Thirty-five years ago, this week, a woman named Anna Anderson died in Charlottesville, Virginia, aged eighty-seven. She was cremated and her ashes were carried across the Atlantic and buried in the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria.
But her name wasn’t really Anna Anderson. She was originally Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker born in East Prussia in 1896, and she was probably the best-known imposter of the twentieth century. Anna Anderson, aka Franziska Schanzkowska claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Contrary to reports coming out of the Soviet Union in July 1918 she had, or at least so she claimed, not been murdered along with the other members of her family by a Bolshevik firing squad.
Anderson had first come to public attention in 1920 when she was stopped from throwing herself off a bridge in Berlin. She was admitted to a German psychiatric hospital as Fraülein Unbekannt (‘Miss Unknown’). It was another inmate who first claimed that the unidentified woman was a daughter of the Tsar. From 1922 onwards the legend of Anastasia seemed to grow, aided by emigré Russians whose cause would have been greatly assisted by a surviving member of the Romanov dynasty.
Anna’s own cause received a boost when Tatiana Melnik, the daughter of the Romanov private physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, positively identified her as Anastasia in 1926. Melnik, whose father had been gunned down along with the Russian Royal family, had met Anastasia when the Duchess was sixteen years old. Melnik then took Anna under her wing, filling in what she described as ‘gaps’ in Anna’s memory by coaching her in many of the domestic details of the Romanov’s lives. All perfectly above board, course.
Surviving relatives of the Tsar, however, were more difficult to convince. Prince Felix Yusopov, for example, the man responsible for the murder of the so-called ‘Mad Monk’, Grigori Rasputin (no relation to Vladimir Rasputin) and the Tsar’s nephew by marriage, described Anna as ‘an adventuress, a sick hysteric and a frightful playactress’. The late Tsar’s family had her claims thoroughly investigated and were able to identify her as Schanzkowska in 1927.
However, Anna had many Russian emigré supporters in the USA. These included the composer Sergei Rachmaninov. When she travelled to New York in 1928 Rachmaninov booked her into a New York hotel under the pseudonym ‘Anderson’ and she adopted it from that time onwards. Anna became the fulcrum of a Russian emigré civil conflict with the warring sides either championing her cause or dismissing her claims as fantasy.
After eighteen months in New York Anderson began to display once more some of the self-destructive behaviour for which she had been noted in Germany. This included wandering naked around rooftops. A New York Supreme Court judge, Peter Schmuck (I kid you not) signed an order committing her to a sanatorium. In 1932 she was allowed to return to Germany where she lived until 1968. Then in 1984 she returned to the USA where she married a fellow eccentric, a Virginia history professor and genealogist, Jack Manahan. He, thereafter, described himself as ‘Grand-Duke in waiting’. As she grew older Anna’s mental health problems continued and she was often institutionalised. On one occasion Manahan kidnapped her from a hospital and the couple evaded capture by driving around the state of Virginia for three days, subsisting on purchases from convenience stores, thus proving that such a thing is physiologically possible.
Anna Anderson’s claims were disputed, litigated, scorned and buttressed but they were finally laid to rest in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which stage Anna had been dead for seven years. A common grave near Yekaterinburg in Russia was identified as the final resting place of nine members of the Romanov family and their entourage. In 1992 samples were taken from fragments of the teeth and bones of the nine skeletons. These were checked against the DNA of Prince Philip, maternal grandson of Tsarina Alexandra’s sister. The DNA test proved that one of the bodies was that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
This finally gave the lie to any notion that Anastasia had somehow managed to survive assassination by the newly installed Bolshevik regime. That was fake history.