Monday, November 15, 2010


Frances Welch's A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson tells the story of Anna Anderson, nee Franziska Schanzkowska, who claimed to be the murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. The story reminds one alternatively of Grey Gardens, the documentary (then remade movie and now play) of two Kennedy relations who lived in obscure, chaotic, yet strangely regal squalor for decades, and the Return of Martin Guerre (remade as Sommersby in America).

In fact, Anderson, like the protagonists of Grey Gardens (whose claim to blue blood was more verifiable), had over 40 cats at one point in her life, though they were all killed in an attempt to clean up her residence. The premise of Natalie Zemon Davis' history, The Return of Martin Guerre, is that pre-modern French society had no easy way to fix the identity of villagers. If the "real" Martin Guerre died in a foreign war, an imposter had a reasonable chance of taking his place because early modern French technology did not include photographs or even, by and large, mirrors.

The strange career of Anna Anderson, who lived into the 1980s, reveals that modern and postmodern technologies have not entirely erased identity confusion. For Anderson found new and sometimes very distinguished backers throughout her long life. For instance, at least one world famous anthropologist, and one expert in graphology, testified to the veracity of Anderson's claims. The fact that Ms. Anderson apparently knew no Russian whatsoever, was born five years apart from Anastasia, and began her Russian identity phase claiming to be a different Grand Duchess altogether, didn't unduly upset her supporters.

This book also resembles Woody Allen's masterpiece about historical identity, Zelig. In Zelig, a character loses his sense of self and, as a consequence, becomes a human chameleon, someone who can adapt himself to any social setting, as well as an international media sensation. Anna Anderson's life resembles that of Zelig's in many of its more sensational particulars. Anderson, only the most successful of dozens of other Romanov imposters, became a celebrity who, at various times in her life, was able to go hop-scotching from one European castle to the next. Movies, books, and plays cast her in the central role.

The fact that Anderson possessed few attractive personality traits--she was self-centered, rude, ungracious, paranoid, highly emotional, vindictive, mercurial, and intellectually limited--did not generally count against her. Indeed, her supporters found these characteristics to be entirely consistent with royalty, and especially with the young Anastasia, who was known to be a willful child. The Zelig aspects of Anderson's case extend to her somewhat strange relationship to the NAZI Party (Zelig eventually appeared at Nazi rallies despite his Jewish heritage), as well as her repeated interactions with other celebrities such as Rachmaninoff and, most interestingly, Rasputin's daughter, who had been living as a circus performer in Berlin.

A Romanov Fantasy deserves to be made into yet another movie on the life of Anna Anderson. The movie would have to explore the possibility of the transmigration of souls, of the possibly reincarnation of Anastasia as Anna Anderson. But of course the story makes sense even without supernatural explanations. As Frances Welch reminds us at the onset of her story, Anastasia was murdered in the most reprehensible way imaginable. She and her entire family, along with the father of one of Anna Anderson's most talented and admirable champions, were murdered in a chaotic and inefficient bloodbath.

The murder of the tsar, tsarina, and innocent tsarevich and four grand duchesses became the very symbol of communist depravity for large segments of the world. Although the tsar had been guilty of political incompetence, the utter destruction of his family was self-evidently inexcusable. And given the long history of tsar imposters, it was inevitable that at least some portion of the Russian diaspora--and indeed the world at large--would invent a survivor. As Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic reminds us in his book about Gothic literary conventions, crime leads to guilt and guilt is soon transmogrified into ghostly apparition. Anna Anderson was such an apparition. It hardly mattered whether or not she was aware of the fact that she was not, physically at least, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. One way or the other, Romanov ghosts would have found a vehicle to haunt the Western imagination.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Soviet Studies Supernova

Sometimes I'm ashamed that I can't speak a lick of Russian. Yet how would one possibly keep up with the flood of new books if one tried to cover more than English language trends? Readers of this blog will know that under normal circumstances I scrupulously avoid anything other than self-advertisements. But out your University of Pittsburgh Press' 2011 catalog of new and recent titles in the field of Russian, Central Asian, and East European Studies, only one of dozens if not hundreds of worthy publishing houses with something to say about the Soviet experience.

How impressive is the list of new books coming out this year alone in this single press? We've got Ruthchild's book on women's rights between 1905 and 1917, and the links between women's right and the Russian revolutionary tradition. Gyorgy Peteri's book on the socialist battle with the West over health care, human rights, architecture, culture, and, most importantly, consumer products. And this especially tantalizing book, Other Animals, in which Jane Costlow and Amy Nelson edited a collection of essays on how Russian and Soviet culture has conceptualized the relationship between humans and animals. Apparently the interdisciplinary book demonstrates Levi-Strauss' promiscuous assertion that "animals are good to think with." With reference to Soviet Roulette, one is curious to read those essays which talk about how animal-human "hierarchies and categories" are upended during revolutionary periods.

Other 2011 University of Pittsburgh books include Duhamel's book on the KGB's 1980s campaign against corruption, Christopher Ward's monograph on Brezhnev's disastrous campaign to build the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM), "one of the largest public works projects of all time," Gorshkov's book on Russia's child factory employees, Iagal Halfin's look into Stalinist terror within Leningrad Communist University (his earlier book From Darkness to Light on the concept of revolutionary salvation also seems worthy of attention), Eric Landis' book on the Antonov peasant uprising movement during the Russian Civil War, and the list goes on.

One can only wonder at the variety of depth of scholarship on Russia and Soviet Russian in particular. Other fascinating books could be mentioned, including ones on Russian drinking, Soviet manhood, the Russian Silver Age, the collapse of rural Russia, Russian nuclear power, Soviet sex, poetry and prose related to the Siege of Leningrad, Soviet feminism, urban-rural relationships during the communist era, Russian politics, Soviet ecological perspectives, the Soviet dissident movement, and the rise of Soviet Tashkent.

Even judging from the vantage point of a single 2011 press brochure, the Soviet experience is now recognized as something complex and multi-fascinated, much more than the history of Joseph Stalin or Soviet political economy, as fascinating as these topics can be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Charlotte Hobson's small book, Black Earth City: When Russia Ran Wild (And So Did We), is a gem. It captures the chaos and disorder (homage to Prince there, though that was surely his worst album) of the first post-Soviet moment. As a British student in Voronezh, Hobson found herself in a very ordinary Russian setting--a run-down college dorm in an unremarkable Russian city--but in the midst of one of the most remarkable transformations in the whole of Russian history.

As communism collapsed, and a strange blend of capitalism and criminal anarchy emerged in its wake, Charlotte experienced this modern Time of Troubles through the prism of college social life. Her peers embraced the radical changes with a mixture of survival strategies and coping mechanisms, including adaptation, optimism, denial, nostalgia, lethargy, emigration, and alcoholism.

The world outside of dorm life was disorientating and Hobson captures some of the challenges Russians faced. As the Soviet State collapsed, Veronezh suddenly became a border state; dormant ethnic rivalries re-emerged; organized crime erupted; the currency collapsed; pensions and jobs vanished; et cetera and so on. And Russians could not easily decide if life would get better eventually or much, much worse. On the one hand, Russians understood that communism had delivered shoddy good, overcrowded apartments, long lines, bureaucracy, party elitism, travel restrictions, monotony, and a whole host of spiritual ailments.

On the other hand, Russians benefited in some ways from the Soviet system: their country was a superpower, people had job security, travel was inexpensive, ideas circulated clandestinely, and the streets were safe at night. What was to come? In many ways, Hobson's exquisitely written book explains Putin and the Russian search for security. After Gorbachev and before Putin, Russia did seem to run wild.