Princess Anastasia Mystery
It’s one the most notorious assassinations in modern history; the murder of the Romanovs, Russia’s ruling family. Their deaths would inspire myths and legends that still remain unanswered nearly a century later. At the height of his power, Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia with an iron grip. His position seemed unassailable. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew the old order. And to this day, the Princess Anastasia mystery continues to question the facts surrounding the missing Romanov Princess.
Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II had been the richest, most powerful man in the world, controlling one tenth of the earth’s surface and a fortune worth 15 billion pounds. Greg King, author of The Fate of The Romanovs explains: “Until the revolution, the Tsar was considered the anointed of God. He controlled the government, was the supreme head of the Orthodox Church, he was worshipped as a demigod by most of his subjects and his word was considered law in every aspect of life”.
By marrying Alexandra, a German princess and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas became an influential figure throughout the courts of Europe. The Tsar and his family lived in opulence, their St Petersburg palace boasted a thousand rooms and hundreds of servants attended their every whim.
Behind the public smiles, the Romanovs were harbouring an explosive secret. Thirteen year old Alexei, heir to the Romanov throne had been diagnosed with a bleeding disorder called haemophilia. The slightest injury could cause fatal blood-loss. John Kier, author of The Quest for Anastasia tells us: “The empress, who’d had a series of very difficult pregnancies, finally has an heir only to find he has haemophilia. At the time, almost no-one who had haemophilia lived to adulthood”. The Romanov succession depended on keeping the young prince alive; a 24 hour job.
Frances Welch authoress of A Romanov Fantasy, continues: “They had to put pillows on trees in the palace gardens to protect him at all times. If he cut himself, he bled terribly or his bruises led to internal bleeding”.
A desperate quest led the empress to a mystic healer named Rasputin. His methods seemed to stabilise the boy and he quickly became one of the Tsarina’s closest advisors. But, the Russian people didn’t trust him and their mistrust would soon be turned toward the Tsarina herself.
The Tsar’s reputation was also coming under fire. He earned the nickname Bloody Nicholas when, in 1905, his soldiers gunned down thousands of striking factory workers. The massacre caused outrage and violent clashes. But, 10 years later, when World War I erupted along Russia’s Western Front, the country united against a new enemy.
By 1917, discontent turned to open rebellion. Radical new politics spread like wildfire and the Tsarist government was overthrown. In a series of bloody battles, the White Army – troops still loyal to the Tsar, were defeated by the Bolshevik Rebels – The Reds. On the 15th March 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne and was held under house-arrest before being sent into exile to Siberia.
The Romanov family were put into the drab Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg near the Siberian border. The people of Yekaterinburg were known as the Wild Siberian Comrades. They now had Nicholas The Bloody and they could hardly wait to get rid of him. With the White Army advancing on Yekaterinburg to rescue the Tsar and his family, the Siberians were forced to react. They made a momentous and bloody decision; the Romanovs must die.
Commandant Jacob Yurovsky and the guards, ordered the Romanovs and several of their servants into the cellar of the house. Eleven gunmen came in, each had been allotted one person to kill, but when the time came to shoot they all shot the Tsar. In disarray, the gunmen were ordered back to finish the job.
Lenin was convinced the Romanov deaths would crush any remaining pro-monarchy resistance. He quickly claimed responsibility for the Tsar’s execution but, denied killing the German-born Tsarina and her children, fearing that their deaths would inflame relations with Germany. Instead, he insisted the rest of the family were being kept alive in a secret location.
The case became an international scandal, outraging monarchists and the extended Romanov family. In defiance of the Soviet authorities, the Romanovs commissioned an independent enquiry. They chose judicial investigator Nicholas Sokolov to lead it. When Sokolov’s findings were published, in 1924, they sent shockwaves around the world.
Sokolov had determined that the Tsar and all of his family had been assassinated with some of the victims being stabbed and bludgeoned to death. He believed that Yurovsky planned to hide the bodies in an abandoned mineshaft, deep in the wood. He concluded that the bodies had been hacked to pieces, then burnt with fire and acid until nothing remained.
Sokolov’s findings fuelled speculation of the royal family’s fate. Could their executioners actually have destroyed eleven bodies, half a ton of flesh, in just a few hours? Or, given the lack of ready evidence, could some of the family still be alive waiting to reclaim the Tsar’s fortune and his throne?
Of the many rumours, some claimed that the guards, young men of similar age to the Tsar’s daughters, had formed relationships with the girls and allowed them to escape. Of the four young women, none captured the public’s imagination quite like Princess Anastasia, the Tsar’s seventeen year old daughter. People believed that if anyone could survive the events of Ipatiev House, it would be the spirited Princess Anastasia. Decades after her presumed death, Princess Anastasia continued to inspire tales of escape.
Books and films promoted the idea that she had been rescued and re-emerged to take her place among the royal families of Europe. But, the truth would be stranger than fiction! In 1920, a young woman who had attempted suicide by throwing herself off a bridge in Berlin, was admitted to a mental hospital. She couldn’t remember her name and had no ID, so became Miss Unknown.
Frances Welch gives her opinion: “They had no idea who she was until a fellow inmate suddenly turned to her, she’d got hold of a magazine with pictures of the Romanovs in it, ‘You’re Tatiana’. For a while Anna Anderson, as she had chosen to be called, was heralded as Princess Tatiana.
News that one of the Romanov girls had reappeared, travelled fast; friends of the family rushed to see her. They realised that the woman lying before them was not nearly tall enough to be Tatiana. Some believed she might be Princess Anastasia, others were convinced she was an impostor trying to inherit the 30 billion dollar fortune as estimated in the New York Times of the 1920s.
There was plenty of evidence to suggest that she was indeed the missing Princess Anastasia. She had a regal manner about her and an apparent insider knowledge about the family and the Russian courts. There was also strong physical evidence including a large bunion which caused the big toe to deform. She shared the shape of the ears, a physical signature often used to identify bodies before the discovery of DNA. Anderson’s body was covered with scars which many believed could have been inflicted in the cellar of Ipatiev House. Sidney Gibbs, Anastasia’s English teacher from before the revolution, visited Anderson and cast a vote for the doubters when he stated that she bore no resemblance to Anastasia.
Anderson received another blow, when her Romanov opponents presented new evidence unearthed by a private detective They claimed that Anderson was actually a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzowska who went missing at the same time Anna Anderson appeared. This was presented to the court who the Romanovs hoped would finally declare the Tsar and his family dead so that the estate could be settled. The court case would drag on for nearly four decades before finally delivering a wholly unsatisfactory verdict, The case was deemed to be unsolvable. The court refused to acknowledge Anderson as Anastasia and further declared that her opponents had failed to prove that she wasn’t Anastasia.
Five decades on, Ipatiev House has been razed to the ground. The Russian government had long since closed the book on the assassinations, but some people still wanted answers.
Alexander Avdonin & Geli Ryabov
Two amateur historians felt that many questions still remained unanswered. In 1978, Avdonin and Ryabov located the eldest son of Jacob Yurovsky, the man who’d been in charge of the Romanov executions sixty years before. They were stunned when he handed them a top-secret report detailing his father’s eye-witness account. Yurovsky claimed that he had not destroyed the bodies as previously suggested by Sokolov, they had simply been moved.
After discovering that some of his soldiers had betrayed the secret location of the grave, Yurovsky and his men collected the bodies and set off for another nearby mine. But, on the way, the truck broke down and they were forced to bury the bodies in a shallow grave, covered with planks, in the woods. On this occasion they did douse the bodies with sulphuric acid.
In the spring of 1979, armed with this knowledge, Avdonin and Ryabov headed for the Siberian woods where they hoped to find the Romanovs final resting place. This was a highly dangerous venture. In cold war Russia of the 60s and 70s dissent was forbidden. Protecting the image of a unified Soviet Superpower was all-important to the communist regime. Anyone who dared question the official version of the Romanov murders risked the attention of the KGB.
After many weeks of searching they found the Romanov remains. The skulls were bullet ridden and one of the jaws had gold teeth. The men knew that if news of their discovery was leaked, they would be jailed, or worse. They removed three of the skulls and began a discreet search for a forensic expert to help them. The skulls remained in their possession for over a year until, frustrated and fearful, the men went back to Siberia and returned them to the grave.
Ten years later, President Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in a new era of openness; Glasnost. The Soviet Union was dissolved and, finally, Ryabov decided he could go public with his momentous discovery.
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin despatched a team of archaeologists to exhume the skeletal remains from the mass grave in Siberia. After 73 years, the fate of the Russian Royal Family might finally be resolved. At a nearby laboratory, hundreds of bones were examined; the results were stark. Eleven people were thought to have died in the murders, but only nine skeletons were unearthed. Alexei the young heir was missing as was one of the princesses. The question was which one? Forensic anthropologist, Sergei Abramov began the painstaking process of identifying the skeletons.
It seemed that one of the shattered corpses found in the Romanov grave did belong to Princess Anastasia. Maria and Alexei were not in the grave. For those who hoped Anastasia had escaped the massacre, this was a huge blow. But, the Anastasia story was far from over.
Just weeks later, a rival American team began their own enquiry and questioned the validity of Abramov’s tests. The American experts weren’t convinced that the skulls had been reliably reconstructed. Instead, they took a different approach. They chose to age the bones and claimed it was the body of Princess Anastasia that was missing, not Maria’s. They concluded that none of the skeletons recovered from Yekaterinburg could possibly be seventeen years old, the age at which Anastasia had disappeared.
This evidence renewed many people’s beliefs in Anna Anderson and now new technology was emerging that would reveal Anna’s true identity. DNA testing would finally prove, with samples from surviving Romanovs including Prince Philip, that the bones really were the ill-fated Romanov family. It would also prove that Anna Anderson was Franziska Schanzowska as originally suspected. The bodies of Anastasia and Alexei have still never been found.
Princess Anastasia, Grand Duchess Anastasia – Wikipedia Page
The Fate of the Romanovs – Greg King
A Romanov Fantasy – Frances Welch
The Quest for Anastasia – John Klier
Anastasia: Life of Anna Anderson – Peter Kurth