What Really Happened to Russia's Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov

When Czar Nicholas II was overthrown, in 1917, he and his family were held in a place in Tsarkoye Selo, the village later renamed for Alexander Pushkin, the man who brought Russian literature and arts into the modern age, even as that age kept fantasizing about survival of members of the ancien regime

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia.
Library of Congress

On the cold morning of February 27, 1920, a young woman jumped off a bridge into the frigid water of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. A police officer rescued her and she was rushed to hospital. Upon regaining consciousness, the young woman claimed she could not remember her name, and she was eventually hospitalized in a facility for the mentally ill in Dalldorf (today, Wittenau). She had scars on her body and head, and spoke German in an accent that was described as “Russian.”

Two years later, the rumors began seeping through the asylum walls: The disturbed woman was none other than Anastasia Nikolaevna, the grand duchess of Russia, who had escaped the massacre perpetrated on her family four years earlier by members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.

Following the revolution of February 1917, Czar Nicholas II and members of his family had been detained at the royal residence in Tsarskoye Selo, outside St. Petersburg. After being moved several times, finally, on the night between July 16 and 17, 1918, they were shot to death, with their bodies dragged to an abandoned mine and burned. The initial disappearance of their remains, and the subsequent discovery of only some of them, made it possible for more than 200 persons to stake the claim that they were offspring of the murdered czar – among them 34 women who declared that they were his youngest daughter, Anastasia.

One of them, the woman who attempted to end her life in Berlin, eventually turned out to be Franziska Schanzkowska, a former employee of an ammunition factory in Poland. During World War I, Schanzkowska had dropped a hand grenade at work. It exploded, and she suffered serious injuries, as one of her fellow workers was ripped apart before her eyes. This triggered a prolonged case of post-traumatic shock that led Schanzkowska to identify herself as the lost princess. She also was said to have smothered her pet parrot, danced naked on rooftops, and raised 60 cats in absolute neglect. Over the course of her long life, she was hospitalized repeatedly in psychiatric facilities.

As a test of her claims, she was asked to meet with surviving members of the Romanov dynasty, including Prince Felix Yusupov, the husband of the czar’s niece, who asserted, “I claim categorically that she is not Anastasia Nikolaevna, but just an adventuress, a sick hysteric and a frightful play-actress.”

But there were those who, either out of a sense of nostalgia or a desire to gain some benefit, wanted to believe that the woman who years later would call herself Anna Anderson was indeed Anastasia. Or, as the author in whose name the village of Tsarskoye Selo was renamed in 1937, put it: “Better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths.”

African forebear

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, aka “the Russian Shakespeare,” was himself a scion of a respected if complicated dynasty. On his father’s side, he could trace his roots to an aristocratic family going back to the 12th century. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian pronunciation of the name “Hannibal”), the son of a local ruler from a region that is today part of Cameroon, borders what are now Eritrea and Ethiopia, who was taken into captivity by the Ottomans and presented as a gift to Czar Peter the Great (Peter I), who baptized and adopted him.

In the epilogue of a Hebrew anthology of Pushkin’s fiction that includes the unfinished biographical work “The Moor of Peter the Great,” in which he sought to decipher the riddle of his great-grandfather, Hebrew University theater scholar Olga Levitan quotes contemporary impressions to the effect that the ancestry of Gannibal was evidenced by his supple limbs and his quick movements, which in some measure remind one “of the Negroes and the human-like creatures of the African continent.” These “peculiarities” notwithstanding, “His [Pushkin’s] writings reflect the pure beauty of the Russian nature, the Russian soul, the Russian language and the Russian character,” wrote Nikolai Gogol.

Born in Moscow in 1799, Pushkin was accepted at age 12, into the first class of a new school, The Lyceum, that the czar had established for children of the nobility in Tsarskoye Selo. While still a pupil, Pushkin began writing poetry and working on his first long poem. After completing his studies, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he enjoyed the pleasures of the big city and the reformist sensibility that pervaded its politically aware youth.

Pushkin anonymously published subversive texts such as “Ode to Liberty” (1817), which contains the brazen lines, “Autocratic Miscreant! / Thee, thy throne I detest / Descent means thy children’s death / With savage delight I see” (translation by M.A. DuVernet), and “The Gabrieliad,” a satire from 1821, in which the angel Gabriel punches the testicles of Satan and then has his way with the Virgin Mary one day before the Holy Spirit pays a visit to her bedroom.

Alexander Pushkin's Duel with Georges d'Anthes. Painting by A. A. Naumov, 1884.
Alexey Avvakumovich Naumov

Not surprisingly, these works did not endear Pushkin to the powers-that-be, and in 1821, he was sent into internal exile on the Black Sea coast. This led him to a period of personal revelation, as it was during this exile that he began writing some of his greatest works, including the drama “Boris Godunov.” Even though he continued to write tirelessly, and to associate with similar vigor with free radicals, Pushkin was happy to return to St. Petersburg after cooling his heels for eight years in exile, although he had to agree to having significant limitations placed on his personal and creative freedoms.

He found some comfort in the arms of Natalia Goncharova, considered one of the most beautiful women in Russia, but his marriage to her led to his early demise. In 1836, four years after he had published his masterwork “Eugene Onegin,” and while Pushkin was still having to deal with the czar’s censorship, on the one hand, and a paper shortage, on the other, his wife began a torrid affair with a French nobleman named Georges d’Anthes. Pushkin attempted to deter her, writing, “I am not stopping you from flirting, but I demand that you exhibit coolness, decorum, dignity.” His request went unheeded.

Pushkin invited D’Anthès to a duel, but then withdrew the invitation due to pressure from friends – a step that led to a series of anonymous letters in which he was termed the “Head of the Most Serene Order of Cuckolds.” The letters, which were sent to Pushkin but also to people in aristocratic circles, exposed the affair, as well as Pushkin’s seeming cowardice before the wagging tongues of the city.

Serena Vitale, author of “Pushkin’s Button,” about the final months of the poet’s life, charges that the writer of these letters was the Dutch ambassador to the Russian court, Baron Jacob van Heeckeren, who had adopted D’Anthès as his son and, according to suspicions, as his lover, too. The insidious poison of the letters – whether they were written by the jealous baron or by the czar’s secret police – had its effect. Pushkin felt that he had no alternative, and again challenged D’Anthès to a duel.

On the evening of January 27, 1837, in a snowy field on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, D’Anthès carried out what the poet Marina Tsvetaeva called, in her autobiography, “The everlastingly dark act of a poet’s murder.” He shot first, mortally wounding Pushkin, who managed to fire at his opponent, but only grazed him. After three days of horrific suffering, Pushkin died. He was only 37, but already he had single-handedly changed Russian literature forever.

Pushkin injected into what had been the sociologically ossified and linguistically affected literary world that predated him, not only the aromas of foreign climes – of Byron and Rousseau, Voltaire and Laurence Sterne – but also the poetic freedom to employ idioms and expressions, words and syntax drawn from popular vernacular. Alongside this freedom, his works evoked a call for equality, for the option of placing at the center of literary works not only the knight, noble or hero, but also the dilettante, gravedigger or card player, and to evince a feeling of brotherhood toward him.

His style, which earned his poetry the epithet of the “Pushkin sonnet,” became a model for emulation by such contemporary writers as Vikram Seth and the Israeli Maya Arad. His writing gave inspiration not only to the Russian literary giants that succeeded him, from Gogol to Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Daniil Kharms, but also spilled out to beyond the borders of his country, and served as the basis for adaptations for opera, ballet, cinema and stage.

Nevertheless, Pushkin’s poetic innovation and characteristic dexterity in the use of musical rhymes, which achieved supreme expression in “Eugene Onegin,” turned the task of translating him into an “unthinkable act,” as Israeli poet and author Leah Goldberg put it.

In his article about Avraham Shlonsky’s Hebrew translation of “Eugene Onegin,” which included over 5,000 lines in iambic tetrameter, Ariel Hirschfeld refers to the lyrical ingenuity at the root of this monumental accomplishment. It required translating not only the structure and the rhymes, but also the book’s tone and character – a task about which the most famous of Pushkin’s translators into English, Vladimir Nabokov, said, “to reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible.” 

For his part, Nabokov chose to translate the novel into prose and to strip it of its structure in favor of the attempt to capture all the strands of the language, its cultural meanings and contexts. In one of his extensive series of notes, comprising a comparison of the various translations and appendices that he added to the original work, Nabokov cites Pushkin himself, “who has likened translators to horses changed at the posthouses of civilization.” Declares Nabokov, “The greatest reward I can think of is that students may use my work as a pony.”

One person who joins in these hallowed stables is the Israeli writer Rita Kogan, whose beautiful book of poetry “Horse in a Skirt” was recently published. Kogan has also employed her seemingly effortless rhythmic skill and the galloping pace of her words in translating into Hebrew, in verse, Pushkin’s “The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights,” which assumes a new mantle of words and illustrations courtesy of the Kadima publishing house.

Similar to what he did in his works “The Tale of the Fisherman and a Fish” and “The Tale of Czar Saltan,” in “The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights,” Pushkin the romanticist bases himself on a folktale from another source, the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” However, his version of that story places greater emphasis on the journey of the king’s son, who tracks down the princess, and less on the gruesomeness of which the Grimm’s German readership was so fond.

The Romanovs visiting a regiment during WWI. L to R: Grand Duchess Anastasia, Grand Duchess Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Tatiana, and Grand Duchess Maria, and Kuban Cossacks.
Romanov Collection / General Co

No fairy tale ending

Judging from “The Romanoffs,” the TV series created by Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), it seems that even in our clearly plebeian and democratic age we still thirst for a bit of blue blood. As for the criticism that the series is “fatally indulgent, asking for the utmost patience from audiences without a compelling incentive” (as per Rotten Tomatoes) – such a negative assessment would have no doubt been shared by several of the revolutionaries behind the murder of the czar. Moreover, as far as at least one of the family’s daughters is concerned, the transformation of the tragedy into an entertainment product, or worse, is an unconscionable act. In a sharply worded letter released last October by the office of the self-declared Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna of Russia, who has staked a claim to the crown based on being the great-great-granddaughter of Czar Alexander II, Nicholas’ grandfather, it was stated: “Dullness may be disagreeable, but it seldom causes offense or insult. Alas, to the series creator’s great discredit, ‘The Romanoffs’ manages to do both.”

Anna Anderson died in 1984. DNA samples taken from her body proved without doubt that there was no connection between her and the Grand Duchess Maria or anyone else in the Romanov dynasty. In 2007, an archaeological excavation conducted near Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where the royal murders took place, turned up charred human remains. Through a DNA sample contributed by Prince Phillip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, who is related to the Romanov family by way of his great-grandmother Victoria, it was possible to determine conclusively that those latest remains were those of Anastasia and her brother Alexei. The czarevich, heir apparent to the throne, was 14; the daughter of the czar was 17. She was not preserved in a crystal coffin, and no kiss of true love could have saved her. The lesson to be learned by anyone who fell into the web of those claiming they were lost princesses who fled for their lives and were living in a shack in a forest in the company of seven men, is that there are times when the thrill is in the chase and not in the discovery.