Saturday, December 3, 2011

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna

I remember receiving this two cassette length movie for an Easter present when I was 14 years old from my parents. Staring Amy Irving in the title role, the film follows the life of Anna Anderson, a woman who gained notoriety after claiming that she was the last Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. The movie originally came out in 1986, three years before I was born and before DNA testing was able to prove whether Anna Anderson was indeed a descendant of the Romanov's or an impostor. Testing later proved that she was genetically linked to a Polish factory worker and not the Grand Duchess.

The mystery and allure of the story of the Romanov family has captivated me since I was 9. At my public school’s book fair, I bought a copy of My Anastasia by Canadian author Sharon Stewart. To this day it still remains one of my favourite books; I must have read it at least 25 times as the dog-eared pages proves. This book tells the story of Dunia Ivanova, who runs away from her abusive father and through a twist of fate, encounters Gregori Rasputin. Rasputin has connections to the highest of powers in Russia, the palace of the Tsar and Tsarina. In turn Dunia meets all the grand Duchesses and becomes the protégé of Alexei, the heir to the throne. This rags to riches story enthralled my young mind and I didn’t realized until years later that it was a piece of historical fiction, and that the Romanov's had existed as the most powerful family in Russia for a couple of centuries.

The last of the Romanov family was comprised of Tsar Nicholas the Second, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and their only son Alexei. Tsar Nicholas II was a timid man who never wanted to become emperor. He was a kind man but was not suited for politics. His wife Alexandra was a German princess before she married the Tsar, which was not well looked upon in later years because Germany and Russia were enemies during WWI. She was not well liked by the Russian people and was made the scapegoat of anything that went wrong, namely the genetic cause of the only heir’s ailment. Their youngest child and heir to the Russian throne Alexei was born with Hemophilia, a disease which prevents the clotting of blood and causes incredible discomfort and bruising. Only women can pass along this gene, and only men can be hemophiliacs. Alexandra, as a descendant of Queen Victoria, was responsible in the eyes of the Russian people for giving Alexei the disease.

It was imperative that this terrible secret be hidden from the public. The faith in the Tsar was already waning and the mob could not know that the heir to the throne had a life threatening disease. Any bump or bruise could trigger internal bleeding. Doctors were summoned to stop the bleeding but few knew anything about how to treat it. Gregori Rasputin was considered a holy man, and had made his way into the upper ranks of society. Despite his womanizing and alcoholic ways, he seemed to be the only one capable of stopping the bleeding. Because in the eyes of the Tsarina, Rasputin was the only one who could save her son’s life, he was a man to be trusted and kept close. He held ultimate power and became a dangerous player in the fate of the Romanovs. While the Tsar was on the front lines during WWI, the Tsarina was left alone to run the country. With Rasputin whispering things in her ear, she rarely denied him what he wanted. This fact sparked rumours of an affair between the Tsarina and the monk. Rasputin made the rulers of Russia his puppets. For those of you who haven’t heard the song “Ra Ra Rasputin” by Boney M, should have a listen: It’s a Russian history lesson in a song!

The death of Rasputin is shrouded in legend and mystery. It is said that Rasputin warned that if anyone in the Romanov family should contribute to his death, the entire dynasty would fall within a year. This turned out to be the case. In multiple ways Rasputin was a major contributor to the fall of the Romanovs. He had many enemies in the Russian government who were not pleased that a man of the church could have so much influence. It has been claimed that he was poisoned, and shot several times, before being tossed in the river to drown.

Nearing the end of the war, Russia was a pot that was able to boil over. Nicholas II resigned the throne and the family was taken into captivity for their own protection. They were shepherded across the country, far from their lavish lifestyle at the imperial palace by the Red Army. On the morning of July 17, 1917 the family was awaken in the middle of the night, and ushered into the basement of the Ipatiev House – or the “House of Special Purpose”. They were told that they were going to have a family portrait taken and were arranged in two rows. Then without warning, firing squad-style, the soldiers of the Red Army open fired on the imperial family. They burned and buried the bodies in an attempt to remove all traces of evidence. They rewrote records and tried to erase the history of the family’s existence. This sparked the possibility that one or more of the Grand Duchesses may have survived the massacre and would thereby be entitled to the families inheritance. No surprise, this resulted in an onslaught of impostors claiming to be Anastasia Romanov, none of whom were real.

There is a great documentary that National Geographic did about the discovery of the remains, and the attempt to piece together the last days of the family: The story of the Romanovs remains one of mystery and tragedy. They were canonized as saints in 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church, a lasting impression on their importance in Russian history.

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