The Real Mystery of Anastasia

When we think about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, we usually have in mind the romantic ambience and the protagonist’s happy ending in the 1956 movie, the animated film, and the recent Broadway musical However, the fate of the real Anastasia was much darker and tragic, surrounded by a mystery that endures till today

Everything started on February 21st of 1613 when Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov was unanimously elected as the Tzar of Russia by the Duma This was the beginning of the Romanov dynasty The Romanovs were the second, and last, dynasty to rule Russia They ruled Russia for more than 300 years The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, had been in power for more than 23 years when the Russian Revolution of 1917 began

Up until that year, the royal family was beloved by most of its people All in all, Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, led a restrained life Especially after their long-awaited son, Alexei Nikolaevich (alexeeay nikol’aevitch), the fifth and youngest of their children, was diagnosed with haemophilia, which was extremely lethal at that time Alexei’s parents were consumed with fear for him and decided to live almost like recluses in order to protect him But it was thanks to Anastasia, the fourth child, that the palace never fell into despair

She kept the whole family's spirits up According to many family members, the little girl was always cheerful She enjoyed playing outside and loved animals Family friend Anna Vyrubova (anna weer’oobova) reported Anastasia was “a sharp and clever child” with a remarkable sense of humour, who liked to play tricks and jokes on her siblings And even if she disliked her lessons, she was considered by some to be the most intelligent of the four daughters

Vyrubova also stated that Anastasia and her sister Maria were so close they were nicknamed “the Little Pair,” in contrast to older sisters Olga and Tatiana who were referred to as “the Big Pair” However, Russia’s belief in the ruling tzar became weaker once the country joined World War I The Russian economy was collapsing, and more than 1 million people had already died on the battlefield Many blamed war failures on the Tzar, who was unable to meet the people's needs and led the country into an unnecessary war Others believed instead Grigori Rasputin (greegor'ee rusp'ooten) was actually behind Nicholas II’s later measures

Rasputin was a Russian mystic, who was thought to have supernatural powers He got close to the royal family because Tsarina Alexandra often called upon him to pray for Alexei during his more debilitating bouts of illness Although he held no formal role within the Russian Orthodox Church, Rasputin had a strong influence on the Tsarina, who credited his miraculous faith-healing abilities with saving her son’s life on several occasions In fact, she even encouraged all her children to consider the Rasputin as a friend and a confidant The weak health of all the children concerned her, and to her, the mystic was the best way to keep them safe

All the Romanov children suffered from some sort of pathology Anastasia herself suffered from a weak muscle in her back and painful bunions, both of which sometimes affected her mobility The children, particularly Anastasia, attached to Rasputin, who later became an advisor for all the Romanovs Over time, rumours spread that the man subjugated all of them and was the real power in Russia Some rumours also claimed Rasputin was having an affair with the Tsarina and her young daughters

To counter the gossip, Nicholas sent Rasputin out of the country for a while In December 1916, the mystic was murdered by a group of aristocrats who were upset about his influence over the Tsarina This marked a point of no return The resentment against the monarchy was now shared not only by the poor but by the aristocracy as well Meanwhile, Socialist Revolutionary leaders in exile took advantage of the situation to regain influence and allies

The Bolsheviks, led by revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, created a Red Army that was marching to seize power And even if the Romanov loyalists, the White Army, were trying to fend off the revolution, the Tzar abdicated on 15th March 1917 As a result, Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest in Siberia, by the Provisional Government And for Russia, the First World War was over After more than a year of segregation, once the government officially lost control, the Bolsheviks executed the imperial family on July 17th 1918

According to writer Edvard Radzinsky (edward ryedzinskie) and colonel general Dmitri Volkogonov (dmitee volkag’onaf), during the early morning of July 16th, Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and several servants were taken into the basement of their house and shot Radzinsky and Volkogonov claimed the order came directly from Lenin in Moscow For his part, Lenin released almost immediately the news that Nicholas II was dead, but would not confirm the execution of Tsarina Alexandra and the children Why? Perhaps he was really in the dark and didn't know Or maybe Lenin chose to hide the ugly truth, in order to maintain the feeble peace that had only just been established in the country

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II was Empress Alexandra’s first cousin and Tzar Nicholas’ third cousin Presumably, he wouldn’t like the idea of his cousins and their children being shot and stabbed to death Therefore, Lenin played for time with the German Empire by offering only vague details and denials And so rumours flew, ranging from claims that the guards rescued one or two daughters, to stories that little Alexei was the one to escape And through the years many people claimed to be one of the long-lost Romanov children

But by far the most intriguing and mysterious claims are about Princess Anastasia The first rumours started right after the execution was announced Princess Helena Petrovna (yelena petree’ovna), the wife of a distant cousin of Anastasia, reported that in 1918 when she was imprisoned at Perm, a small Russian city, a guard brought a young girl to her The girl claimed to be Anastasia Romanovna (anstas’eea rom’anovna), so the guard asked Petrovna if it was true The Princess did not recognize the girl and the guard took her away

However, other witnesses in Perm later claimed they saw Anastasia, her mother and sisters after the murders In September 1919, eight witnesses reported a young woman had escaped from Perm One of the witnesses, Dr Pavel Utkin (p’aviel ootkien), a physician who treated the girl, told the investigators the girl told him, ""I am the daughter of the ruler, Anastasia"" Another woman came into play in 1920 Nadezhda Ivanova-Vasilyeva (nazieshda Evan’ova vaSilyeva) was arrested by Bolshevik authorities in Siberia while she was trying to emigrate to China

The woman was imprisoned for years, and in 1934 she was moved to a mental hospital There she started writing letters in French and German to King George V of the United Kingdom, asking him to help his ""cousin"" Anastasia However, Vasilyeva was clearly a disturbed woman, scarred by hard times and years in prison Her assertions changed many times over the years At one point she said she was the daughter of a merchant from Riga, only to yet again calim she was Anastasia

Ultimately, she died in an insane asylum in 1971 According to historian and biographer Robert K Massie, there was a lesser known claim, involving not one but two young women, who claimed to be Anastasia and her sister Maria The two sisters were taken in by a priest in the Ural Mountains in 1919, and there they lived as nuns until their deaths in 1964 According to their wishes, they were buried under the names Anastasia and Maria Nikolaevna

However, not one of these claims has ever been confirmed For all we know, they might have been spread by the Lenin government in 1918, as part of their efforts to calm the Germans Over the years, thousands of people have claimed to be the lost Princess, but only a few achieved more than a small circle of believers One of them was Eugenia Smith She was born on January 25th, 1899 in Austria-Hungary

She later asserted that she was born on June 18th, 1901, in St Petersburg, Russia – just like the Grand Duchess Anastasia Smith is most famous for her autobiography published in 1963, in which she recounts her life in the Russian Imperial Family and how she escaped the Bolsheviks She said that, after the execution of her family, she regained consciousness and was rescued by an unidentified woman, who moved her to a nearby house and nursed her back to health After that, Smith began a journey to the west, escorted by two men, one of whom she identified as Alexander, a soldier loyal to her family

Later, in interviews, Smith revealed that she married Marijan Smetisko (marian smaetEsko), a Croatian man, in October 1918 He then gave her permission to travel to the United States in 1922 and divorced a few years later However, in 1963, an American journalist from Life magazine tracked down Mr Smetisko in Yugoslavia and reported, ""The man was found living in a poor hut with his wife; he said he'd never known anybody named Eugenia, or anybody from Chicago, or had ever been married before” From 1945 until 1963 Smith lived with her friend, Mrs Emery, in Chicago During that time her story caught the attention of a genuine Romanov relative, Prince Rostislav Alexandrovich Romanov (roastEslav alex’andrievitch rom’anof), nephew of Tsar Nicholas II

The Prince, who had lived in Chicago since the 1920s, was informed by his ex-wife that a woman claiming to be his cousin was living nearby However, though the Prince tried to meet Smith three times, she always declined on the grounds that she was too nervous But the most famous Anastasia is Anna Anderson, the woman upon whom all the movies and plays are based Indeed, Anderson’s story is the most fascinating one The woman was found in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, after a suicide attempt, on 27th February 1920

She was sent to the Dalldorf Asylum under the name of “Madame Unknown”, as she refused to reveal her name During the two years she spent at the hospital, rumours spread Patients and medical staff claimed that the unknown woman, who spoke German with a Russian accent, was one of the Grand Duchesses of Russia Claudia Peuthert (claudia poetert), a psychiatric patient, believed the woman who couldn’t remember her past was, in fact, Princess Tatiana, Anastasia’s older sister Zinaida Tolstoy (zEna’ida tolstoy), a friend of Tsarina Alexandra, visited the asylum and recognized the woman as Tatiana

But, when Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden (szoph’ie books’oeveden), a former lady-in-waiting to Tatiana, visited, she declared ""She's too short for Tatiana” The mysterious woman replied, ""I did not say I was Tatiana"" At that point, people began to believe the woman was actually The Grand Duchess Anastasia and, eventually, she herself said she was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II The woman started going by the name Anna (short for Anastasia) Anderson, and her fame grew In 1922 she began travelling the world to meet Romanov relatives and early acquaintances of the princesses

Some of them supported her Princess Cecilie of Prussia, accepted Anderson as Anastasia However, Cecilie's family disagreed and implied that she was suffering from dementia Many others firmly declared she was a fraud Prince Felix Yusupov (felix Usupof) wrote in 1927, “I claim categorically that [Anna Anderson] is not Anastasia Nicolaievna, but just an adventuress, a sick hysteric and a frightful play actress

I simply cannot understand how anyone can be in doubt of this” The woman lived the rest of her life as Anna Anderson until 1968, when she married an American history professor, Jack Manahan, and became Anastasia Manahan The woman died in 1984, leaving the world wondering about her identity and eager to know the truth While people wondered and speculated through the years, the search for Anastasia continued In 1991, a collection of bodies was found in the woods outside Yekaterinburg, in Russia

In 1993 DNA tests compared their mitochondrial DNA to living matrilineal relatives, including Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the maternal grandnephew of Empress Alexandra of Russia The tests indicated that the bodies belonged to the Romanov family However, two bodies were still missing DNA tests also revealed that Anna Anderson was not related to the Romanovs In fact, DNA from Anna’s hair and surviving medical tissue samples, matched that of Karl Maucher, the great-nephew of Franziska Schanzkowska (franziska sh’anzkovska), a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness

In 2007, a group of archaeologists found a small pit containing the remains of two children One year later, these were identified as the two missing Romanovs, Alexei and one of his sisters But it was still impossible to determine if the female body belonged to Anastasia or Maria Even so, they now have seven bodies The entire family was announced dead, and investigations were finally closed

But in 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church demanded to reopen the case They believe the scientific investigations were mishandled and question whether any of the remains are authentic To support their claim, they cite a curious anecdote In May 1979, local amateur sleuth Alexander Avdonin (alexander avdonien) and filmmaker Geli Ryabov (gielie rEabof) located the grave of the Romanovs and took three skulls from there But, since they failed to find any scientist and laboratory to help examine them, and fearied the consequences of revealing the Romanovs under the Soviet regime, the two men reburied the skulls in the summer of 1980

However, there’s no valid proof this actually happened And even so, as journalist Sergei Chapnin (CergiA tchiupn’ien) said in 2016, “The problem is that from the historical, scientific and genetic point of view, it is absolutely clear that the remains of the tzar and his family are authentic [while] the only statement we hear from the church is, ‘We don’t believe it’ ” It’s been 101 years since the beginning of Princess Anastasia’s myth Yet, there are still plenty of people looking into her story, hoping to find the ultimate evidence to solve the mystery But is the mystery really unsolved? And will Anastasia ever be able to rest in peace?

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