Heritage

The Unsolved Mystery of the Missing Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov

What’s real-and what isn’t-about Russia’s most storied royal family.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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However thoroughly debunked, the myths that surround the Romanov family continue to endure. Everyone’s heard stories of the missing Duchess Anastasia, the mad monk Rasputin, and Russia’s missing treasures. As captivating as the stories may be, they tell us more about our tendencies to favor tall tales over truth; no amount of evidence will ever completely eradicate the legends that we share.

Romanov history is surprisingly well-documented, despite what the stories may say. The mystery that surrounds their death in 1918 was intentionalthe Bolsheviks ran a misinformation campaign about the family’s fate for nearly a decade, and the burial site in which the Romanovs laid remained hidden until its discovery 61 years after their execution. During this time, rumors spread and impostors laying claim to the royal fortune surfaced, and our fascination with the family began.


The official engagement photograph of Alexandra and Nicholas


The Romanov family: Olga, Maria, Nicholas, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana

The Lost Duchess Anastasia

Of all the legends that endured, none is more famous than the fate of Anastasia. Over the decades, numerous personalities have claimed to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, inspiring dozens of books and films that only served to perpetuate the belief that Anastasia had escaped the brutal execution of her family.


The Grand Duchess Anastasia on a postcard reproduced prior to World War I.

The first of the false Anastasias emerged in 1920, and was the basis of several books, plays, films, and ballets, which in turn served to inspire the 1997 animated film Anastasia. Franziska Schnazkowska was rescued from the banks of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, after attempting suicide. At the time of her admission into a mental institution, she had no documentation on her person and refused to give her identity. Instead, she identified herself as Fräulein Unbekannt, or “Miss Unknown.”

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Later, in 1922, a fellow patient claimed that Schnazkowska was Tatiana, one of Nicholas II’s daughters, prompting Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsar’s wife Alexandra, to investigate the claims. Meeting Schnazkowska ended in disappointment for the Baroness, who stated that the woman was too short to be Tatiana.


Anastasia hugs a boy at a train station. The Imperial train is behind them.

Eventually, rumors spread that Schnazkowska herself claimed to nurses that she wasn’t Tatiana, but was Anastasia instead. Numerous visits by individuals connected to the Romanovs consistently debunked her claims; even a supposed confirmation from Crown Princess Cecille of Prussia was later attributed to dementia.

Over the course of several decades, Schnazkowska continued to insist she was Anastasia, taking on several names alluding to her supposed past: Anastasia Tchaikowsky, Anastasia Manahan, and Anna Anderson, the name by which her story spread most. When DNA tests confirmed she had no genetic connection to the Romanov line, her story had already been going around for over 70 years, cementing Schnazkowska’s place in modern legend.


Grand Duchesses Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia and Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, 1914

Contributing to the enduring appeal of the “Missing Duchess” storyline was the fact that the burial site of the Romanovs, which was discovered in 1979 and made public only in 1991, was missing two bodies. One of the missing bodies was the Tsar’s son, and the other, one of his daughters; and since the Romanovs’ corpses were mangled and burnt beyond recognition, many theorized that the missing daughter could be Anastasia. Until the discovery of two more remains near the site in 2007, the mystery of Anastasia saw a dramatic revival in the public consciousness. Regardless of the fact that DNA testing proved that the new bodies were confirmed to be Romanovs—thereby accounting for all members of the family—rumors of Anastasia’s escape persist to this day.

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Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

A 2012 article by Caty Petersen titled “Filipino’s Grandmama could be Russia’s Anastasia” implied connections between the author’s grandmother and Russian nobility. Grandmama Tasia, as she was fondly called, not only resembled the Romanov duchess in her younger years, but also recalled riding around in a “golden carriage drawn by eight white horses,” which might have been the same royal carriage Nicholas II rode on his coronation day. Petersen had never alleged that her grandmother was the Anastasia of legend; the headline provided by editorial merely implied the possibility.

Rasputin, the Mystic

Duchess Anastasia wasn’t the only prominent figure in Romanov legend. Of the myths surrounding the family, those of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who served as a trusted adviser of the Tsar and Tsarina, are among the most compelling.


Grigori Rasputin

Nicholas II brought Rasputin into his fold upon learning of the monk’s supposed mystical powers. The Tsar’s only son, Alexei, was born with hemophilia, a life-threatening condition inherited through his mother’s lineage. Desperate to have a healthy heir, Nicholas II sought Rasputin’s help after doctors’ treatments seemed to provide little cure, and was rewarded with seemingly miraculous results.


Tsarina Alexandra, Tsarevich Alexei, and Tsar Nicholas II

Experts, however, suggest that Rasputin’s power was more a matter of timing than magic. Some allege that the monk came to treat Alexei only when he knew the child was already on the road to recovery, while others say that it was Rasputin’s distrust of modern medicine that unintentionally saved Alexei’s life—he may have convinced the Tsar to stop giving the child aspirin, which is known to thin the blood and aggravate hemophilia.


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Maria, Alexei, their cousin Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse, and Anastasia

 

Eventually, the monk earned the Romanovs' trust and became a part of the Tsar’s inner circle. Rasputin was even said by some to be the secret ruler of Russia—when Nicholas II left the capital to oversee the country’s efforts in World War I, he put his wife in charge of matters at the homefront. Tsarina Alexandra leaned heavily on Rasputin’s advice, and he was known to put personal friends in public office.

Many thought the Romanov’s trust in Rasputin was ill-placed, as he displayed behavior that was unbecoming of traditional holy men. Early in his life, the monk was rumored to have gotten in trouble with the authorities for public drunkenness and theft. Despite his position as an adviser to the Tsar, he was often witnessed entering brothels, and accusations of rape and sexual abuse were raised by members of his sect. Other officials accused him of hypnotizing members of the royal family for personal gain. Nevertheless, Nicholas II and Alexandra trusted him with their lives, possibly out of gratitude for their son’s improving health. The public’s disdain for Rasputin swelled, however, and several assassinations were attempted.

Rasputin, the Undying

The first attempt was carried out by Chionya Guseva, a peasant who stabbed Rasputin in the stomach. Unfortunately, the stab wound wasn’t fatal, and Rasputin managed to survive after emergency surgery done at his home. Rumors spread that Guseva did this under the instruction of Sergei Trufanov, a former priest who had campaigned to discredit Rasputin and free the Romanovs from his influence. News of the possible connection reached the authorities, forcing Trufanov to flee to Norway, leaving Rasputin firmly in a place of power. By the time Rasputin recovered from the attack, however, he had reportedly become traumatized by the experience and began to drink heavily.

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According to several accounts, the attempt only served to bolster Rasputin’s mystical image. Stories about Rasputin’s extraordinary ability to survive attacks persisted, and some began to believe that the monk really was blessed by God. Killing him, it was said, was impossible. Nonetheless, many more believed that the man needed to die, and the plot that finally put an end to Rasputin’s life was supposedly filled with extraordinary circumstances.


Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia

On December 30, 1916, Rasputin was invited for tea by Prince Felix Yusupov, who had supposedly laced the monk’s food and drinks with cyanide. When Rasputin showed no signs of distress, however, Yusupov served him three glasses of poisoned wine. The wine had no effect on the monk, and Yusupov had to resort to more violent means. He shot Rasputin in the chest, and ordered his men to carry the corpse to a nearly snowbank. According to legend, Rasputin was said to have sprung back to life, forcing his assassins to shoot him twice more: once in the back, and once in the head. The killers then decided to hedge their bets by cutting off his penis, binding the body in cloth, and then dropping it into the Malaya Nevka River.

When an autopsy was performed on Rasputin’s body, however, there was no trace of poison found in his system, nor were there multiple gunshot wounds. Evidence suggests that the assassination was a lot less eventful: the monk was simply shot once in the head, and then his corpse—completely intact—was dumped in the river. Rasputin’s legend lives on regardless of the truth, with some people going so far as to say they’ve seen his severed genitals as part of an eccentric’s collection.

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The Romanov Impostors

Even though Anastasia’s supposed survival was the story of the day, several individuals stepped forward as other members of the Romanov family. Heino Tammet, Vasily Filatov, George Zhudin, Eugene Ivanoff, and CIA agent Michael Goleniewski all claimed to be Alexei, rightful heir to the throne. Eugenia Smith, Natalya Bilikhodze, Eleonora Kruger, and Nadehzda Vasilyeva all announced that they were Anastasia, despite Schanzkowska dominating the headlines.


Tsar Nicholas II and his daughters aboard the imperial yacht Polar Star.

Reports of Nicholas II’s other daughters surviving also surfaced, with at least six people claiming to be either Olga, Tatiana, or Maria. Even nonexistent family members surfaced, with Anatoly Ionov claiming to be Anastasia’s secret son, and Suzanna de Graaff claiming to be the Tsar’s fifth daughter, born under clandestine circumstances while the Tsarina was suffering a hysterical pregnancy.


The Romanovs during a visit to one of the regiments

Perhaps the best explanation for the sheer number of claimants, aside from the fact that the Bolsheviks lied about killing all the Romanovs for nearly ten years, is that the family left behind a significant amount of wealth. Every person who’s stepped forward as a surviving Romanov has also laid claim to their inheritance. Originally, it was assumed that the claimants simply wanted the attention that came with possibly being a Romanov, but more and more rumors surfaced about the family’s wealth—and its hidden treasures.

The Secret Wealth of the Romanovs

Pretty much every royal family has been at the center of rumors about hidden wealth, but the violent manner in which the Romanovs were wiped out makes stories of their lost treasure all the more alluring. Looting of royal treasures was common in times of revolution, which makes tracking the pieces down rather difficult. Eventually, some pieces spring to light—such as one of the Romanov’s eight missing Faberge eggs showing up at a flea market in the early- to mid-2000s—but the vast majority of these riches stay hidden.

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The Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow

Among all the stories of missing treasures, one of the most fascinating lies in the tale of Konstantin Pechakos. Legend has it that Nicholas II divided the Romanov treasure into three collections and spirited them away shortly before his exile to Tobolsk. While the KGB managed to locate two of the collections, the third one remains undiscovered.


The Imperial regalia of Russia

According to reports, it was said that one of the Tsar’s bodyguards entrusted Alexandra’s cabinet of ornaments, the Romanovs’ ceremonial swords, and Nicholas II’s daggers to Pechakos, a resident of Omsk in Siberia. Years later, the secret police got wind of the rumors, abducted Pechakos and his wife, and tortured them in hopes of drawing out the treasure’s location. Silence was all they got for their efforts, as Pechakos was said to have held his allegiance to the Tsar as equal to his allegiance to God. Searches of Pechakos’ home turned up empty, leaving investigators with two possibilities: that Pechakos’ took his secret to the grave, or that the rumors simply weren’t true.


The Ipatiev House where the Romanovs were executed

As time goes on, the myths circling the Romanovs—of their family, their inner circle, and their wealth—live on. You’ve most likely heard a few of them, without seeking them out. Legends somehow endure, be it through the surfacing of new information or the outright refusal of people to accept facts. In the end, all that matters is that we get a good story. Even with all the evidence at our disposal, there is nothing more captivating than a dramatic—even if inaccurate—journey through the tales of the past.

 

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About The Author
Marco Sumayao
Contributing Writer
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