In 1997, the animated movie Anastasia introduced me to the tragic tale of the Romanov family; and, like many children, I was completely enchanted. Already a history buff at age 12, I set out to find the truth hidden behind the feel-good family film — something my father had encouraged me to do with Pocahontas two years before.
What I found would remain with me forever. You see, the true story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna is utterly heartbreaking; and certainly not one suitable for young children.
Born June 18, 1901, Anastasia was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia, and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna. A precocious child, she was as charming as she was mischievous. Gleb Botkin, son of the court physician, described her as, “witty, vivacious, hopelessly stubborn, delightfully impertinent, and in general a perfect enfant terrible." He further explained that “she undoubtedly held the record for punishable deeds in her family, for in naughtiness she was a true genius."
As she grew, Anastasia became more service oriented — though she never lost her spunk. Too young to become Red Cross Nurses (like their mother and older sisters), Anastasia and her sister Maria spent time playing games with wounded soldiers at a private hospital during World War I. A soldier named Felix Dassel recalled that Anastasia had a "laugh like a squirrel," and walked rapidly "as though she tripped along."
Tragically, she wouldn’t live to see peace.
When the Russian Revolution began in February of 1917, the royal family were placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate less than a month later, and a provisional government took over. In August 1917, Alexander Kerensky of the Provisional Government evacuated the Romanovs to Tobolsk in the Urals, allegedly to protect them from the approaching Bolsheviks. However, only a few months later, the Bolsheviks seized majority control of Russia, and the royal family were moved once more — this time to the Ipatiev House, or House of Special Purpose, at Yekaterinburg.
After the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Russia disintegrated into a civil war between the Reds (Bolsheviks) and the Whites (Anti-Bolsheviks). As the White Army advanced toward Yekaterinburg, the Reds knew they had to rid themselves of the imperial family once and for all.
Yakov Yurovsky, a Bolshevik officer filed an account of the event following the killings. It became known as the "Yurovsky Note,” and its terrible contents are how we know the details of the Romanov family’s last moments.
On the night of July 16, 1918, the royal family was awakened and told they were being moved to a new location to safeguard them from the violence that would ensue when the White Army reached Yekaterinburg. Once dressed, the family and their servants were led into a small room in the house's sub-basement and told to wait. Yurovsky then informed the Tsar and his family that they were to be executed. Before the Tsar could respond, the soldiers opened fire.
The Tsar, Tsarina, and Grand Duchess Maria were killed in the initial volley of bullets. However, when the smoke cleared, the executioners found Alexei, Tatiana, Anastasia and Olga still alive. Before being moved from Tobolsk, the girls had sewn the crown jewels into the linings of their corsets in an attempt to hide them from their captors, and in doing such, had essentially clad themselves in armor. They were stabbed with bayonets, and when that failed to work, Yurovsky shot each one in the head.
Their bodies were initially disposed of in a mineshaft, but needed to be moved as the spot was too conspicuous. They were relocated deeper into the forest, where Yurovsky planned to burn the corpses. He was only able to burn Alexei and one other body before peasants began to make their way through the forest to work. The rest of the bodies were placed in a pit, covered with sulfuric acid, and buried. Near the spot where the corpses were burned, another pit was dug for the bones of Alexei and one of his sisters.
In an attempt to hide the fact that the imperial family had been murdered, the Bolsheviks spread deliberate misinformation stating they had simply been moved to a safer location. However, as time passed, and the sad truth became apparent, only the story of Anastasia's supposed escape and survival persisted. Contemporary reports of Bolshevik soldiers searching trains and houses for “Anastasia Romanov”, eyewitness accounts of the Grand Duchess being spotted in Perm, and news of family members being questioned about Anastasia, all fed people's’ desperate hope that the princess still lived.
Throughout the 20th century, at least ten women claimed to be Anastasia, offering varying stories as to how they had survived. The most famous of all the imposters was Anna Anderson. Her story seemed plausible, and for 32 years, she fought a legal battle for recognition. Anderson died in 1984, and a decade later, results from a DNA test proved once and for all that she was not the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
In the spring of 1979, Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov discovered the pit in which five of the seven Romanovs (and four of their servants) had been buried. Since the Communists were still ruling Russia at the time, Advonin and Ryabov decided to keep the finding a secret. The pit wouldn’t be officially opened until 1991, the same year that the Soviet Union dissolved.
DNA and skeletal analysis matched the remains in the pit to Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Yevgeny Botkin, Alexei Trupp, Ivan Kharitonov, Anna Demidova, and three of the four grand duchesses. William R. Maples (a forensic expert) concluded that the two bodies missing from the family grave were that of Tsarevitch Alexei and Anastasia. However, Russian scientists believed that it was the body of Maria that was missing. Using a computer program to compare photos of the youngest grand duchess with the skulls of the victims from the mass grave, they identified one the bodies in the pit as that of Anastasia.
Scientists continued to search the area in the subsequent years using a number of techniques, including ground penetrating radar and seismic profiling. On August 23, 2007, two burned, partial skeletons were found at a site that appeared to match the one described in Yurovsky's memoirs. Experts described the bones as belonging to a boy who was roughly between the ages of ten and thirteen years at the time of his death, and of a young woman who was roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three years old. At the time of the assassination:
- Olga was 22 years old
- Tatiana was 21 years old
- Maria was 19 years, one month old
- Anastasia was 17 years, one month old
- Alexei was two weeks shy of his 14th birthday
DNA testing by multiple international laboratories confirmed that the remains belonged to the Tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters. With that, there was conclusive proof that all members of the imperial family died together.
As heart wrenching as the story of Anastasia is, it will always bear telling. Philosopher George Santayana wisely said, “ Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must remember the Romanovs, for as foolish as Tsar Nicholas’s policies may have been, his children were innocent and didn't deserve to pay for his choices.