Throughout history there have been people who have passed into mystery only for their identities to be claimed by various impostors. One of the most famous cases of this of all is that of the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia, once the daughter of a famous Russian czar. Hers is a story of tragedy, upheaval, vanishings, mysterious people, and an ongoing myth and conspiracy that has stood the test of time.
In order to understand the whole strange odyssey it is important to go back in time to the early 20th century and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the last in the line of the ruling Romanov Dynasty and indeed the last czar of Russia. The Tsar’s family consisted of his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, her parents, and five children, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, and the youngest and only son, Tsarevich Alexei. They lived a rather simple life, despite their status and wealth, and many of the children were plagued with health problems, such as Anastasia with her back problems and bunions, Alexi with his hemophilia, and Maria having suffered a massive, nearly fatal hemorrhage. It was partly out of these health problems that the family regularly consorted with the legendary Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin for his healing powers, and the children became quite close with him.
This already gives the family a bit of mystique, but things really get interesting after Nicholas II’s abdication of the throne in 1917. The catalyst for this was the inept way in which the czar was running the country and his inability to meet the needs of the people, which fostered huge resentment among the populace and in part led to the 1917 Russian Revolution, leading to mass protests and riots in the streets and calls for the end of Imperial rule. This would inevitably lead to the notorious Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin coming out of exile to take advantage of the unrest, and this would in turn transform into the Bolshevik Revolution in the wake of World War I, which would divide the nation into the loyal Imperialist “White” faction and the “Red” faction representing the Bolsheviks and their communist agenda. It was a situation that would lead to civil war, the deaths of millions of people, and the installation of the communist Soviet government.
In the midst of all of this was Nicholas II, the last czar, and his family. They were put under house arrest in the region of Tobolsk, Siberia, where they would stay until they were later moved to Yekaterinburg. At the time they were not particularly mistreated, and life pretty much went on as normal for the children, and when the civil war started in earnest their captors, the Reds, negotiated for their release with the Whites, but these talks went nowhere fast. Indeed, it seemed that the White Army was making a play to just swoop in and rescue them by force, and this is probably led to what happened next. On July 17, 1918, the family was suddenly told to move to the basement of the house they were in and wait for further orders, after which they would be moved to a safe house. This was either a lie or there had been a change of plans, because not long after this a contingent of soldiers entered to ruthlessly execute the entire family with rifles and bayonets, even killing their servants and their dog.
Despite this horrific massacre, no bodies were found, which fueled rumors that they had not been killed at all and conspiracies of some sort of cover-up, and even the soldiers who had fired upon them gave accounts that suggested at least one or a few may have survived. This went on to evolve into morass of conspiracy theories, rumors, mystery and myth in the following decades, with numerous people coming forward claiming to be one of the missing Romanovs or the other, and a very popular claim were those who said they were the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who had only been 17 at the time of the execution.
By far the most well-known of these was a woman named Anna Anderson. She was pulled out of a canal in Berlin on February 27, 1920, after an apparent bid to kill herself and taken to a hospital, where at first her name and identity were complete mysteries. Not knowing what to do with her, authorities moved her to a mental institution, which is where she would begin weaving a rather bizarre tale. She began to insist that she was the actual Romanov Anastasia, and although none of the doctors or nurses believed her she continued to be adamant that this was her real identity, that she had only been injured in the execution attempt and had fled with the help of a sympathetic soldier.
She eventually began calling herself Anna, but her insistence that she was really Anastasia did not abate even after she was released from the asylum. Thus began a mystery that would last decades, with many people, including relatives of the real Anastasia, concluding that she was the real deal, while just as many others called her a fraud. Whatever the real answer was, she gained so much fame for her claims that she was pretty much treated like royalty anyway, but this would all come crashing down in 1927, when it was found by a private investigator that she was in no way related to the Romanovs. In fact, she was found to be a woman named Franziska Schanzkowska, who had once been a munitions factory worker in Poland who had suffered a head injury and gone insane before vanishing, only to mysteriously appear once again in that canal. However, there was still doubt as to whether this was true or not, and Anna continued her wild claims of being Anastasia, moving to the U.S. to live for some time and marrying a history professor. Over a decade after her death in 1984 it would be proven through DNA tests that she had really been Franziska Schanzkowska all along. Her story would go on to inspire the French play Anastasia, as well as the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film and the 1997 animated film of the same name.
Another notable Anastasia impostor was a woman named Eugenia Smith, who actually wrote a complete, in-depth diary of her life, including how she had escaped her execution. There was also another woman in an insane asylum named Nadezhda Vasilyeva, who claimed she was Anastasia and died in 1971. All told there have been over 200 people who have stepped forward to make the claim that they are Anastasia or one of the other supposedly dead family members, but none of these have ever proven to be the real deal, and in the 1990s they were shown to almost certainly not be.
In 1991 there were found some skeletons in the forest outside of Yekaterinburg, where Anastasia and her family had spent their last moments on earth. DNA showed that all of the remains were linked to the Romanovs, yet two bodies were missing. These would not be turned up until 2007, when they turned up and also showed to be of Romanov descent. That was seven sets of remains that are scientifically proven to be genetically the Romanovs, and the thing is, considering their vicinity to the executions it seems to pretty conclusively show that these were the whole family all accounted for in death. Yet, there is no way to know if Anastasia was amongst them or if these included perhaps some other relatives, of which there were many, leaving the mystery open for debate for many. Indeed, in as recently as 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church has officially reopened the case on whether one of the original family may have actually escaped, and so the rabbit hole continues on. What really happened to Anastasia and why have so many people claimed to have been her of all people? Will the real Anatasia please stand up? The case has gone on to become almost legendary, and no matter what the outcome may be it has managed to grab the imagination to this day.