Mysterious Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia was born into the most elite segment of Russian society on June 18, 1901 as the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia, and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Anastasia was the younger sister of Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, and was the elder sister of Alexei Nikolaevich, Tsarevich of Russia.

During WWI, Anastasia–like her sisters–volunteered as a nurse right in the royal palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Many of its rooms had been turned into hospital wards. In 1917, the February Revolution in Russia forced Czar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. After the Revolution of 1917 and Nicholas’s abdication, Nicholas and his family (including Anastasia) were taken as prisoners to Tobolsk, then to Yekaterinburg, where on June 18, 1918, Anastasia celebrated her last birthday.

Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their four girls and one son, were held at Czarskoye Selo palace and then taken to Ekaterinburg in the Urals after the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children—including 14-year-old Anastasia–were shot and bayoneted to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries under Yakov Yurovsky on the orders of the Ural Regional Soviet in Yekaterinburg on the night of July 16-17, 1918. Also murdered that night were members of the imperial entourage who had accompanied them: court physician Eugene Botkin; lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova; footman Alexei Trupp; and head cook Ivan Kharitonov.

The executioners then took the bodies to the Four Brothers mine [an abandoned mine shaft some 14 miles from Ekaterinburg, in the Koptyaki forest], where they were stripped, buried, burned in a gasoline-fueled bonfire, and the bones doused with sulfuric acid to disguise the remains further and mutilated with grenades to prevent identification. Finally, what was left was thrown into the mine pit, which was covered with dirt. After 300 years of imperial rule, the Romanov empire ended in a chaos of gunfire and bayonets.

At first, the Bolshevik government reported that only Nicholas was executed and that his wife and children were moved to a safe location. That contributed to later confusion and mystery. Much later, reports that the entire family had perished were confirmed by Russian investigators. At the same time, however, a persistent rumor spread through Europe, telling of a Romanov child, usually Anastasia, who had survived the carnage.

Two years later, a nameless woman jumped off a bridge in Berlin. Pulled from the Landwehr Canal by police officers after her failed suicide attempt, Fräulein Unbekannt [Ger.-Miss Unknown] or “Madame Unknown” was soon taken to Dalldorf Asylum [now Wittenau, in Reinickendorf]. With no papers in her pockets, no labels on her clothes, and a silent refusal to identify herself, she remained for two years. She said nothing at all for six months, though many took note of her aloof demeanor, the strange scars on her body, and the Russian accent that emerged when she did eventually speak.

Meanwhile, European newspapers reported strange rumors out of Russia: one of the imperial daughters had escaped the basement alive. Another Dalldorf patient–Clara Peuthert–who first suspected this aloof woman was the missing Romanov. At the time, Europe was filled with Russian exiles who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and a number of sympathetic czarists rushed to the aid of this young woman, who at first glance was certainly articulate and beautiful enough to be the lost Anastasia. Her body showed ugly scars, which she said she incurred from Bolshevik knives during the execution of her family. One Bolshevik soldier, she said, finding her alive, had helped her; and she eventually escaped to the West. Several months after claiming to be Anastasia, she was released from the asylum and moved in with the first of a long line of supporters. By then, she had taken the name of Anna, short form of Anastasia.
Upon leaving the hospital, Clara Peuthert sought out high-ranking Russian expats, urging them to come and see the woman she believed was Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second oldest Romanov daughter. Peuthert soon procured a handful of former Romanov friends and servants, all of whom were convinced on sight alone, that this was the daughter of the late Tsar, but not certain which one. The “Mystery Woman” herself gave no real encouragement. Sometimes, she hid under the sheets in fear, seemingly terrified by any confrontation. Other times, she rebuffed her visitors, and refused to satisfy their queries. On the other hand, she often seemed to recognize the people in the photos they thrust upon her, she would never say so until they were gone.

Tatiana Melnik, née Botkin–niece of the Tsar’s personal physician—visited Anna, became a supporter of her as Anastasia, and coached Tschaikovsky with details of life in the imperial family.
Captain Nicholas von Schwabe–a former personal guard to the Dowager Empress [Anastasia’s grandmother]–showed her old photos of the family, watching as she went red and increasingly upset, but refused to speak.

Only later that night did she tell the nurses, “The gentleman has a photo of my grandmother.”
She never called herself a Romanov, nor did she deny it. The first objection came from Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden–a former lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina–who, upon seeing the mysterious patient, acknowledged the resemblance but proclaimed her “too short for Tatiana.”
For the first time, the “Mystery Woman” replied: “I never said I was Tatiana.”
Resistant and quiet though she was, the word began to spread. One day, Captain von Schwabe came again; this time he offered a list of the Romanov daughters’ names. If she could not say who she was, could she perhaps indicate who she was not? She crossed out all the names but one. Without saying a word, “Mystery Woman/Madame Unknown” became Anastasia: the 20th century’s greatest royal mystery, never quite satisfactorily solved.
To complicate the mystery, the Berlin patient, who eventually took on the name “Anna Anderson,” was not the only Romanov claimant. There were at least four other women who came forward as Anastasia, seven men who claimed to be the Tsarevich Alexei, and a handful claiming themselves to be the Tsar’s other daughters: Olga, Tatiana, and Maria. But it was the youngest daughter, Anastasia, around whom grew a cultish fascination. This was, in large part, thanks to Anderson herself, whose story spun off decades’ worth of tabloid fodder: an animated feature, and, a stage musical that has debuted. It is slated to hit Broadway this coming fall. The claims that a given presentation is based on a true story should be taken with a grain or two of salt. The real tale of Anastasia and Anna Anderson is a far more twisted path, and one that ends without a song, but only with dreadful silence and more blood beforehand.
After leaving the hospital, Anderson was swarmed by people who wished to debunk or to validate her as the lost Grand Duchess. In the twilight period between wars, Europe was scattered with Romanov relations, former servants, and friends, and ever more Russian refugees. News of the royal family’s murder had become public knowledge, and Soviet counterintelligence fueled the rumor that maybe, somehow, a child had survived. In their version, she was given housing by various supporters and distant Romanov relations, including Prince Valdemar of Denmark and Duke George of Leuchtenberg, while both police and private detectives sought the truth behind her unspoken story. The Soviet suggestion fueled the sense and complexity of the burgeoning mystery.

Anna did acknowledge herself as Anastasia within the small circle she trusted. Not surprisingly, some of those few confidants were subject to her rage if they pushed the wrong button. Writer and journalist Peter Kurth published Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson in 1983, the seminal work on the Anderson case. More than anything, his exhaustive research revealed the mercurial nature of its subject. For example, before she left Dalldorf, von Schwabe once brought Anderson a Bible into which he’d written the imperial family’s password–a code used to indicate the person carrying it could be trusted. She had ripped the page out of the book and carefully torn it to bits. Tricks and persuasion were met with rage, as was sympathy if it seemed too much.

On February 6, 1928, a woman calling herself Anastasia Tschaikovsky and claiming to be the youngest daughter of the murdered Russian czar Nicholas II arrived in New York City. She held a press conference on the liner Berengaria, explaining she was here to have her jaw reset. It was broken, she alleged, by a Bolshevik soldier during her narrow escape from the execution of her entire family—the Romanovs—at Ekaterinburg, Russia, in July, 1918. Tschaikovsky was welcomed to New York by Gleb Botkin, the son of the Romanov family doctor who was executed along with his patients in 1918. Botkin called her “Your Highness” and claimed that she was without a doubt the Grand Duchess Anastasia with whom he had played as a child.
Between 1918 and 1928, more than half a dozen other women had come forward claiming to be a lost heir to the Romanov fortune; so, many American reporters were understandingly skeptical of Ms. Tschaikovsky’s claims. Anna Anderson and Eugenia Smith were the most famous Anastasia pretenders but were not the only ones. There were finally around a dozen in total. One of them even went to Russia to claim her fortune. Other famous fake Anastasias include: Eleonora Krueger (1901-1954), who posed as the Grand Duchess in a Bulgarian village; Nadezhda Vasilyeva (?-1971), a mentally ill woman who spent years in mental institutions and prisons in the USSR and eventually starved herself to death in a prison psychiatric hospital on Sviyazhsk island, now Tatarstan, Russia; Natalya Belikhodze, a Georgian woman who “revealed” herself to be Anastasia Romanov in 1995. She died in 2000 and was considered to be the last fake Anastasia.
Nevertheless, Anna was treated as a celebrity during her stay in New York and was the most important guest of society parties and fashionable hotels worthy of a Romanov heir. When she registered for one hotel during her visit, she used the name Anna Anderson, which later became her permanent alias and added to the already deep and fascinating mystery.
Longtime Romanov family friend Zinaida “Zina” Tolstoy, a friend of Tsarina Alexandra, came to visit Ms. Anderson while she was staying at the home of Russian emigres Baron and Baroness von Kleist. She made small talk with the young woman, then sat at a piano, plinking at the keys.
She asked Ms. Anderson, “Do you play?”
Anna said that she had had lessons as a child but mostly, she and her siblings preferred to dance. At this, Tolstoy eased into a waltz her brother had written, one she had often played for the Romanov children to dance to.
“The result was shattering,” Baroness von Kleist said.
Ms. Anderson lost all composure and collapsed into sobs on the sofa. Zina Tolstoy began to cry herself, asking if she recognized the music. Anderson admitted she did, and the two women wept together. When it came to the closest royal family relations–those who could have redeemed her in an instant–she was more than aloof. She was enraged.
Inspector Franz Grünberg–the first officer to probe into the mystery and investigate Anderson’s identity–convinced Princess Irene of Prussia to meet Anderson at his home. Irene was the Tsarina’s sister, Anastasia’s aunt; and though she may well have had hope to find her niece was still alive, she had thus far been reluctant to engage in the Anderson affair.
When at last she did, the evening was an unqualified disaster. Irene arrived at Grünberg’s home and was introduced to Anderson with a false name. There had been no warning of her arrival. The two were seated across from each other at the dinner table, enabling Irene to inspect her alleged niece closely; she had not seen the Romanovs for a decade, after all. Halfway through the meal, Anderson became furious and bolted from the table.
Irene went after her–peppering her with questions–demanding, “Don’t you know I’m your Aunt Irene?”
The tearful Anna Anderson went silent, once again.
Irene left the inspector’s home, saying that no, this was not Anastasia. Irene was apparently so upset by the meeting that she forbade anyone in her home to speak of Anastasia again. It was moments like that which galled Anderson’s supporters.
“Why were you so rude?” they asked.
“I was not rude,” Anderson spat back.
She was humiliated and bewildered. Why had her aunt given a false name? She had not seen the woman since she was a child, and while she had recognized the voice at first, she said, it took a moment before she realized who she was and what was going on. Her aunt was not here to welcome her as family, but to inspect her as an impostor. Why had these alleged friends set her up for such a dreadful exercise? For all that she could have gained, Anderson’s own audacity and rancor made her the hostile witness in her own case. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before it went to trial.
For nearly a decade, Anderson bounced between castles and homes, dependent on the kindness of royal or wealthy strangers. The stream of visitors continued, and she developed as many detractors as supporters. Anastasia’s old nursemaid, her former tutor, and other royal employees flatly denied she was genuine, while other people outside the family’ inner circle still believed.
In 1927, she met Gleb Botkin, son of Dr. Serge Yevgeny Botkin. His father had been one of the few attendants allowed to accompany the imperial family when they were exiled to Ekaterinburg, and he was murdered in the basement along with them. When Gleb saw Anna, there was no question in his mind. When she mentioned the “funny animals” he used to draw and other games they had played as children, his conviction grew stronger. He became Anderson’s most ardent supporter, and when murmurs of the Romanov fortune grew, it was Gleb who called a lawyer.
In 1928, the burial location of the Russian royal family was known only to their murderers, and without a body, the Tsar’s death could not be legally proved. But his estate (or what remained of it) could be claimed after 10 years. There was competition for the estate. Tsarina Alexandra–as granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Princess of the House of Hesse–she too had many living relatives such as the entire British royal family. Gleb Botkin hired New York attorney Edward Fallows to prove that Anna Anderson was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and thereby grant her all the legal rights and–perhaps more important to Anna herself—official recognition. Fallows set up a company which sought to raise funds by selling shares in any prospective estate.
Thus began the longest running court case in German history to that time. Anastasia’s court groom Pierre Gilliard; his wife, Alexandra Tegleva, who had been Anastasia’s nursemaid; Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina; the Tsarina’s groom of the chamber Alexei Volkov; the Tsar’s sister, Grand Duchess Olga; Prince Felix Yusupov, husband of Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia; Dimitri Leuchenberg, son of a German bar owner who had met Anna’s brother Felix Schanzkowski and was introduced to Anna Tschaikovsky at a local inn in Wasserburg near Castle Seeon; Prince Michael Romanov, a grandson of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna of Russia; in October, 1928–after the death of the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie–the 12 nearest relations of the Tsar met at Marie’s funeral and signed a declaration that denounced Anderson as an impostor; Lord Mountbatten footed some of his German relations’ legal bills against Anderson; and Charles Sydney Gibbes, English tutor to the imperial children, all contended that Anderson was an impostor.
For the next 32 years, they fought against her claim in court. However, despite their own deep pockets, Anna’s opponents could not purchase proof one way or the other. Robert K. Massie reported that in the 50s and 60s a large body of medical and scientific evidence emerged, which, “to a surprising degree, supported Anna Anderson’s claims.” For example, the same graphologist who had identified Anne Frank’s diary analyzed Anderson and Anastasia’s handwriting, deeming it identical.
She had a scar where Anastasia had a mole removed. Her feet bore similar bunions. Her face was examined by renowned anthropologist and criminologist Dr. Otto Reche, who concluded that, “such coincidence between two human faces is not possible unless they are the same person or identical twins.” Psychological evidence was overwhelmingly compelling as well. Psychiatrist Dr. Lothar Nobel stated that Ann had no mental illness… and “it seems impossible that her knowledge of many small details is due to anything but her own personal experience.” All these conclusions were drawn by court-appointed experts—none of them paid for by either side.
But the royals had one unavoidable piece of evidence in their favor: Franziska Schanzkowska. In 1927, a Berlin newspaper released an investigative report claiming to have discovered that Anna Anderson was actually Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker. Schanzkowska, it said, had been declared insane after being injured in a factory explosion and had disappeared shortly before the mysterious “Madame Unknown” turned up in Berlin. That timeline matched and Schanzkowska’s brother Felix signed an affidavit claiming that she looked like his sister. There were serious mysterious factors about the discovery of Schanzkowska.
Details emerged showing that the newspaper had not come by its information by coincidence. The Grand Duke of Hesse—Anastasia’s uncle, who disbelieved Anderson–had paid the newspaper handsomely for the investigation. The Schanzkowska theory evaporated until 1938, when Anna Anderson met with the Schanzkowska family. Again, they claimed to recognize her, and again the proof was complicated by circumstance: Nazi officials had arranged the meeting. Hitler evidently had an interest in Anderson’s veracity, planning to arrest her if she proved a fraud. The Schanzkowska family refused to sign the document claiming Anderson as their own. In 1970, the German Supreme Court finally ended the grueling case with a thud: Anna Anderson had neither been proven to be Anastasia, nor had she been proven not to be. The great mystery appeared to be going to persist until the end of time.
Indeed, Anna Anderson spent the rest of her life a staunch, unanswered riddle. “How shall I tell you who I am?” she asked in a 1978 interview… “Can you really prove to me who you are?” Two decades later, the truth would seem again to emerge in another hospital room, this time in Charlottesville, Virginia. But–as ever–it was a truth that offered more questions than answers. history professor and genealogist John Eacott “Jack” Manahan,
In 1984, Anna Anderson—then living in the US and married to a man [history professor and genealogist John Eacott “Jack” Manahan, 20 years her junior] who called her Anastasia–died of pneumonia. Seven years later, five skeletons were found in a forest near Ekaterinburg, soon identified as those of the Tsar, Tsarina, and three of their children. Missing were the bodies of Tsarevich Alexis and one Grand Duchess. For a breathless moment, it seemed that the century’s greatest rumor and mystery had been true all along. But then, came the DNA.
Using blood from the British royal family, scientists confirmed the skeletons were those of Romanovs. Using a small sample of intestine, removed during a prior surgery, they concluded that Anna Anderson was probably not. In fact, she was probably a missing Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. “Probably” is the key word.
After all, this tale emerged from within the “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma” called the Soviet Union. In July 2007, nearly 90 years to the day after she and her family were killed, the last two Romanov skeletons were found. DNA identified the smallest as Alexis and the other as either Maria or Anastasia. It is not possible to know which is which. While the rest of their family lies at rest in St. Petersburg, the last Romanov children wait, locked up in cold storage. The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge these skeletons as royal remains. They say the tests were bungled–maybe deliberately–and the government is lying.
In a quiet corner of Upper Bavaria sits a tranquil cemetery churchyard at Castle Seeon, Germany, once dedicated to the local nobility. There–among the remains–are the ashes of a woman laid to rest a decade ago beneath a simple gravestone that bears the inscription, “Our heart is unquiet until it rests with you, Lord,” a Russian cross, and a name in Cyrillic letters–Anastasia.

I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.