Frances Welch

"A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 20, 2008)

"Ever since those terrible July days, there have been conflicting accounts of what really happened to the Russian Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. 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 appealing."

A Romanov Fantasy

I really don’t have time for royalty--never understood the concept of all of the plebs working to support so-called blue bloods bred to be basically useless. But nonetheless, there’s no way anyone can justify the brutal slaughter of the Russian royal family in 1918. Herded into a cellar under the guise of posing for a photograph, the Romanovs--the Tsar, Tsarina, their five children and 4 retainers were brutally and clumsily slaughtered.

In retrospect, the Russian Revolution didn’t come as a surprise. It was the bloody and inevitable conclusion of an era--the passing of more than 300 years of Romanov rule and a foreshadowing of the cruelty ahead under the Bolsheviks and later, Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. Author Frances Welch argues that the Romanovs, long out-of-touch with the country’s political climate, didn’t expect to meet an ignoble, savage end at the hands of their captors. Even though history has proven repeatedly that a captive monarch is a liability for any new ruler or government, the bloody fate of the Romanovs was unexpected and so horrible to contemplate that many people--especially their supporters--rejected the news as inconceivable. Perhaps the element of disbelief that the Romanovs would be murdered goes a little way towards explaining how an imposter successfully managed to pass herself off as the Tsar’s youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia for more than sixty years. 

In February 1920, a suicidal woman was hauled out of the Landwehr canal in Berlin. With no identification, “Miss Unknown” was subsequently transferred to an asylum, and here with another creative inmate, the myth of Anastasia’s miraculous escape was born. In A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson, author Frances Welch painstakingly gathers all of the information surrounding the woman who became known as Anna Anderson--an enterprising individual who managed to fool a considerable number of people--some of whom devoted their lives, their fortunes and their reputations to proving that Anna Anderson was indeed a surviving Romanov.

Welch does a marvelous job of dissecting the cult that grew up around "Anastasia," and she makes it perfectly clear that those who were devoted to Anna Anderson/Anastasia were not usually motivated by money. While a rather ugly legal wrangle did occur regarding the Romanov fortune, most of those who supported Anastasia’s claim did so out of a firm belief in her various vague tales. To other lost and disconnected Russian émigrés, Gleb Botkin, for example, whose father, the royal physician was murdered in the cellar along with the Romanovs, the idea that Anastasia survived perhaps fed the notion that the past could somehow be recreated--even to the tiniest degree.

The first section of the book covers the imprisonment of the Romanovs, their relationship with Dr. Botkin and his family, and the gory details surrounding the murders. Clearly the myth of survival found fertile ground and grew in the details of the events of July 17, 1918 when the Romanovs were herded into the cellar at The House of Special Purpose. The botched executions, the poorly planned burials, and a few looting attempts by drunken and bloodthirsty guards created a night of mayhem and conflicting versions of events. Recently exhumed bodies and subsequent DNA testing established that all of the bodies are accounted for, but there are still those who insist this is just evidence of a vast conspiracy and cover up.

Anna Anderson’s charade, however, began in 1920 and ended with her death in 1984, and for the greatest portion of that time DNA tests were simply not available. Just how this woman--now believed to be Franziska Schanzkowska--carried out her masquerade is the substance of Welch’s remarkably good book. Anna Anderson’s claim to be Anastasia was largely debunked early in her Anastasia career, but was partially fanned into fresh life by the film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman as the lost heroine. Anderson always managed to find a few faithful retainers who were willing to support the "Grand Duchess." This is a tale muddied by the reversed testimonies of believers who stopped believing and subsequently denied ever believing in Anna Anderson in the first place. 

Anna Anderson’s tale is truly remarkable and proves once again that truth is far stranger than fiction. She was abusive to her most faithful supporters, erratic, unpredictable and at times downright loony. But in spite of all the evidence against her (she had no teeth, for example), a steady stream of believers, for years led by Gleb Botkin, the Archbishop of Aphrodite believed in, supported and fought for "Anastasia," chalking up their idol’s bizarre behaviour as evidence of the so-called "royal temperament." But perhaps the strangest part of this very strange tale is exactly how Anna Anderson ended up as the wife of a millionaire decades her junior. Ultimately this is a story of how one woman passively fed her followers’ fantasies for a lost, destroyed era by doing remarkably little-- except existing.

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About the Author:

Frances Welch has written about the Romanovs for the Sunday Telegraph and Granta. She lives in Wiltshire, England. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014