soldiers. But all their happiness came to end, when the Revolutionaries captured their palace and let loose a reign of terror. The Russian Revolution was a period of political and social anarchy, across the territory of the then Russian empire, commencing with the abolition of the monarchy in 1917, and Soviet Union was established in 1923 at the end of the Civil War. It began during the First World War, with the February Revolution that was occurring in and around the then-capital, Petrograd (now St Petersburg). The situation climaxed with the October Revolution in 1917. Civil War, erupted among the "Reds" (Bolsheviks), the "Whites” (counter-revolutionaries). In the end the Bolsheviks won.
Ana was believed to be killed along with the family in 1918, and buried in 1918. Was it true? Anastasia's supposed escape and possible survival was one of the most popular historical mysteries of the 20th century, provoking many books and films. At least ten women claimed to be her, offering varying stories as to how she had survived. Anna Anderson, the best-known Anastasia imposter, first surfaced publicly between 1920 and 1922. She contended that she had pretend death among the bodies of her family and servants, and was able to make her escape with the help of a compassionate guard who noticed she was still breathing and took pity on her. She managed to escape to United States. Her legal battle for recognition from 1938 to 1970 continued a lifelong controversy and was the longest running case ever. There was even a case heard by the German courts, where it was officially filed. The final decision of the court was that Anderson had not provided sufficient proof to claim the identity of the grand duchess. Anderson died in 1984 and her body was cremated. DNA tests were later conducted in 1994 on a sample from Anderson located in a hospital and the blood of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburg, who was the great-nephew of Empress Alexandra.
But even that proved inconclusive. Other lesser-known claimants were Nadezhda Vasilyeva and Eugenia Smith who claimed to be Anastasia and her sister Maria. They stated they were taken in by a priest in the Ural Mountains in 1919 where they lived as nuns until their deaths in 1964. They were buried under the names Anastasia and Maria Nikolaevna. Another incident, where eight witnesses reported the recapture of a young woman after an apparent escape attempt in September 1918 at a railway station at Siding 37, northwest of Perm. Some of the witnesses easily identified the girl as Anastasia, their princess, when they were shown photographs of the grand duchess by investigators. A person called Utkin also told the White Russian Army that the injured girl, whom he treated in Perm, told him, "I am the daughter of the ruler, Anastasia." Utkin obtained a prescription from a pharmacy for a patient named "N" at the orders of the secret police. White Army investigators later independently located records for the prescription.
In 1991, the presumed burial site of the imperial family and their servants was excavated in the woods outside Yekaterinburg. The grave had been found nearly a decade earlier, but was kept hidden by its discoverers from the Communists who were still ruling Russia at the time. The grave only held nine of the expected eleven sets of remains. Ana’s and her sister’s body were missing.
The purported survival of Anastasia has been the subject of cinema. The 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, was a blockbuster and one of my all-time favorites. The movie for the romantics like me, offered a more hopeful ending to the decades of mystery that followed the execution of Russia’s last tsar, and his family in 1918. In the movie, his youngest daughter, Anastasia, is suffering from amnesia and goes by the name Anna. Ingrid Bergman as Anna, who, 10 years after the presumed murder, is persuaded by the con man Sergei Bounine (Yul Brenner) to pose as the grand duchess to stake a claim to the Royal fortune. Anna manages to convince her most skeptical adversary, the dowager empress Marie Feodorovna, Anastasia’s grandmother (played by Helen Fayes). She suddenly seems to remember her royal identity. But rather than take on her imperial role, Anna instead chooses to elope with Bounine. As satisfying as the movie ending is, the real Anastasia probably did not reunite with her grandmother years after the Russian Revolution and run off with a charming con man.
Ninety years later, the mystery seemed over until the Russian Orthodox Church re-opened the case in 2015, claiming that the scientific investigations had been mis-handled. Perhaps the church, like the movie fans, preferred to maintain the hope of a happier ending than the darker one, that most historians now accept as true. I for one believe that Ana was lucky enough to escape. What happened is still not clear and remains an unsolved history.