On July 17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children were murdered in a basement in Ekaterinburg. After 300 years of imperial rule, the Romanov empire ended in a chaos of gunfire and bayonets. 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, "Madame Unknown" was soon brought to Dalldorf Asylum with no papers in her pockets, no labels on her clothes, and a silent refusal to identify herself. There, 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, it was said, had escaped the basement alive. It was another Dalldorf patient — Clara Peuthert — who first suspected this aloof woman was the missing Romanov. Upon leaving the hospital, 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. The woman herself gave no encouragement. Sometimes, she hid under the sheets in fear, seemingly terrified by any confrontation. Other times, she rebuffed her visitors, refusing to satisfy their queries; though she often seemed to recognize the people in the photos they thrust upon her, she would never say so until they were gone. 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 woman replied: "I never said I was Tatiana."
Resistant though she was, the word began to spread. One day, Captain von Schwabe came again, knowing this time that pressuring the patient or even asking a direct question would get him nowhere. Instead, he offered a list of the Romanov daughters' names. If she couldn't say who she was, could she perhaps indicate who she wasn't? She crossed out all the names but one. Without saying a word, Madame Unknown became Anastasia: the 20th century's greatest royal riddle, never quite solved. 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, whose story spun off decades' worth of tabloid fodder, becoming the source of both the classic Ingrid Bergman film Anastasia and the 1997 animated feature of the same name. This month, a stage musical debuted, slated to hit Broadway this coming fall. But it would be a stretch to call these adaptations "based on a true story." 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.
After leaving the hospital, Anderson was swarmed by those who wished to debunk or validate her as the lost Grand Duchess. In the twilight between wars, Europe was scattered with Romanov relations, former servants, and friends — and many 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. 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. She acknowledged herself as Anastasia within the small circle she trusted, though even 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 reveals 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," recounts Kurth. Tricks and persuasion were met with rage, as was sympathy if it seemed too much.
Yet sometimes she melted. Longtime family friend Zina Tolstoy came to visit Anderson while she was staying at the home of Russian emigres Baron and Baroness von Kleist. Careful not to prod, she made small talk with the young woman, then sat at a piano, plinking at the keys: "Do you play?" Anderson said she'd 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'd often played for the Romanov children to dance to. "The result was shattering," said Baroness von Kleist, in Kurth's reporting of the scene. Anderson lost all composure, collapsing into sobs on the sofa. Tolstoy began to cry herself, asking if she recognized the music. Anderson admitted she did, and the two women wept together. But this open-armed reception was a rare exception to the rule. And 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 investigate Anderson's identity, convinced Princess Irene of Prussia to meet Anderson at his home, over dinner. Irene was the Tsarina's sister, Anastasia's aunt, and though surely she had hope to find her niece was still alive, she'd 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 hadn't seen the Romanovs for a decade, after all. Halfway through the meal, Anderson, furious, bolted from the table. Irene went after her, peppering her with questions, demanding, "Don't you know I'm your Aunt Irene?" A tearful 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 this that galled Anderson's supporters. Why was she so unhelpful? So rude? "I was not rude," Anderson spat back. She was humiliated and bewildered. Why had her aunt given a false name? She hadn't seen the woman since she was a child, and while she'd recognized the voice at first, 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 soon had as many detractors as supporters. Anastasia's old nursemaid, her former tutor, and other royal employees flatly denied she was genuine, yet others still believed. In 1927, she met Gleb Botkin, son of Dr. 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'd played as children, his conviction only grew. He became Anderson's most ardent supporter, and when murmurs of the Romanov fortune grew, it was he 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 proven. But his estate (or what remained of it) could be claimed after 10 years. Then, there was Tsarina Alexandra. As granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Princess of the House of Hesse, she too had many living relatives (including the British royal family) with an interest in what Nicholas and Alexandra left behind. 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 the woman herself — recognition. Thus began the longest running court case in German history to date. Aside from Princess Irene, Anastasia's closest relatives had kept a general distance from Anderson. But for the next 32 years, they fought against her claim in court — yet their own deep pockets couldn't purchase proof one way or the other. Robert K. Massie — a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and arguably the preeminent Romanov historian — wrote of the trial in The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. There he reports 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." The same graphologist who'd 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. Dr. Lothar Nobel stated that, "no mental illness of any kind exists... It seems impossible that her knowledge of many small details is due to anything but her own personal experience." Furthermore, he added, it was inconceivable that an impostor "should behave as the patient does now." All these conclusions were drawn by court-appointed experts — not paid for by either side.
For all we know of Anna Anderson's life, consider what we know of Anastasia's death — and where that story came from.
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 Madame Unknown turned up in Berlin. To her detractors, this seemed evidence enough. The timeline matched and Schanzkowska's brother Felix signed an affidavit claiming that she looked like his sister. But soon, details emerged that muddied the perfect picture painted by this discovery. For the newspaper hadn't come by this information by coincidence. It was soon uncovered that the Grand Duke of Hesse (Anastasia's uncle, who disbelieved Anderson) had paid the newspaper handsomely for the investigation. After this revelation, the 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. Anna Anderson would spend the rest of her life a staunch, unanswered riddle. "How shall I tell you who I am?" she asked in a 1978 interview. "In which way? Can you tell me that? Can you really prove to me who you are? You can believe it or you don't believe it. It doesn't matter." Two decades later, the truth would emerge in another hospital room, this time in Charlottesville, VA. But, as ever, it was a truth that offered more questions than answers.
In 1984, Anna Anderson, now living in the U.S. and married to a man 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 as if the century's greatest rumor had been true. All along, she'd been a princess — of course she'd been. Those eyes, those stories, the horror of bayonet scars on her body telling of what she had survived — and we had the audacity to doubt her? 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 word most often used in this sad story. It's the best we can do, and that is a great injustice to its many victims. Perhaps it is because this tale emerged from within the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma called the Soviet Union. For all we know of Anna Anderson's life, consider what we know of Anastasia's death — and where that story came from. Probably, she was awoken in the middle of the night and marched into the basement with her parents, her siblings, and three attendants. She brought her dog as well. They were told they were being transported to a safer location, but, probably, they knew. A Bolshevik guard told the Tsar he would be executed, Nicholas reflexively turned toward his children and was quickly shot, point blank, in the head. The Tsarina and eldest daughter Olga were both swiftly dispatched in the hail of gunfire that ensued. Three sisters and Alexis were still alive after the first round, the boy found clutching his father's shirt. The girls had sewn jewels into their clothing, perhaps for safe-keeping or even protection, but this only served to delay their terrible deaths. One by one, they were shot or stabbed. Probably, Anastasia was the last to die. 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. We'll probably never know 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 — and they are not alone in disbelief. They say the tests were bungled, maybe deliberately, and the government is lying. Perhaps they're simply grasping at straws, hoping to believe the fairy tale. As long as someone's telling it, the story isn't over.