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.


  1. Anastasia also makes an appearance in the children's book series "The 39 Clues"; book 5 I think. She is an entirely sympathetic character there who helps the main characters in their quest for world domination.

  2. I think the heart of the Anastasia story is that she offered Russians the chance to be gallant when they hadn't been gallant during the Revolution. One thinks of Burke's comment about Marie Antoinette. He says something to the effect that once upon a time 100 cavaliers would have drawn their sword if anybody had even looked at the queen cross-eyed. But during the Revolution, this same woman was falsely accused of molesting her own children in open court. The rebirth of Anastasia--in however a diminished a form--gave gallants a second chance....