Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Grand Duchess Anastasia and the Last Royal Russian Family: the Story That Lives On

The Russian Revolution and the circumstances surrounding the murder of the family of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia and the purported escape and survival of one of his daughters, Grand Duchess Anastasia, from his executioners made the story of the royal family and of Anastasia as one of the most celebrated and the most talked about in the 20th century.

The royal family

Emperor Nicholas II and his German-born wife, Grand Duchess Alexandra, had five children: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei. The royal couple as well as their daughters doted for Alexei being the youngest of their children, the only son and the heir to the Russian throne. Unfortunately, the boy suffered from inherited disease, hemophilia, from his mother. The disease made the boy’s health delicate and for it he nearly died several times.     

Nicholas II and the Russian Empire                                                                                                                                   

The ascendants of Nicholas II led a Slavic tribe to carve an empire or the nation of Russia that stretches from Europe to Asia. The Russians were converted to Christianity from Byzantium or Constantinople. The rulers thought of Russia as the third Rome after Christendom’s second most important city, Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Being one of the powers of Europe, Russia was a logical successor to Constantinople as the center of Christian Orthodoxy.  The word “Czar” was derived from the word “Caesar”, the title of ancient Roman emperor.

Despite territorial expansions and conquest made by the previous czars, they were unable to arrest the social problems that persisted in the empire. Nicholas II, although well intentioned, was a weak leader, was slow to adapt to the changing social needs of the times and was firm believer of absolute autocratic power. These attributes turned out to be his undoing.

The disastrous war with Japan and the 1905 revolution

In 1905 Russia suffered defeat to Japan at Manchuria which demoralized the Russian army. The national humiliation was aggravated by social unrests at home. A demonstration led by Georgy Apollonovich Gapon, a subversive priest, was fired upon by imperial troops at Winters Palace on January 22, 1905 causing hundreds of death. Disorders followed. There were nationwide strikes organized by the soviets or workers’ council in the industrial sections of Russia. They were accompanied by uprisings of nationalists, peasants and other groups. Nicholas II was forced to grant civil rights and set up a Duma or parliament to adopt reform measures. The troops were able to quell the rebellion and the government was back in control in 1906.

Despite the grave problems faced by his government, the czar was ever highly devoted to his wife and his family. The couple did their most to attend to Alexei’s well-being. An uneducated monk from Siberia named Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin who was reported to have healing power was called to the imperial palace. Convinced that Rasputin could relieve the sufferings of their only son, the royal couple made him as one of their retinues. 

Rasputin’s likability to the royal children and his knack to be in good graces to the queen made him an influential person in the empire.  It was reported that the emperor was dominated by his wife and she influenced him in his decisions. Through his connection with the empress, Rasputin was able to place incompetent persons in high positions of the government. And the public suspected him as an influencing factor in the policy and decision making of the government. The presence of Rasputin in the palace only worsened the image of the royal couple to the public, and Rasputin too became a distrusted and hated figure in Russia.       

The outbreak of WW1 and Rasputin’s assassination                                                                                                            

The assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 at Sarajevo signaled a horrific global conflict that was to come. As a result of it Austria with the blessing of Germany invaded Serbia. Russia’s refusal to stand aside precipitated the First World War.                

As the czar led his troops in the war, Rasputin, the influential figure in the imperial palace, was a subject of unsavory rumors and suspicion by the public. He was believed to be interfering in the affairs of the military through his connection with the empress and that he was siding with the Germans. Worst of all, there were rumors circulating that he had an affair with the Empress Alexandra and he seduced the grand duchesses too and raped their maid. Rasputin did not only make the royal couple more unpopular, he also scandalized the Russian aristocracy. The aristocrats plotted against him. They invited him on December 30, 1916 for a midnight tea party where he was assassinated.     

The February 1917 Revolution and the abdication of the emperor                                  

Meanwhile in the battle front, the troops led by the emperor suffered several reverses. Lack of supplies, transport and inefficiency of the officers demoralized troops. The number of desertion increased and the war became unpopular at home aggravated the emperor’s problem.

Strikes and food shortages provoked a riot on February 1917. The troops were ordered to shot at the demonstrators, but they refused and joined the protesters instead. The Duma or the legislative assembly was convened to enact reform measures. However, the tide of the revolution cannot be stopped. With the anarchy, the czar could not anymore contain the situation and he abdicated on March 17, 1917. A provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was set up, and the Czar and his family were placed under house arrest at Alexander’s Palace in Tsarkoye Selo.   

The October 1917 Revolution and the victory of the communists                                                                            

On October 1917, the Bolsheviks which espoused a novel social and economic theory called Marxism and led by Vladimir Lenin staged an armed coup, seized Moscow and overthrew the provisional government and its members were arrested. As a result, the czar and his family fell to the custody of the communists. Lenin then abolished the national assembly and replaced it with a people’s commissar. He also set up the Cheka or secret police. However, forces called “whites” emerged to challenge the communists.                                                           

The “whites” were broad coalition of forces which included loyalists of the czar, the Menshiviks, landlords, capitalists and other groups that were opposed to the communists. They had also the backings of countries such as the United States, Japan, Great Britain and France. The communists or “reds” overpowered the “whites”.  When they were in power, they set up a new Soviet constitution that made Vladimir Lenin and the Communists Party all powerful in Russia.                                                            


The murder of the emperor's family by the communists

On the evening of July 16, 1918, as the “whites” were marching toward St. Petersburg, the Czar and his family and their retinues were woke up by their guards. They were then herded to a room. The head of the guards then announced to the emperor that they were to be executed and the guards started firing. The haze of the room made the executioners get out of the room until it vanished. Shortly thereafter, they reentered the room and finished off their victims with stabs and gun shots. The guards later brought the bodies outside. Two of the girls showed sign of life. One was screaming while the other who bled from her mouth was moaning slightly. The guards finished them off with a club on their heads. The victims were buried in a mass grave. And later two of the bodies were moved to another location to confuse those who wanted to look for the remains of the royal family.


Anastasia’s impostors

The effort of the communists to hide its brutal murder of the emperor’s family which included his innocent children from the outside world fuelled much speculations on the manner on which they were killed. There were stories that some of the children were able to survive the execution.  A story had it that a sympathetic guard was able to bring Anastasia and Alexei to safety or that Anastasia was able to escape abroad and assumed another name to hide her identity. Several persons came out to claim that they were the surviving members of Russia’s last royal family, but they all turned out to be impostors.

The most known impostor was one named Ana Anderson who surfaced in 1920. She claimed to be the lost Anastasia and even filed her claim at the German Court. The case was pending there for 40 years, but she was not given award for Royal heir because she failed to prove that she indeed was Anastasia, the “lost” princess.

The discovery and identification of the missing remains of the last emperor’s family

Sometime in 1976 in Yekaterinburg, several remains that were believed to belong to the Royal family were secretly discovered. But the information was kept from the communist authorities. After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) in 1991, DNA tests were made. Samples taken from the remains matched that of the British Royal Family on which the Czar’s family had blood relation. The results confirmed the identity of some of the remains, but two were yet to be accounted for- that of Alexei and of Maria or Anastasia. In August 23, 2007 two charred skeletons of a boy and a girl were found at a bonfire not far from the mass grave at Yakaterinburg where the first batch of remains was found. Through DNA testing, the remains of the boy was positively identified as that of Alexei, while the other could be that of Maria or Anastasia. Although the remains of Maria or Anastasia could not be specifically identified by DNA testing alone, the scientists concluded that all of the remains of the family of the czar were accounted for, and that there was no one who survived the execution.  Therefore the “mystery” of the lost Romanov children was settled and closed once and for all.

The canonization of the last Russian royal family

In 2000 Anastasia and her family were canonized as passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church. The family had previously been canonized by the church in 1981 as holy martyrs. The bodies of Emperor Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their daughters were interred in St. Catherine’s Chapel in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg on July 17, 1998.

Anastasia, the Russian grandma in the Philippines

In the Philippines the mystery of Anastasia lives on.  Cathy Petersen, a Fiiipina with a Russian heritage, claimed that her grandmother was from Russia who escaped from the revolution in 1918. Her grandma boarded a ship from Vladivostok along with other Russians “Whites”. Her grandma was locked in a cabin and isolated from the rest of the passengers. Most of the passengers were disembarked in China while her grandma along with nuns was disembarked in Manila, Philippines.

Cathy’s grandma who identified herself as Anastasia was brought to a monastery and later to the house of a wealthy spinster where she met a Filipino who later became her husband. She said that her grandma was reclusive and afraid to be seen by other white people.  Her grandma was very secretive and showed reluctance to divulge some important information even to her own family about her life. When asked by her family of her behavior, she told them that if ever other people knew her identity it might endanger them all.                                                                                                                                                       
She told the members of the family that he had a brother named Alexei and three sisters. And her favorite sister was Maria. She told of an affluent life in Russia such as jeweled walls and golden carriage drawn by eight horses. A picture of her grandma in her younger days showed resemblance to Anastasia, the princess.

Cathy’s grandmother died in 1964, and until May 2012 Cathy is still in search for her Russian roots.
 There are speculations that her mother could be the Anastasia of Russia, but Filipinos dismiss the possibility of the claim because of the conclusive findings of DNA experts on the remains of the emperor’s family not to mention the many impostors who passed themselves off as Anastasia probably to gain fame and fortune as the lost princess of the last Russian royal family. Furthermore, the era when the grandma came to Philippines was a time when the country was an unincorporated territory of the United States whose chief executive was the American governor general. The Russian Revolution and WW1 on which the US joined on the side of the Allied Forces were major events in the 21st century. The entry of such known figure as Grand Duchess Anastasia in its territory could not have escaped the notice of US authorities.

Anastasia in films and song

The mystery of the “lost” Anastasia is a celebrated story. Movies were made about it. A film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner was made in 1956. There was also a 1997 animated musical adventure-drama film of the same title.  A song of similar title in relation to that Ingrid Bergman film was popularized by Pat Boone in 1956.

Related articles:

The French Revolution and the End of French Monarchy
The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror
The French Revolution and the Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
The French Revolution and Its Influence to Our Democracy