So the thing with Anastasia that the life she actually lived is known far less than the afterlife other people think she had. The best-known films about her life centre around the life of a usually amnesiac young woman hired as an Anastasia impersonator who — surprise!! — turns out to actually be Anastasia herself. It’s an incredibly interesting story, first told in the 1928 film Clothes Make the Woman, and partly inspired by the numerous women who emerged practically right after the royal family’s execution to claim to be her. Why Anastasia, though, of the four Romanova sisters? Who was the teenager who went on become a myth? The real Anastasia lived 16 years as a princess, 1 year as a prisoner, and then was murdered. The portrayal of her post-Revolution self in any of the Anastasia movies shows a tough survivor, and in real life she was, too. But her story is a lot more palatable if she miraculously escaped execution, rather than being gunned down with her family at age 17.
Some background. Anastasia was born in 1901, the third daughter born to Tsar Nicolas II and his German-born wife, Alexandra. As with so many Kings, he really, really wanted a male heir. One daughter was fine, two were okay, three was a bit much, but four? Apparently Nicolas had to go for a walk to cool down before being able to actually visit Anastasia in person, so disappointed was he in yet another daughter. His long-awaited son, Alexei, was born three years later, and Anastasia could have been a forgotten middle child if she hadn’t been stone-cold amazing. Anyway, her sisters were named Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, and as a group they would sign off letters with the acronym OTMA. I think part of the Anastasia mystique is the existence of this quartet of sisters, something sort of Pride & Prejudice/Picnic at Hanging Rock/The Virgin Suicides about the whole enterprise.
OTMA and Alexei were raised surrounded by lots of extended family members and servants, many of whom would later recount their memories of each of the children. Anastasia is frequently noted for her high spirits and energy, as well as her constant hijinxs: throwing snowballs, tripping servants, being the sort of pain I can relate to as a fellow youngest daughter. Most of the reflections on her referred to her as silly and fun, although apparently she would sometimes take her jokes too far (one cousin referred to her as “nasty to the point of being evil,” which just makes me love her all the more). I think it was the account of a former Governess that said that even as a toddler, Anastasia was the most charismatic person in a room. She grew up to be smart but not so much bookish as creative, her true passion being for showing off and impromptu dramatic presentations.
The sisters were extremely close both to each other as well as to their mother, and their mother’s spiritual advisor, the notorious Grigory Rasputin. Rasputin was viewed suspiciously by a large proportion of the Russian population, and his closeness with the girls became a scandal possibly because everything he did became a scandal, and/or potentially because it was legitimately scandalous. OTMA never accused him of anything, and they were apparently all despondent after he died (which is a story for another day). In fact, when the bodies of the royal sisters were unearthed, each was found to have been wearing an amulet with a picture of Rasputin on it.
But the thing is, her family was also the final ruling royal family in Russian history and had the unfortunate timing to be in power at the time of the Russian Revolution. What this meant was that, rather than living out a long and fruitful life as royalty, in February 1917, the whole family was placed under house arrest. The next month, Nicolas abdicated. The family was moved from place to place, each new location a bit more prison-like and a bit less home-like than the previous one had been. To keep up morale, and probably to stave off boredom, Anastasia put on performances for her family and the staff who lived with them, as per usual charming mostly everybody and horrifying one or two with her talent, quick wit, and pranks. Basically, she was a rad teenage girl who would not let imprisonment dampen her life force.
Then they landed at Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg.At previous homes, they learned that their valuables were being confiscated and so OTMA and their mother hid their jewels by sewing them into their corsets, pillows, and clothing. This turned out to be a good plan, as they were kept separate from their luggage at this new prison, and the guards continued to take any valuables they could find from them, including the jewellery from their hands. They were forbidden from looking out the windows in case they signalled to anyone, and the windows were whitewashed to prevent anyone being able to see in or out. The only source of fresh air being a single ventilation window. At one point, Anastasia tried to peek out this window and was shot at by guards. They weren’t allowed access to their luggage, including the Brownie cameras OTMA had previously enjoyed using to photograph one another. The guards, mostly foreigners chosen for the reduced chance they would be tempted to fraternize with the captives, were said to draw lewd images on the fences to unsettle the girls.
And then, as has been well recorded, the family’s confinement ended gruesomely in 1918. Basically, keeping the royal family alive became a liability because as long as they were around, they would have supporters and that was a challenge to the new Communist regime. Their executioners first planned to only kill Nicolas, as Alexandra and the children were valuable to Germany and news of their deaths could lead to political consequences. But they then decided to kill them all, but only let news of Nicholas’s death be announced. They buried the bodies and did not announce where or how the deaths had occurred, in fact actively planting disinformation that the girls and Queen may still be alive. But of course, the family had been first lured along with their staff to a basement room under the pretence they were being moved to a different prison. When the guards opened fire, the jewels hidden in their clothes caused some of the bullets to ricochet off of the victims, but everyone was said to have died either by gunshot or bayonet.
OR DID THEY? (Spoiler: 99.99999999% yes, yes they did)
So, the political lie that the Russians spread about some of the royal family maybe not being dead was perhaps part of what led to the sudden and contagious line of thinking that Anastasia was still alive. At least ten women emerged very shortly after the execution, most famously Anna Anderson, claiming to be the escaped Anastasia. Anderson first publicly appeared with her claim in 1920, claiming to have escaped by playing dead and then engaging the help of a sympathetic guard. By 1928, the first filmic treatment of the Not Dead Amnesiac Anastasia story was put to film in the silent movie Clothes Make the Woman, starring Eve Southern as Anderson/Anastasia.
Anderson died in 1984, having lived decades longer than the real Anastasia, and had her body cremated. In 1991, the bodies of the royal family were unearthed in the woods near Yekaterinburg. Eleven people were killed in that basement, but only nine bodies were found. Along with four servants, these remains were found to be those of Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, and either Anastasia or Maria: Alexei and Anastasia were missing. Reports of their execution had noted these two bodies were taken elsewhere and cremated, in order to provide precisely the confusion that occurred when this mass grave was found: if there weren’t eleven bodies, it couldn’t possibly be the Russian royal family (because the executioners, remember, were desperate for nobody to know how many people were murdered that night). Then in 1994, a sample of Anderson’s DNA kept on file from a previous medical procedure was tested and found that she was found to have no genetic connection to the royal family. She did, however, share genetic markers with the family of a missing Polish factory worker.
Anastasia herself was, by basically every account (including her own photographed self-portraits), a highly charismatic goofball and more or less the shining star of her sibling group. Some of the films based on her story include scenes of her girlhood, but mostly focus on the post-basement times, making them stories of Anderson moreso than of Anastasia. Yet, the two have been conflated so much, the story of Anastasia’s miracle survival so much in the collective unconscious, when people refer to this story they really mean the one they wish was true: that the spirited youngest Romanov daughter did survive, that a handsome John Cusack type first used her and then helped her connect with her past, that she was able to eventually reunite with her grief-stricken relatives, that the story of this charismatic girl was able to have a happy ending. But as it is, she lives on in the extraordinary candid photos she and her sisters took of one another, allowing us to remember them captured forever in glass negatives, four sisters goofing off together for all of eternity.
You can learn more about Anastasia’s real life and her fictitious post-Revolutionary life in films like Anastasia (1956), the TV mini-series Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, and of course the animated film Anastasia (1997). The animated film was recently turned into a musical, too, that you can catch on Broadway or enjoy from its cast recording. In terms of books, I like that The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, by Helen Rappaport, digs into the full OTMA quartet.