In 1901, Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova was born into a powerful family that ruled the second largest empire known to man – her father was Nicholas Romanov, better known as Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Having lived the comfortable life of a Grand Princess, Anastasia vanished with the rest of her family 17 years later, an apparent victim of the Russian Revolution. Her story is one of a girl who could have hardly known envy, but whose life was eventually dominated by the wants of others. It is a story that altered the course of history, and which spans more than a century, taking in the last days of the Russian Empire and the rise and fall of the Soviet Republic. Most importantly, it is a story that now has an end.
Anastasia was born the youngest of four sisters on 18 June, 1901 at a grand palace in Saint Petersburg, then the capital of Russia. Nicholas II was apparently disappointed with the birth of yet another girl, having hoped for a boy to continue his line. Things were further compounded when Anastasia's younger brother Alexei, born in 1904, was discovered to have haemophilia1. The Romanov children were descendants of Queen Victoria through their mother, and may all have inherited an X-linked gene for the bleeding disorder; however, Alexei was the only boy and thus the only one to show frank symptoms.
Anastasia spent much of her time with her sister Maria, together forming the 'Little Pair', while the two older sisters, Olga and Tatiana, formed the 'Big Pair'. Though they were made to perform household chores and use their spare time on needlework, the Romanov sisters were given a good education, taught to play the balalaika, and led privileged lives. Various people who knew Anastasia described her as bright, gifted, lively, mischievous and downright badly behaved, the latter being evident from her hiding up trees, throwing snowballs with stones inside, and cheating at games. Anastasia had little to want for in life, but her comfortable position would eventually prove to be her downfall.
War and Revolution
From the very beginning, Tsar Nicholas II's reign had been ill-fated – more than a thousand of his subjects were trampled to death during a festival to celebrate his coronation. The Tsar successfully completed his father's work on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok, but this expansion eastwards led to a particularly unsuccessful war with Japan, Russia's rival in the Far East. Both countries were greedy for land and, despite the impracticalities of waging a far-away war, the Tsar held onto vain hopes of victory long after those around him had called for peace. It took the virtual destruction of the Russian fleet to end the war, and the fall from grace that resulted sparked the 1905 Russian Revolution. The downfall of the Russian Empire effectively began when troops opened fire on a peaceful protest heading towards the Tsar's Winter Palace – the act made the population realise that the Tsar did not always have the people's interests at heart, and they began to rail against the monarchy. Nicholas II was forced to form the State Duma, an elected institution designed to take power away from the monarch.
By 1914, a stable Duma had been elected and had begun to function as a government. Unfortunately, in the same year an Austrian archduke was assassinated in Serbia, dragging Serbia's protector Russia into a fight that would later become known as World War One. Despite being quick to mobilise, the Russian Empire lost whole armies against organised German troops, and disquiet spread through Russia as its forces went into retreat. Life continued as normal for the Romanov sisters, who took to visiting and entertaining wounded soldiers at a hospital in Tsarskoe Selo, a short way south of Petrograd. However, with the Tsar busy at the front with Germany, rumours began to fly about his wife's relationship with the 'mad monk' Grigori Rasputin, a scandal which came to a head with Rasputin's murder in December 1916.
By February 1917, the war effort had led to food shortages and a harsh winter had severely damaged the railways. Following a series of strikes and demands for bread, people in the streets of Petrograd2 began to revolt and clash with police. An army regiment consisting of young, untrained men was sent to control the population. The experienced soldiers who would once have kept the troops loyal to the Tsar now lay dead on the German front, and so the troops mutinied and helped arm the uprising. The February Revolution had begun, and the Petrograd Soviet (worker's union) soon established itself as an authority led by socialist politicians. Acting too late, the Duma formed a Provisional Government and called for the Tsar to abdicate. Afraid that a civil war would allow Germany to conquer Russia, and that refusal might mean death for his family, Nicholas II had no choice but to surrender the throne.
House Arrest and Execution
No longer the royal family of Russia, the Romanovs were placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Here they enjoyed their usual degree of comfort, including a full raft of servants and tutors. The Provisional Government soon found itself in competition with the Petrograd Soviet, and although the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been rejected by the predominantly Menshevik Soviet, there was a great degree of political unrest. In August 1917, the army's command-in-chief General Kornilov organised a military putsch in an attempt to reverse the country's march towards socialism, but he was defeated by a Red Guard formed by the Bolshevik socialists. As a result, the Bolsheviks gained popularity within the Soviets, and the Provisional Government had the Romanovs moved to a mansion in the Ural mountains in order to protect them.
It was from here that Nicholas Romanov learnt that Lenin had led the Bolshevik socialists in the October Revolution, forcing out the Provisional Government and replacing it with the elected Second Congress of Soviets. Though Nicholas was initially unworried by these events, power had effectively transferred to workers and soldiers who frowned upon the Romanovs' lavish lifestyles. The family found themselves being treated with increasing contempt and were soon placed on basic soldier's rations. Believing that they would soon be rescued by those still loyal to the monarchy, Anastasia and her sisters spent their time sewing jewels into their clothing in order to hide them from their guards. There was little point – in May 1918, the family were moved to Ekaterinberg where they were imprisoned in the house of Nikolai Ipatiev, a military engineer.
During her time in the Ipatiev House, Anastasia still managed to have fun, putting on plays for her family and getting on well with some of the soldiers guarding the family. However, the Bolshevik revolution had thrown Russia into a state of civil war and in July 1918 the Whites, well-equipped troops loyal to the monarchy, were close to taking the town where the Romanovs were being held. The Bolshevik Reds were well aware that the release of the Romanovs would mean their downfall – had they been saved, the world might now be an entirely different place.
When the Whites reached Ekaterinberg, there was no sign of the family – they had simply disappeared. The Romanovs' possessions were found inside a nearby mine, leading the Whites to conclude that the family had been executed. It would be many years before the truth surfaced, and in the meantime there would be no shortage of myths.
Within a matter of days, the first sightings and rumours about the missing family had begun. One local man claimed to have seen a wounded Anastasia being treated in a building opposite the Ipatiev House, with the girl having somehow been smuggled out alive under cover of darkness. This rumour was later derided as impossible due to a curfew in place at the time, but it didn't prevent several women from later claiming to be the Grand Princess.
The most notorious of these claimants was Anna Anderson, who first surfaced in Berlin in 1920. Having attempted suicide by jumping into a canal, Anderson was rescued and committed to a local asylum where she initially refused to provide any details about herself. On examination, doctors found Anderson had several bullet wounds and the mark of a Russian bayonet on her foot. A year later, a fellow psychiatric patient claimed to recognise Anderson as being Anastasia's older sister Tatiana, a fact which was reported in the local press. This claim was backed by Zina Tolstoy, a friend of the Romanovs, but was denied by one of the family's governesses, who stated that Anderson was too short to be Tatiana. Undeterred, Tolstoy decided that Anderson must be Anastasia.
Following her release from the asylum in 1922, Anderson began to call herself Anastasia Tchaikovsky, claiming she had been rescued from the Ipatiev House by a soldier who later married her and fathered her child. Over the next few years, several friends and members of the extended Romanov family visited Anderson. Some believed Anderson to be an impostor, while others claimed she definitely was Anastasia. The Bolsheviks declared that Anastasia had indeed been killed, with one soldier claiming that the bodies of Anastasia and Alexei had later been burnt. All of this hardly mattered to Anderson, who for much of her life benefited from her claimed status.
However, rumours of a Romanov fortune allowed Anderson's supporters to form a company and sell shares to speculators willing to back Anderson's case. Though Anderson's claims that Nicholas II had hidden several millions in an English Bank turned out to be false, when Nicholas' relatives applied to the German courts to receive their inheritance from a German bank in 1938 a lawyer arrived to claim the money for Anderson. A lengthy court battle ensued, with a great number of experts either giving testimony as to Anderson's likeness to Anastasia or attempting to prove that she was in fact a Polish factory worker previously known as Franziska Schanzkowska. Anderson's initial claim was dismissed as unfounded, but the legal case rumbled on for many years after. In 1956, 20th Century Fox released Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman as Anna Anderson. The film was a fictional take on Anderson's already questionable version of events, but this didn't stop Fox from remaking it as an animated musical film in 1997. Having become the longest running case ever heard in a German court, Anderson's battle ended in 1970 when the court finally ruled that there was no way that Anderson could prove her identity. Anderson died of pneumonia in 1984 and was cremated.
The Yurovsky Note
In 1989, an official report of the execution of the Romanovs was declassified. This 'Yurovsky Note' revealed the story told by Yakov Yurovsky, the man who led a squad of Bolshevik secret police who raided the Ipatiev House on the night of the 16 July, 1918. Having notified the guards surrounding the house, Yurovsky had the Romanovs and four of their servants taken to the cellar of the house. Yurovsky himself successfully shot Nicholas II and Alexei, but the other members of the firing squad failed to complete the job, with the jewels sewn into the Grand Princesses clothing preventing the bullets from killing them. The note records that further shots, bayonet thrusts and shots to the head were required to finish the job.
The bodies were then taken in a truck to the nearby mine where the Whites would later find the Romanovs' belongings. Unfortunately for Yurovsky, the mine was entirely unsuitable for hiding bodies, and so the bodies were reclaimed and plans were made to head for a deeper mine. Eventually, the truck broke down and the group were forced to bury the bodies by the roadside, 12 miles north of Ekaterinberg. Yurovsky claimed that the bodies of Alexei and the servant Demidova were burned and buried separately, while the other nine bodies were put in a single pit and coated with sulphuric acid before being covered.
The Romanov Remains
The site of the main burial was discovered in May 1979 by a group of Russians who had gained access to the files containing Yurovsky's report. The group kept their discovery quiet until April 1989, when the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union suggested it was safe to reveal their findings. It is fortunate that the group didn't name the correct site, as a few days later the site they had named was rapidly excavated by a mysterious organisation. It took until March 1991 for the group to gain the support of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, who helped fund the excavation of the true site.
Nine skulls were found at the site, and some of the bodies were successfully DNA matched with samples from Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, a descendant of Nicholas II's great grandfather. Furthermore, the DNA tests showed that three of the female bodies were the daughters of a male and a female body, allowing scientists to conclude that they had found the Tsar, his wife and three of the princesses. At one stage a mismatch between the Tsar and his living relatives was discovered, leading to renewed doubts as to the nature of the remains. Fortunately, the exhumation of the Tsar's brother's body revealed this to be due to heteroplasmy, a mutation of mitochondrial DNA present in both the Tsar and his brother.
However, it appeared that the bodies of Alexei and one other were still missing. Despite the claims made in the Yurovsky Note, the body of the servant Demidova was identified as being among the nine bodies found. Although Russian scientists decided that one of the nine bodies was that of Anastasia, an American group argued that it was her body that was missing. When the Romanovs were finally interred in Saint Petersburg in July 1998, 80 years after their execution, the body buried under the name of Anastasia was thought by the Americans to be too tall. A DNA test performed on a tissue sample found in 1994 had proven Anna Anderson to be a simple Polish factory worker, but it still seemed that the truth behind the Anastasia saga would never be found.
In 2007, archaeologists uncovered a second burial site around 70 metres from first. It contained the burnt remains of at least two people, and analysis suggested that these were the bodies of a young boy and girl. The remains were thought to be at least sixty years old, and the presence of silver fillings in some of the teeth suggested that the individuals had been members of the aristocracy. The remains were compared with those found in 1991 and with the DNA of Prince Philip and other living relatives of the Romanovs; the resulting data proved conclusively that the bodies were those of Alexei and one of his sisters. All seven Romanovs had been found – the mystery as to the whereabouts of Anastasia Romanova had finally been solved.