Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova (1901-1917) was the youngest daughter of the last Emperor or Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Together with her parents and siblings, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Alexei, and the family’s maid, Anna Demidova, the doctor Yevgeny Botkin, the valet Alexei Trupp and the cook Ivan Kharitonov, were murdered on 17th July 1917 by the Bolsheviks, in Yekaterinburg. The concealment of the bodies and the disinformation campaign by Lenin and the other leading Bolsheviks, led to the world to believe that Anastasia might have survived. Several impostors appeared, Anna Anderson being the most famous one. The exhumation of the Imperial family’s bones in 1991 and 2007, coupled with extensive DNA testing, revealed the truth.
1# The princess Anastasia Romanov
Anastasia was born 18th June 1901 (5th June O.S. Calendar), the fourth daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra. The parents, like the rest of Russia, had been expecting instead a male heir. As a result, Anastasia developed a lively, mischievous personality, playing pranks at her sisters and teachers, being dubbed by her family Schwipsig, little mischief in German.
The long-desired heir, Alexis, was born in 1904, but was soon diagnosed with haemophilia, a disease stopping the blood from clotting and which had no treatment back then. The disease meant that the Tsarevich (heir to the Russian Throne) wasn’t marked for a long and pleasant life, and even the smallest of cuts or bruises posed a mortal threat to him. Only Grigori Rasputin, a wandering mystic monk could stop the bleeding episodes, by soothing both Alexis and his anguished mother, Alexandra.
The Great War had placed a great strain upon Russia, starvation loomed on the horizon and millions of casualties in the front had stretched the nation to breaking point. Coupled with this, was the nefarious influence of Rasputin on the Imperial couple. With Nicholas away at the front Alexandra was left in charge, and Rasputin, thanks to his unique ability to stop Alexis’ bleeding episodes, enjoyed increasing influence over her, to the point of literally appointing the ministers for her. He was finally assassinated but it was too late for the Romanov family. The February Revolution broke in the capital Petrograd (St Petersburg), and Nicholas abdicated shortly after. The whole family was placed under house arrest in their home of Alexander Palace, in Tsarskoye Selo.
As a Bolshevik uprising grew larger, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, moved the family to safety in Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in relative comfort until the town fell to Bolshevik troops after the October Revolution, as did most of Russia. The family was transferred to Yekaterinburg in April, first Nicholas, Alexandra, and Maria, followed by the rest in May, staying behind to nurse a sick Alexis. Their new home was the Ipatiev House, designated with the ominous name ‘House of Special Purpose’.
On the morning of the 17th of July 1918, the whole family was aroused at midnight. Yakov Yurovsky, the house commander, told them a White Army formed by Czechs troops was approaching Yekaterinburg and therefore they, the family, had to be evacuated. Moving to the house’s basement, they were told they were about to take a picture for the government in Moscow, as a proof that they hadn’t indeed escaped or been rescued by the White Army.
Alexandra and Alexis had just been seated, daughters and servants lined up behind, when a squad carrying revolvers and handguns entered the room. After announcing that the Ural Executive Committee had sentenced Nicholas to death, Yurovsky shot the former Emperor death before he could digest Yurovsky’s statement. A cloud of gunpowder and plaster rose as the rest of the squad executed the family and their attendants. Their posterior reports were confusing and often contradictory, but it seems that Nicholas, Alexandra, and Olga died immediately, while Anastasia, Maria, and the maid Anna Demidova, escaped the bullets ungrazed and were chased around the room and bayoneted to death. Furthermore, as the bodies were loaded into a truck, one of the girls suddenly begun to moan and was at once savagely pounded with the butts of the rifles to silence her.
4# The world must never know
According to Yurovsky’s report, which was only made public in the death throes of the USSR, he took the bodies to a previously arranged spot, an abandoned mine called the Four Brothers. His men stripped the corpses of their clothes, and in the process found several pounds of jewels sewn into those. Yurovsky struggled to restrain the inebriated men from looting the corpses, having to threaten and dismiss some of them for severe indiscipline. The naked corpses were dumped then into a pit known as Ganina Yama (Ganya’s pit), and grenades were thrown to try and collapse the walls, meeting with little success.
Yurovsky went back to Yekaterinburg to report at the break of dawn but by then the rumour that the family had been murdered and buried in the Four Brother’s mine had spread like gunpowder. He came back on the morning of the 18th with another squad to lift the bodies. The process was laborious and they could only proceed with the removal to the new intended location on the early morning of the 19th. The truck got stuck in the mud and fearing the rapid approach of dawn, Yurovsky ordered the bodies to be interred on the spot. Acid sulphuric and rifle butts were used to disfigure the faces of the dead family and their servants, and all except two were buried together.
By removing two bodies, Yurovsky intended to create confusion in the event that the remains were to be found, for the Whites would be looking for exactly eleven people, so two less would surely throw them off track. Yurovsky claimed he and his men took the bodies of Alexis and Demidova apart (in the belief Demidova was the former empress) their facial features being disfigured beyond recognition. 73 years later, it was confirmed that this female body buried apart from the rest together with Alexis’ wasn’t in fact Demidova.
5# Where is the Romanov family?
When the Whites arrived in Yekaterinburg, an investigator called Nikolai Sokolov headed a commission to find the truth. He started off in the Ipatiev house, finding enough gruesome evidence in the shape of bullets and blood stains in the basement. He followed the trail to Ganina Yama, where he discovered several belongings of the family and a severed finger which was thought to be Alexandra’s. The retaking of Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks in 1921 cut the investigation short and Sokolov wrongly assumed the bodies had been turned to ashes and completely obliterated in Ganina Yama. For many decades everyone accepted so, and even nowadays the Russian Orthodox Church refuses to believe otherwise.
6# Buried but found
In 1979, Geli Ryabov and Alexander Avdonin found the burial spot near Porosyonkov Log (Piglet’s ravine), which matched with the spot described in Yurovsky’s report (disclosed to them by his repentant son). But it wasn’t until 1991 that the political climate allowed for the revelation of the grave, after Russian president Boris Yeltsin authorized the exhumation. Nine skeletons were retrieved, all identified by Sergei Abramov, a forensic anthropologist who used a computer program that matched the skulls with pictures and medical reports of the long-lost Romanov family.
A group of American scientists led by the forensic anthropologist William Maples was invited to corroborate Abramov’s conclusions. Maples and his team research led to the expected deductions that the bones belonged to the last Imperial family. However, Maples differed in Abramov’s conclusions in one single point. While Abramov claimed that one of the three young bodies belonged to Maria, Maples and the Americans believed it was Anastasia’s.
Regardless of this discrepancy, posterior DNA tests confirmed the identity of the bones as those of Nicholas, Alexandra, three of their daughters and four servants. Their remains were interred in 1998 in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, next to their predecessors Peter and Catherine the Great. Meanwhile everyone wondered where Alexis and the last lost daughter had been laid to rest. Had they possibly escaped, as some believed?
7# Anastasia ‘Anna’ Anderson
After the Soviet government publicly admitted the execution of the Tsar and his family, there were many who claimed to be the surviving children of Nicholas and Alexandra. They narrated their miraculous escape and used the interest of newspapers and public opinion to bolste their claims, but most were rebuffed by those who had known the family in life. The most famous impostor was Anna Anderson, a patient in a German mental asylum, who in the early twenties claimed to be Anastasia.
She was soon approached by Pierre Gillard, the tutor of the Romanov children, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (Nicholas’ sister) and Princess Irene (Alexandra’s sister). They all dismissed Anna’s statements, though expressing sympathy for her illness. However, public opinion was vastly fascinated by her case, and she also counted with the support of Tatiana and Gleb, the children of Doctor Yevgeny Botkin, who had been murdered with the family. It seemed then that the true fate of Anastasia, whose name ironically means resurrection, was to remain shrouded in mystery.
8# The lost princess
In 2007 two sets of remains were found close to the main grave in Porosyonkov Log. Together with the small fragments of charred bones, bullets and shards of ceramic which had contained acid sulphuric, were revealed. New DNA tests were carried on the new bones, and the results were also compared with the skeletons found in 1991. Finally the truth was at hand.
The recently discovered bones were unmistakably identified as those of Alexis and one of his sisters. The eleven bodies of the murdered Imperial family and their entourage had all been finally found. Previously, DNA stored in medical samples of the deceased Anna Anderson (died in 1984) were tested against those of the bones found in 1991. The result? Anna Anderson held no kinship or blood ties with the Romanovs.
Leaving no space for future doubts, a new DNA test was ordered, following a clue provided by an investigation carried in 1927, which had stated that Anna Anderson’s true identity was that of Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman who had suffered an accident in a factory of munitions by the end of World War I. Anna’s DNA was compared with that of Karl Maucher, the grandson of Franziska Schanzkowska’s sister, Gertrude. The blood didn’t lie, Anna and Karl were maternally related.
With the revelation of Anna Anderson’s true identity, and with the discovery of the two last bodies in 2007, the mystery was at last resolved. Anastasia Romanova, her parents and all siblings, were executed by the Bolsheviks on July 18th 1918. There was no miraculous escape, no opportunity to live a full and happy life for 17 year-old Anastasia. Their assassination is one of the darkest stains in Russian history and even as today experts still debate over the identity of the set of bones found next to Alexis in 2007. Was she Anastasia, as the Americans claimed, or Maria, as the Russians did?
The Russian Orthodox Church holds different views on the matter, opting to turn their backs on the DNA testing and scientific evidence, opposing and delaying the burial of the remains of Alexis and his sister with the rest of their family. Today, in 2020, 102 years after their execution, they still wait to be finally reunited.