Life at the Court of Anna Anderson

A DNA test conducted after her death confirmed that Anna Anderson
(shown in 1981) was not the daughter of Nicholas II
Photo: Associated Press

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The Great Pretender?

Many of us know of Anna Anderson from the bestsellers and films that cast her as the
last tsar's daughter. A new book by Frances Welch sticks a pin in those fairy tales.

by Katherine Shonk Published: The Moscow Times, March 23, 2007

'The world wants to be deceived." This 1494 quote from Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools" is both the epigraph and undercurrent of the British writer Frances Welch's book "A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson." Inevitably, the story of how a Polish peasant passed herself off as Grand Duchess Anastasia also becomes the story of the many would-be courtiers who swallowed and bolstered her claim, whether to restore the monarchy, profit from Romanov riches, or indulge in the romance of bygone glory. It also invites Welch's readers to question their own ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

Many of us know of Anna Anderson from the bestsellers and Hollywood films that perpetuated the myth that she was, as she claimed, the last tsar's youngest daughter. Backed by cold, hard science, Welch sticks a pin in these fairy tales. In 1994, DNA testing proved that Anderson (who died in 1984) was not a Romanov and probably was instead one Franziska Schanzkowska, who went missing in Berlin around the same time that "Anastasia" emerged in the same city.

The incontrovertibility of DNA evidence affords Welch the smug, bemused perspective of a god looking down on the antics of mere mortals. Consider the comic scene that launches the book: a 1968 meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, between an elderly Anderson and two male admirers. Anderson, recently relocated from Europe, is described as an old woman with "an unforgiving pudding-bowl haircut," "a small face wrinkled in suspicion and disapproval" and a tendency to "slump in her chair, resembling nothing so much as a small pile of ill-assorted clothes." Also in attendance: Jack Manahan, a local millionaire obsessed with royal genealogy and Anna's future husband of convenience. Rounding out the motley threesome was Gleb Botkin, an aging Russian emigre whose father, Dr. Eugene Botkin, had been the imperial family's physician and was murdered along with them. Gleb had known and adored Anastasia in his youth, and became Anderson's most fervent advocate within seconds of their post-Revolution "reunion" in 1927. The founder of the "Church of Aphrodite," he preached goddess worship and free love and went about Charlottesville dressed in robes.

Having established Anderson and her closest supporters as fruitcakes, Welch backs up to the night of July 17, 1918, when the imperial family and their retainers were shot and stabbed repeatedly in the cellar of the House of Special Purpose in Yekaterinburg. As is now well known, the murders and subsequent burial in a nearby forest were gruesome and ill-planned. The grand duchesses were hard to kill; the gemstones sewn into their undergarments deflected bullets. The circumstances were primed for the emergence of pretenders: "The possibility that one of the five children may have been wrested from the chaos has been seized upon as a kind of solace. Stories centering upon the survival of the attractive, youngest daughter, Anastasia, have proved particularly appealing."

Anna Anderson later claimed she was rescued in the chaos that followed the slaughter and transported to Bucharest by two brothers, one of whom impregnated her. She allegedly put up her son for adoption and traveled to Berlin, where, on the night of February 18, 1920, she unsuccessfully tried to end her life by jumping into a canal. She was taken to a lunatic asylum, where she was registered as "Miss Unknown" due to her refusal to speak. After reading a newspaper article that speculated about the possible survival of a Russian grand duchess, a fellow inmate named Clara became convinced that her new, mute friend was Tatyana and promoted the story to Russian emigres. They coaxed Miss Unknown into cooperating by handing her a sheet of paper that listed the names of the four grand duchesses. She crossed off names until only Anastasia's was left, and a legend was born.

Police records and recent DNA evidence suggest that Miss Unknown was actually Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish peasant five years older than Anastasia who may or may not have resembled the grand duchess; opinions on this matter varied widely. Following an accident in a munitions factory in Berlin during World War I, Schanzkowska had spent time in sanatoria before disappearing at approximately the same time that Anna Anderson, as Miss Unknown chose to be called, was fished out of the canal. Anderson's 35-year legal battle to be recognized as Anastasia -- which a number of the tsar's descendants fought tooth and nail -- ended in a draw, with the German Supreme Court neither establishing nor refuting Anna's claim.

In "A Romanov Fantasy," the 60-plus years that Anderson pretended to be Anastasia emerge as a sometimes humorous, sometimes monotonous blur of eccentric supporters rising to her defense and equally odd (though more discerning) detractors refuting her claim. Through it all, a faithful few, including Gleb Botkin and some saintly lawyers, suffered through Anderson's legendary tantrums and arranged for her to be sheltered by a succession of wealthy benefactors (the "grand duchess" never had to get a day job). During the 1950s, Anderson amassed several wild dogs and 40 cats while living among the Anthroposophists, a community that believed the Russian Revolution was "the manifestation of a major psychic upheaval." Meanwhile, in the outside world, Anderson's mystique grew. Ingrid Bergman played the title role in the film "Anastasia," and 30 women came forward claiming to be Anderson's daughter.

After Anderson moved to the United States in the 1960s, Botkin convinced the 49-year-old royalty buff Jack Manahan to marry the 70-something Anderson to prevent her deportation. Despite Manahan's wealth, the couple lived in squalor; Anderson planted banana peels on the doorstep to keep visitors at bay. Soon before her death, Anderson's husband kidnapped her from a local hospital and took her on a three-day joyride that led conspiracy theorists to speculate about an impending monarchist coup to replace the ailing Yury Andropov.

What inspired Anderson to pose as royalty, if not a desire for wealth or fame? Given her supporters' zeal, it may have seemed the path of least resistance. Welch writes: "There is every likelihood that she simply dimly grasped the idea that her life, and the lives of everybody around her, would be richer were she Anastasia. A fantasy soon solidified into belief." It appears Anderson's supporters went through the same mental process: "It goes without saying that subsequent DNA testing which seemed to destroy her claim never dented the faith of ... the 'Anastasians,' as they called themselves. Ninety years on, as they point out, meticulous searches around [Yekaterinburg] have failed to unearth any trace of the seventeen-year-old Anastasia."

This is the conundrum of Anna Anderson's story: Science doesn't lie, but where are the bones? DNA aside, puzzling aspects of the case remain. Experts determined Anderson's ear to be an exact match with Anastasia's, Franziska Schanzkowska was apparently several inches taller than Anastasia, and so on. Welch describes a parade of crackpot Anastasians in numbing detail, yet fails to engage Anderson's more reasonable supporters, such as journalist Peter Kurth (author of "Anastasia: The Life of Anna Anderson"), in a discussion of the lingering mysteries. This oversight may leave some readers in the embarrassing position of questioning the veracity of DNA evidence. In the end, Welch proves that we do, indeed, want to be deceived. A more interesting and difficult task would be to explore why all of us -- skeptics and dreamers alike -- are so hungry to believe.

April 2007