“Miss Unknown” and Rise of the Anastasia Romanov Myth

The next Broadway blockbuster to hit Morsani stage is ANASTASIA, a tale of bravery and finding one’s place in the world spun from a shocking turn of events in 1920, a mere two years after the brutal assassination of the entire Romanov royal family.

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The Romanovs, 1913. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra sit in the center. Behind, from left to right, are their daughters Maria, Olga, and Tatiana. Their youngest daughter, Anastasia, is seated on the stool, and their son Alexei kneels in front.

2019 marks 100 years since the Bolsheviks murdered Russian royals Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov, their five children and four servants in the basement of a Siberian country house. Out of this grisly horror emerged an immortal hope—a hope that sparked a series of theatrical tales about charming and precocious Anastasia, the youngest of the four Romanov girls.

It all goes back to 1920, to a mysterious woman with eyes of “Romanov blue” who was fished out of a Berlin canal. Authorities dubbed her “Miss Unknown.” She wasn’t unknown, she’d tell the authorities—she was Anastasia Romanov.

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Painting of Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.

Before we get there, however, we need to rewind to the man who started all: Peter the Great. If you dust off your training in Western Civ, you’ll recall this Russian powerhouse was the first Romanov, the man who launched the dynasty that would last 300 years, forge the lusty and ruthless Catherine the Great and establish Russia as a world superpower. Nicholas II, the father of Anastasia and the one who perished that fateful July morning in 1918 at the hands of a communist firing squad, was the last of the Romanov tsars, bringing their illustrious beginnings to quite an unfortunate and gruesome end.

Nicholas—as historians agree—did all things people hate in a ruler: he believed God put him on the throne, he married an outsider, he instigated bad wars, his arrogance blinded him to his unpopularity and, eventually, he cozied up to the “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin, a religious fanatic with no morals. The Russian people were fed up with the Romanov autocracy and ripe for revolution. Enter Vladimir Lenin, who led the revolution and created a communist power center. Nicholas abdicated the throne.

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Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.

But now what?

At first, the Bolsheviks took Nicholas and his family to a posh castle where they lived in a manner in which they were accustomed. In time, the military moved the Romanovs to a country estate outside of the Ural mountains, when it was becoming glaringly obvious to everyone except Nicholas that the family’s execution was imminent. The Reds had already dispatched Rasputin with a combination poisoning/shooting/dumping-in-river murder plot, and Lenin knew there was no way to completely win the hearts and minds of the people without erasing the final traces of the autocracy that so oppressed Russia. The Romanovs adapted to country life, entertained by their actress-artist daughter Anastasia, who wrote her own plays, and, lacking proper resources for auditions, enlisted her little brother and older sisters into performing the other parts.

Their circumstance went from bucolic to bubonic in a matter of months, however, when, on July 17, 1918, at 1:30 a.m., their guards received orders to take the family and their attendants to the cellar under false pretenses then murder them all.

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The Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs and their servants were killed.

What happened next is the subject matter for a different type of show, or perhaps a Rob Zombie film, but let’s just note that the execution was bungled at best and twenty long minutes of unspeakable torture for the Romanovs at worst. The guards did not know that the royal diamond jewelry was sewn into the girls’ corsets and undergarments, so the bullets bounced off, merely breaking bones and creating internal hemorrhaging. Nicholas and Alexandra, his wife, as well as the servants, were the only ones to be killed in the initial volley of shots. In a panic, the guards—who had also hit each other with ricochets—resorted to bayonets and rifle ends to complete the mission. The burying of the bodies went even worse, with the poorly-thought-out-plans backfiring in bizarre ways until the commanding officer improvised a disposal scheme that involved sulfuric acid, gasoline, a gigantic hole and the off-loading of two of the kids in a different part of the woods.

Not much to sing and dance about, right? But these stomach-turning details didn’t see the light of day until the last few decades, when Russian officials finally released previously-hidden documents to Romanov biographers after the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters including Anastasia were discovered in the woods some miles from the country estate/crime scene in 1991. (The house had been bulldozed in the 1970s). The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the Romanovs in 2000, making some peace with this inglorious past, and laid their bodies to rest in the traditional tsar’s cathedral in St. Petersburg. The other two children’s remains—Alexi and Maria—were found and identified in 2007.

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On July 17, 1998, The Romanovs were laid to rest in the traditional burial place of the tsars, St. Petersburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, 80 years to the day of their murder.

Since the Bolsheviks wrapped up the details of what happened to the Romanovs and refused to proffer any details other than “the Czar is dead,” popular imagination filled in the blanks. Something seemed unacceptable … the Russian royal bloodline couldn’t be demolished, could it? If there’s no proof of death, someone could have survived, right?

A Tatiana popped up in rural England. An Alexi appeared in Poland. People wanted to believe one of the children escaped to somewhere else in Europe, but the claimants ultimately proved to be imposters.

Then, in 1920, Berlin authorities responded to a call that a woman had jumped into a canal, presumably as a suicide attempt. When they pulled her from the water, the woman carried no identification. Admitted to a mental hospital, she hid for months under her covers. There was something … familiar … about the way she looked, though.

Wait a minute, her fellow patients noted, she looks like grand duchess Tatiana Romanov! No, others said, she’s too short. Why, she must be Anastasia!

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Anna Anderson, who adopted the identity of Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

The woman, whose silence earned her the name “Fraulein Unbekannt”—Miss Unknown—reluctantly admitted she was, indeed, Anastasia Romanov. She revealed that the guard carrying her to the woods the night of the assassination realized she was unconscious, not dead, and spirited her away. She renamed herself Anna Anderson, took the guard as her lover, yet he perished in a street brawl. She looked like Anastasia. She had the eyes, the ears. Without being able to confirm or deny her identity, the public and the press flew into a frenzy.

Ironically, the name Anastasia is Greek for “resurrection.” The child, the young woman, the possibly escaped royal took on renewed life in the mind of the world. It was almost as if humanity reserved some small hope that innocence found a way to survive the brutality of the times; that, maybe, if Anastasia could persist to live another day, then all wasn’t lost? Couldn’t she symbolize everyone’s struggle to find their way back to who they really were—someone special, someone royal?

Anna Anderson maintained a tight grip on her claim as the Russian princess, never indicating she was anyone other than Anastasia Romanov. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after the real Romanov remains had been DNA tested, that scientists could prove Anna Anderson had zero Romanov blood. Those same analysts linked her to the Polish factory worker Franziska Schanizkowska, confirming a story about her real identity that circulated in Germany.

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The animated Anastasia (L) and Ingrid Bergman in the live-action film Anastasia (R).

Roughly around this time, 20th Century Fox released their animated version of Anastasia, a film inspired by the 1956 live-action movie of the same name starring the regal and captivating Ingrid Bergman. The hope inspired by the notion that Anastasia somehow survived the most terrifying circumstances continues to spark the modern mind, which is how we got the spectacular song-and-dance tale of an orphan discovering her true self in Broadway’s Anastasia, which opens May 7.

As Anastasia lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Town and Country magazine in 2017, “I think the legend of Anastasia has persisted for a century because we’re all romantics at heart, yearning for happy endings, especially in dark times. We want to imagine that the lost princess really did find ‘home, love, and family’ in the face of terrible odds.”

9 - Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Lila Coogan (Anya) and Stephen Brower (Dmitry) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)