Anastasia – A Century’s Mystery

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

In the autumn of 1900, the Tsar fell terribly ill with typhoid fever. Torn by worries for her husband, Alix was suddenly put face to face with another question: Imperial succession. All of Europe turned anxious eyes to the Russian capital, where the supreme master lay dying and three charming little girls abruptly became three little disappointments. Yes, they were pretty, and adorable, and the pictures of glowing health, but the Empress had failed to fulfill her one true duty — to provide the Tsar with a little boy.

Securing the succession of the Russian throne was a matter of international concern. The world’s stability was inextricably bound to it. The future hung now on Tsar Paul’s hatred for his mother, Catherine the Great — the last ruling Tsarina Russia had ever had, because her son had forbidden the Imperial throne to women. Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaievna, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorvna’s eldest child, was ineligible to inherit the crown. The Tsar’s brother Mikhail was suddenly elevated to the role of Imperial Heir.

European newspapers and well-wishes rushed to him while Russia trembled, for he was young and rash and without particular diplomatic abilities, even according to the mother that adored him. Alexandra, fearful that she had let down her country, and that, most importantly, she had failed to continue her beloved Nicholas’s line, looked with anxious eagerness towards the birth of the fourth child she carried.

A French soul doctor had been summoned to court, and had succeeded in convincing her that the baby was going to be a boy. In the early summer of 1901, as Tsar Nicholas recovered, the family waited for the critical arrival in their summer residence of Peterhoff. Here, one of the most famous names in history was born.

On June 5th, 1901, Nicholas wrote the following in his diary:

“At about 3 o’clock in the morning, Alix started to have strong pains. At 4 o’clock I got up, went to my room and dressed. At exactly 6 o’clock in the morning our little daughter was born. Everything went off splendidly, quite quickly and thank God without complications! Thanks to the fact that it all began and ended while everyone was still asleep, we both had a feeling of calm and solitude! After that I sat down to write telegrams to relatives and friends in various parts of the world. Luckily Alix felt quite cheerful. The little one weighs 11½ pounds and measures 55 centimeters.”

This time, neither Russia nor the abroad made the slightest effort to hide their feelings. The baby was universally unwelcome. The Empress had failed again!

The Tsar’s sister Xenia wrote of her arrival: Alix feels splendid — but my God! What a disappointment! …A fourth girl! Mama sent me a telegram about it, and writes, “Alix has given birth to a girl again!”

Another relative wrote the following, perhaps summarizing everyone‘s thoughts that day: Forgive us Lord, if we all felt disappointment instead of joy; we were so hoping for a boy, and it’s another daughter.

She was named after a Montenegrin Princess, a close friend of Alix. “She who will rise again” was the meaning of this name, and many believe that she has been true to it. Anastasia — pronounced in Russian as Ah-nah-stah-ssi-ya — was a legend in the Romanov family almost from the moment of her birth.

Perhaps Anastasia would have grown up to be the prettiest of the Romanov sisters. Her features were fine and regular, the shape of her face delicate and aristocratic. She had inherited the eternal sapphire-blue eyes for which her father was famous, only hers seemed to have bursts of impish humor in their depth. Her hair was golden with a tint of her mother’s amber, her nose elegantly narrow and noble, her eyebrows dark and well-defined. The combination of these made the youngest Grand Duchess unlike any of her sisters. She was a type of her own, and she seemed to know it from the beginning.

When she was born, everything good and proper had already been accomplished by her sisters — Olga was the charitable scholar, Tatiana the reliable beauty, Marie the friendly angel. But Anastasia was not one to stand for long in the shadows, and soon found her own way of gaining attention.

She was extremely intelligent, with a cutting wit she was proud of and a keen sense of humor. Quick and observant, she was the originator of all mischief in the palace. The darts of her cleverness looked for and usually found the sensitive spots of everyone, but she was so lively and her gaiety was so infectious that, in spite of this, many members of the suite fell into the way of calling her “Sunshine,” the nickname her kind and sensitive mother had been given at the English Court. Seen by many as the only one of the sisters who never knew the meaning of shyness, even as a baby she could entertain grave old men and important political figures at her parents’ dinner table with her astonishing remarks and admirable mimicry. Ladies who came to see the Empress never suspected that hidden somewhere, the youngest daughter of the Tsar was watching their every peculiarity, and that later it would all come out when the family were alone.

The Tsar’s sister and Anastasia’s aunt, Olga Alexandrovna, remembers: “Oh the fun we had when we heard duplicated the fat Countess Kutuzova, one of my mother’s ladies-in-waiting, complaining of a heart attack brought on by the appearance of a mouse! Very naughty of Anastasia, but she was certainly brilliant at it!”

Her French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, remembers Anastasia as “the family clown, freely dispensing her own kind of dead pan, sarcastic humor. The whole family would crack up at her jokes. Nobody was safe from her smart and brutal tongue.”

One was never sure what to expect in Anastasia Nikolaievna’s presence. Russian court memoirs are filled with anecdotes of her pranks, tales of her lively imagination and her mercurial personality. Privately, among those of her cousins who survived the Revolution, she is committed to memory as “a nasty little girl,” a hair-puller, a leg-biter and a tripper-up of servants. As a small child, she would go as far as kicking and pinching if she didn’t get her way, yet this fault corrected itself rapidly as she grew older. Tricks and pranks became her way of releasing the pent-up energy. When playing hide-and-go-seek with the son of the Imperial physician, Gleb Botkin, she would take off her shoes and place them at the edge of some palace curtains, then hiding nearby to watch poor Gleb get fooled for the umpteenth time by her clever plot. Once, she hid under a table at a State Dinner Party, only to be escorted out and scolded by her father. An enfant terrible in every sense of the word, she is called “roguish, almost a wag” by Pierre Gilliard, a tomboy by her aunt. Fond of her aristocratic station, she played jokes on some of the century’s best and brightest, the adventures ending usually with the Tsar himself coming to get her out of trouble.

When she laughed, she had the enticing way of never making contact with the subject of her laughter, instead peering at them out of the corner of her eyes. And though she was taught, along all her sisters, to walk and bow with a stack of encyclopedias on her head, she had a peculiar gait, all her own, somehow tripping along in tiny, bouncing movements. With age, relatives suspected that she would become the object of some man’s fervent and inexplicable adoration.

As a child, Anastasia was very short and stocky, with stubby little legs and arms that gave her an additional measure of cuteness. However, she suffered greatly from her insignificant height, and was pained to see anyone taller to whom she held superior rank. Nina, daughter of Grand Duke George and Anastasia’s cousin, suffered a great deal at little Anastasia’s hands because, though younger than Anastasia by two days, she was significantly taller — a situation that struck Anastasia as a form of lèse majesté. Her father was the only one permitted to call her by the nickname he himself had invented — Malenkaya, which technically meant Little One in reference to her being his youngest daughter, but to her, in any but her father’s voice, meant Small, and thus short. Proud and stubborn, Anastasia was known to defend herself fiercely if she felt anyone was trying to put her down, and some great triumphs she had along the way, too.

Pierre Gilliard gives what is, perhaps, the best description we have of the little girl today. Here, he describes his first meeting with her, when she was but four and a half:

I have just finished a lesson with Olga Nikolaievna; by myself again, I am expecting her sister Tatiana. The door opens and instead I see a very small girl coming towards me. She is carrying under her arm a big picture-book, which she ceremoniously put down on the table in front of me; then she gives me her hand and says in Russian: “I would like to learn French too.”

And without waiting for my answer, she climbs on to a chair, kneels on it, opens her book, and asks me, putting her tiny forefinger on a huge elephant: “What’s this called in French?”

Then I am confronted with a whole succession of lions, tigers, and well, almost all the creatures in the Ark. I join her in the game, very pleased with her great seriousness about this first lesson. Then the door opens again, and this time Tatiana comes in. The little girl, whose finger has just lighted on the boa-constrictor, claps the picture-book shut and jumps up. She holds out her hand to me once more, and in a very low voice says: “I’ll come again tomorrow.” Then she runs out of the room, clasping the book to her chest.

In the coming months, Anastasia continued her raids on the Gilliard classroom, breaking in as soon as she knew Gilliard was alone, and recounting to him all of the important events in her life. He says that “she had a child’s picturesque turn of phrase, and the melodious Russian gave her voice a soft, almost wheedling note.” Interested in everything, she would sit for hours on the carpet in the classroom, listening with devout silence to everything being said there — not because such was her nature, but because she knew that with one peep she could earn herself banishment from the classroom forever. However, “these good intentions were seldom strong enough to resist the terrible temptation of making a voyage of discovery under the desk, and such adventures usually ended with a humiliating expulsion from the room, causing a flood of tears.”

Anastasia’s teachers found that she learned faster than her sisters, possessing a remarkable memory and being able to learn by heart anything she wanted, be that spelling or poetry. However, the classroom lacked the excitement needed to keep her interested, and she easily became bored. Rapidly, the scholarly part of her appeared to be halting its development, and she had trouble focusing on her lessons. She took to literally climbing trees to stay away from school, and would refuse to come down unless ordered to do so directly by the Tsar. She was idle, but with the idleness of a gifted child. Her French accent was excellent, she had a decided talent for painting and played three musical instruments — the piano, the guitar and the balalaika. Grammar was the one thing that she definitely could not learn, even in Russian, and most of her studies in this area were a long-lasting disaster. Pierre Gilliard recalls that “disaster struck when we reached participles. Facing this difficult part of speech, she developed the instinctive fear of a young colt with which one is trying to jump a fence it thinks too high. Again and again I led her up to the obstacle, but every time at the last moment she shied back.”

She and M. Gilliard continued to be excellent friends even after her love of studies evaporated. He had gotten to know her when she was a very little girl, and so was on much more familiar terms with her than with any of her sisters. He remembers, “She would come running into my study just to get a yes or a no in answer to a question she wanted to ask me. Sometimes she came to me with scarlet cheeks, trembling with emotion, to tell me in her comical French about all the little upsets of her life. Often, too, there was great joy she wanted to share with somebody at once and couldn’t keep it to herself a moment longer.

“She was very boisterous, and sometimes a good deal too temperamental. Every impulse, every new sensation was something she immediately had to indulge to the full; she was aflame with life and animation. Even at sixteen she still behaved like a headstrong young foal that has run away from its master. In her play, in her realizing her wishes, in her schemes, in everything she did, there was the same impetuousness and youthful enthusiasm — except, alas, in her studies. I have mentioned that when she was younger this failing caused many scenes. When I rebuked her then, I felt she positively hated me, and her eyes went quite dark. But her rage vanished as quickly as it had come. A quarter of an hour later all was forgotten, and happy smile would appear on her cheeks, where the tears were still drying. She took calmly any punishment she felt was justified, but was deeply injured by any unfairness, and fought against it with every fiber of her being. But for all her weaknesses you were bound to love this child…”

Anastasia’s true and undeniable passion was drama. Fearless, courageous and always full of energy, she played in front of an audience with remarkable ease. Short and spontaneous, she was a natural comedienne; besides comedy, she could act brilliantly in any sort of thespian production. Had she not been a daughter of the Tsar, she would undoubtedly have wanted to become an actress. However, since with her station such a route was out of reach, she had to content herself with the audience of her parents’ relatives and friends, all of whom were amazed by her theatrical gift.

Another passion of Anastasia’s were animals. The entire Romanov family adored them, in fact, filling the palace with dogs (mostly, the beloved Russian Borzois), guinea pigs, cats, parrots, and even creating a small private zoo in Peterhoff, where, among others, Anastasia kept the cow presented to her by the President of France.

Anastasia had two dogs to call her own. Her first was called Shvybzik, about whom little is known except that he and Anastasia were inseparable, until he suddenly died of a brain disorder. His death was a great shock to her, and for weeks Anastasia was inconsolable. For a time after she lost him, she grew humorless, quiet and pensive. Little Shvybzik was buried on the Children’s Island in Peterhoff, near the graves of other family pets, surrounded by lilies-of-the-valley. Her sisters, brother and she held a special service for him with special hymns and prayers. Later, to help the little girl get over her loss, Anna Vyrubova, a close friend of the Empress, gave Anastasia another dog — a cavalier King Charles spaniel named Jemmy, who would follow the Tsar’s family into Siberia and the Urals, and would die in the Grand Duchesses’ arms during the execution in Ekaterinburg. His little crushed body would be the only one found by the White Army investigators that night, and would serve as the terrible proof that all the family, even the children, had perished.

Just as Olga and Tatiana were tenderly devoted to each other, Maria and Anastasia were best friends beyond compare. Since her days as a toddler, Anastasia dominated good little Marie, and contemporaries noted that “the youngest girl’s dominant personality shone through and grasped Mashka.” They shared a room, which just happened to be directly above their mother’s reception room. Both would wait very quietly until the Empress had brought in a guest, and then, would blast their phonograph as loud as the music would play, bouncing on their beds and all over the floor, dancing and shrieking, and creating such a commotion that a number of lackeys often came running to the nursery in terror. Tennis was another interest the two shared, and another way to distress their parents and the palace staff — they would play it right in their rooms, the ball bouncing about and breaking expensive china, their rackets knocking corners off of eighteenth-century furniture that was worth millions on the art collectors’ market. In many ways Anastasia was like her grandmother, the Empress Dowager Marie Feodorovna. Both were, as children, lively and mischievous. The Tsar, too, though often strict with her, secretly admired Anastasia’s recklessness, and often saved her from the harsh punishments she may have deserved. In return, she gave him her obedience — in many cases, Tsar Nicholas would be the only one able to get the rebellious little girl to do what was required.

But the closest and most special relationship Anastasia had she shared with her little brother. She was closest to him in age, and also in character, for, in spite of his illness, Aleksei was outgoing, cheerful, and mischievous. The two of them often seemed to communicate without speaking, using some sort of sixth sense, and with time Anastasia would be able to predict her little brother’s pain, knowing just how to distract him, and almost feeling his suffering. When he was ill, she would tempestuously refuse to leave his room, ignoring doctors’ orders of staying quiet, and bouncing around with all sorts of funny stories and anecdotes that would eventually have the sick boy laughing. Together, they learned to play the balalaika by imitating melodies they heard from their gramophone, invented the mysterious language of “Tarabar,” and, when Aleksei’s health permitted, romped about the spacious grounds of Peterhoff and Tsarskoye Selo.

Many remarked about Anastasia that she should have been born a boy, for her manner was fearless and rough (except to her frail little brother), especially during physical games. Once, she is said to have rolled up a stone inside a snowball, and thrown it straight and hard at her sister Tatiana. The stone hit poor Tanya in the face, and, horrified at the bruise she had caused, Anastasia started to cry together with her sister. Other than in times when she felt genuinely sorry or genuinely wronged, Anastasia rarely cried, especially not from pain. She was born with a weak back, and a hospital nurse came to the palace twice a week to give Anastasia the prescribed massage — a practice which Anastasia labeled “fuss” and from which she escaped by hiding in a cupboard or under her bed, until a search party was launched by the entire family and palace staff and she was finally discovered. This condition also prohibited her from her favorite activity, climbing trees, but climb them she did, and God only knows which of her cousins showed her how to do it in the first place. If one looks carefully through the family albums, one may easily note that Anastasia is the only one of the Romanov sisters to have bangs cut into her hair. The reason, as it has been widely suspected, is that the bangs served to cover up a scar left by some daring fall as a very small child.

As she grew into her teens, Anastasia turned from cutely stocky to decidedly fat, putting on weight at a rate that alarmed her mother. However, it was generally agreed that this was the fatness of youth, which Anastasia would outgrow the way Marie had one or two years earlier. Though she remained short and would never have the graceful elegance of her elder sisters, Anastasia was charming in her own way, less of a pain now that she was a young lady, but smart and witty as ever, visiting the war hospital she sponsored out of her own pocket in Tsarskoye Selo and entertaining soldiers right and left.

The troubles of the Revolution overtook her fifteenth and sixteenth year, but Anastasia retained her post of family comedienne and tension-reliever. During house arrest in the Alexander Palace, she broke a lavishly expensive Chinese vase, but after the initial look of horror and guilt, her face lit up in a smile and she said that there was nothing to worry about as the vase now belonged to the government anyways. When the rest of the children were ill with the measles, and she knew she had the fever too, she would not go to bed despite the entreaties of her mother, doctors, and those of the servants who had been allowed to stay with the family. She was waiting for her father, the most important man in her life — daddy, the Emperor, the Tsar. His train was said to be on its way, but still he wasn’t home. Waiting by the window, she would hold a hand to her forehead and stammer impatiently:

“But the train is never late. Oh, I’m beginning to feel so ill… If only Papa would come.”

By the time he arrived, Anastasia was too sick to see him. Her and her sister’s heads were shaved so that the hair would not fall out during the illness, and Anastasia, still a tomboy at heart, would later claim that she liked the idea — partially. For photographs, she would keep her hat on. But once, as the ever-faithful Gilliard tried to take a picture of all the girls together, by a motion from Olga all of them removed their hats, and, in spite of Gilliard’s protests, insisted that they be photographed convict-style.

In a letter smuggled to a friend from Tobolsk, Anastasia would describe another humorous incident concerning the same issue. The English is her own:

My dear friend,
I will describe to you [how] we traveled. We started in the morning and when we got into the train I went to sleep, so did all of us. We were very tired because we did not sleep the whole night. The first day was hot and very dusty. At the stations we had to shut our window curtains that nobody should see us. Once in the evening I was looking out we stopped near a little house, but there was no station so we could look out. A little boy came to my window and asked: ‘Uncle, please give me, if you have got, a newspaper.’ I said: ‘I am not an uncle but an aunty and have no newspaper.’ At the first moment I could not understand why did he call me ‘Uncle’ but then I remembered that my hair is cut and I and the soldiers (which were standing next to me) laughed very much. On the way many other funny things happened, and if I shall have time I shall write to you our travel farther on.
Goodbye. Don’t forget me. Many kisses from us all to you my darling.
Your Anastasia.”

Anastasia would also cause a commotion once during captivity, when, as the Tsar was reading aloud to the family, a servant entered suddenly in a state of great agitation and announced that the Commandant requested an immediate interview with the Tsar. The latter thought something very serious must have happened in Petrograd, but when the guards entered they explained that they had been summoned by a comrade who, from the park, had noticed signals with red and green lights from the room in which the family were sitting.

General amazement reigned silently in the room. What signals?

The guards gave orders for the curtains to be closely drawn, though it was stiflingly hot, and were about to retire when one of the servants suddenly realized what had happened and explained the mystery: Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaievna was sitting on the window-ledge doing needlework, and each time she bent forward to pick up from the table the things she required for her work she was covering and uncovering in turn two lamps, one with green shades and one with red, by which the Tsar was reading. The guards retired in great confusion.

Under house arrest in Tobolsk, the children of Doctor Botkin, the faithful family physician who would follow the Tsar to the grave, were not allowed to stay with the Romanov family, but managed to secure a small house across the street. Gleb, Anastasia’s one-time playmate in the halls of the palace, would paint funny watercolors of animals in human attire for Anastasia and her siblings, and his father would smuggle them in when he went to see Aleksei. Anastasia wrote stories to go with the pictures, and returned them to Gleb via the doctor. Taking daily walks within the fenced yards of their prison-house, Anastasia would catch glimpses of Gleb and his sister walking past, pretending not to see her. A nod or a secretive glance of the eye was all the communication permitted.

Gilliard and Anastasia did their best to uplift the spirits of the rest of the family all along during these hard and forlorn days, putting on skits and full-length plays in which Anastasia continued to exhibit her undying theatrical talent and humor. Once, during such a performance, she lifted her skirts too high and everybody got a wide view of her wearing her father’s underwear! For weeks afterwards, she was teased for her weight and hilarious cross-dressing. Whether or not the revealing view was intentional, we may never know, but it kept the family laughing long enough to justify the embarrassment it caused Anastasia.

Years would pass after her family disappeared, and women looking like her, smiling like her, laughing like her, writing like her, and with her memories, would show up all over Europe and the Americas to claim her name. She would become a legend, the century’s mystery, a fact which, perhaps, would have caused her a bit of giddy enjoyment, since, during her lifetime, she was not particularly famous except as one of the Tsar’s glorified and beautiful daughters. Some people who knew her would go in to see the claimants, one in particular, and come out crying, saying that “she has the Tsar’s eyes.” Whether or not Anna Anderson, or any other of the many Anastasia claimants, was indeed the Tsar’s little girl, we may never know. Her story, thus, has an open ending. The date of her burial appears in the Peter-and-Paul fortress, where the Tsar’s family was interned in 1998, and it is the date of her sister Marie’s burial that is missing.

We may tell ourselves that no, she did not survive, or yes, she did indeed. An eternal question creeps into one’s mind: “But then how?…”