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 of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, led to the world to believe Anastasia might had 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.

Maria and Anastasia making faces for the camera. 1915-6. Source

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) would not enjoy a long 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.

Alexandra, her daughters, the governess, and Rasputin, all dressed in white. The little Alexis is dressed as a sailor
Rasputin with Alexandra, a governess and the children. 1908. Source

2# Revolution

The Great War had placed a great strain upon Russia, starvation loomed on the horizon, and millions of front casualties kept harrowing the nation. 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, who held increasing influence over her due his unique ability to stop Alexis’ episodes, literally appointed the ministers for her. He was finally assassinated, but it was too late for the Romanov dynasty of which Anastasia was part. 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.

All four sisters dress similar outfits in caps while they bask in the sun. Two of their dogs sit at their feet
The four sisters in captivity, 1917. From left to right: Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana. Author: Pierre Gillard. Source

As the Bolshevik menace grew larger, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government of Russia, moved the family to safety in Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in relative comfort until the town fell to Bolshevik hands after the October Revolution, as did most of Russia. The family were moved to Yekaterinburg in April, first Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria, followed by the rest in May, who had stayed behind to take care of a sick Alexis. Their new home was the Ipatiev House, designated with the ominous name ‘House of Special Purpose’.

Ipatiev House, summer 1918. Author: Alexei Nametkin. Source

3# Execution

On the morning of the 17th of July 1918, the whole family were awakened midnight. Yakov Yurovsky, the house commander, said the White Army of Czechs were approaching Yekaterinburg and therefore they had to be evacuated. Standing in the basement, they were told they were about to take a picture for the Bolshevik government in Moscow, to prove that they hadn’t indeed escaped or been rescued by the pro-monarchical White Army.

With Alexandra and Alexis seated and the daughters and servants waiting behind, a squad carrying revolvers entered the room. After announcing that the Ural Executive Committee had sentenced Nicholas to death, Yurovsky shot the former Emperor death. A cloud of gunpowder and plaster rose as the squad mercilessly executed the family and their attendants. The executioner’s posterior reports were often contradictory, but it seems that Nicholas, Alexandra, and Olga died quickly, while Anastasia, Maria, and the maid Anna Demidova, survived the bullets and were instead bayoneted to death. Furthermore, as the bodies were moved to a truck, one of the girls suddenly moaned, and was at once pounded savagely with rifle’s butts and stabbed.

The bone-chilling basement. Picture taken by Sokolov during his investigation
The basement of the Ipatiev house. Several bullets were found in the plaster. Source

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, the abandoned mine called the Four Brothers. His men stripped them of their clothes to burn them, and found some jewels sewn into those. Yurovsky had lots of trouble to restrain the inebriated men from looting the corpses, having to threaten and dismiss some of them for indiscipline. The naked bodies were dumped into a pit known as Ganina Yama (Ganya’s pit), and grenades were thrown to try and collapse the walls, meeting with little success.

Ganina Yamna today. It has become a place of pilgrimage. On the centre, the mine pit covered by vegetation. Author: Mariluna. Source

Yurovsky went back to Yekaterinburg to report, but 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 corpses’ faces and all except two were buried.

The final place of burial
The final place of burial. The railroad ties on the picture were used to get the car out of the mud. The author and investigator, Nikolai Sokolov, took this picture several days later without knowing he was looking at the burial pit for Nicholas and his family. Author: Nikolai Sokolov. Source

By removing two bodies, Yurovsky intended to create confusion in the eventuality the remains would be found, believing the Whites would be looking for eleven people after all. Yurovsky claimed they took the bodies of Alexis and Demidova (believing she was the former empress) apart, their facial features already disfigured beyond recognition. 73 years later, it would be discovered that it wasn’t Demidova’s, the corpse which joined Alexis in a separate bonfire, the remaining bones buried apart from the rest.

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 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 were. Had they possibly escaped as many believed?

7# Anastasia ‘Anna’ Anderson

After the Soviet government chose to openly admit the execution of the Tsar and of 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 strengthen 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.

Anna Anderson smiling at the camera. It is somewhat unnerving
Anna Anderson, 1920. Source

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.

Official picture of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1992
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Since he was a relative of the Romanovs, his DNA was used to compare it with those of the skeletons found, finally helping to clarify their identity. Author: Allen Warren. Source

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 munitions factory 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 lost bodies in 2007, the mystery was resolved. Anastasia Romanova and her family were gruesomely executed by the Bolsheviks on 18th July 1918. There was no escape, no opportunity to live a full life for 17year-old Anastasia and her siblings. 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?

Maria and her younger sister Anastasia, both have the same dres and pearl necklace
Maria and Anastasia, 1914. Source

The Russian Orthodox Church holds different views on the matter, opting to turn their backs on the DNA testing and scientific evidence, and to oppose and delay 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.

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