Biography of Anastasia Romanov, Doomed Russian Duchess

Portrait of Anastasia Romanov, 1915
Portrait of Anastasia Romanov, 1915. ​ 

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (June 18, 1901 — July 17, 1918) was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. Along with her parents and young siblings, Anastasia was captured and executed during the Bolshevik Revolution. She is well-known for the mystery that surrounded her death for decades.

Early Life

Anastasia, born on June 18, 1901, was the fourth and youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Along with her older sisters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, and Tatiana, as well as her younger brother, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, Anastasia was raised under fairly frugal conditions.

Postcard of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov
Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Despite her family’s status, the children slept on simple cots and did many of their own chores. According to Anna Vyrubova, a close friend of the Romanov family and lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina, Anastasia was “a sharp and clever child” who liked to play practical jokes on her siblings. The Romanov children were educated by tutors, as was common for royal offspring, but Anastasia appears to have been disinterested in schoolwork. She and her sister Maria were close, and shared a room during their childhood. Anastasia and Maria were nicknamed “the Little Pair,” while older sisters Olga and Tatiana were referred to as “the Big Pair.” 

The Romanov children were not always healthy. Anastasia suffered from a weak muscle in her back and painful bunions, both of which sometimes affected her mobility. Maria, while having her tonsils removed, experienced a hemorrhage that nearly killed her. Young Alexei was a hemophiliac, and was frail for most of his short life.

The Rasputin Connection

Grigori Rasputin was a Russian mystic who claimed to have healing powers, and the Tsarina Alexandra often called upon him to pray for Alexei during his more debilitating periods. Although he held no formal role within the Russian Orthodox Church, Rasputin nevertheless had a good deal of influence with the Tsarina, who credited his miraculous faith-healing abilities with saving her son’s life on several occasions.

At their mother’s encouragement, the Romanov children viewed Rasputin as a friend and confidant. They often wrote him letters, and he responded in kind. However, around 1912, one of the family’s governesses became concerned when she found Rasputin visiting the girls in their nursery while they wore only their nightgowns. The governess was eventually fired, and went to other family members to tell her story.

Although by most accounts there was nothing inappropriate in Rasputin’s relationship with the children, and they viewed him fondly, there was still a minor scandal over the situation. Over time, the rumors began to spiral out of control, and there were whispers that Rasputin was having an affair with the Tsarina and her young daughters. To counter the gossip, Nicholas sent Rasputin out of the country for a while; the monk went on a pilgrimage to Palestine. In December 1916, he was murdered by a group of aristocrats who were upset about his influence over the Tsarina. Anastasia was reportedly devastated by his death.

The Czars
The Russian Imperial Family: (L-R) Grand Duchess Olga, Grand Duchess Maria, Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Czarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Tatiana. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The February Revolution

During World War I, the Tsarina and her two older daughters volunteered as Red Cross nurses. Anastasia and Maria were too young to join the ranks, so instead they visited wounded soldiers in the hospital new St. Petersburg.

In February 1917, the Russian Revolution took place, with mobs protesting the food rationing that had been in place since the beginning of the war (which had begun three years earlier). During the eight days of clashes and rioting, members of the Russian Army deserted and joined the revolutionary forces, and some 1,500 people were killed in the protests. There were calls for the end of imperial rule, and the royal family was placed under house arrest.

On March 2, Nicholas abdicated the throne on behalf of himself and Alexei, nominating his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, as successor. Michael, realizing quickly that he would have no support in the government, declined the offer, leaving Russia without a monarchy for the first time, and a provisional government was established.

Capture and Imprisonment

As revolutionaries approached the royal palace, the provisional government removed the Romanovs and sent them to Tobolsk, Siberia. In August 1917, the Romanovs arrived in Tobolsk by train, and along with their servants, were ensconced in the former Governor’s house.

By all accounts, the family was not mistreated during their time in Tobolsk. The children continued their lessons with their father and a tutor, Alexandra, despite failing health, did needlework and played music. When the Bolsheviks took over Russia, the family was moved once again to a house in Yekaterinburg.

Despite their status as prisoners, Anastasia and her siblings tried to live as normally as possible. However, the confinement began to take its toll. Alexandra had been ill for months, and Alexei was not doing well. Anastasia herself became regularly upset about being trapped indoors, and at one point attempted to open an upstairs window to get some fresh air. A sentry fired at her, narrowly missing her.

Family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Children of Tsar Nicholas II Romanov of Russia and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna Romanova: Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia, Tatiana and Tsarevich Alexei. Russia, circa 1912. Laski Diffusion / Getty Images

Execution of the Romanovs

In October 1917, Russia collapsed into full-scale civil war. The Romanovs’ Bolshevik captors — known as the Reds — had been negotiating for their exchange with the anti-Bolshevik side, the Whites, but talks had stalled. When the Whites reached Yekaterinburg, the royal family had vanished, and the rumor was that they had already been assassinated.

Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky, a Bolshevik revolutionary, later wrote an account of the death of the entire Romanov family. He said that on July 17, 1918, the night of the assassinations, they were awakened and instructed to get dressed in a hurry; Alexandra and Nicholas were told that they would be moved to a safe house in the morning, in case the White army returned for them.

Both parents and the five children were taken to a small room in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg. Yurovsky and his guards entered, informed the Tsar that the family was to be executed, and began firing. Nicholas and Alexandra died first, in a hail of bullets, and the rest of the family and servants were killed immediately afterwards. According to Yurovsky, Anastasia was huddled against the back wall with Maria, wounded and screaming, and was bayoneted to death.

Decades of Mystery

In the years following the execution of the Romanov family, conspiracy theories began to emerge. Beginning in 1920, numerous women came forward and claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

One of them, Eugenia Smith, wrote her “memoirs” as Anastasia, which included a lengthy description of how she had escaped her captors. Another, Nadezhda Vasilyeva, surfaced in Siberia and was imprisoned by Bolshevik authorities; she died in a mental asylum in 1971.

Anna Anderson was perhaps the best known of the imposters. She claimed that she — Anastasia — had been wounded but survived, and been rescued from the basement by a guard who was sympathetic to the royal family. From 1938 until 1970, Anderson battled for recognition as Nicholas’ only surviving child. However, courts in Germany continually found that Anderson had not provided concrete evidence that she was Anastasia.

Anderson died in 1984. Ten years later, a DNA sample concluded that she was not related to the Romanov family. However, her DNA did match that of a missing Polish factory worker.

Anna Anderson In Berlin
Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia, but in fact was a Polish factory worker. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Other imposters claiming to be Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Alexei came forward over the years, as well.

In 1991, a collection of bodies was found in the woods outside Yekaterinburg, and DNA indicated that they belonged to the Romanov family. However, two bodies were missing — those of Alexei and one of his sisters. In 2007, a Russian builder found burned remains at a forest location that matched a description given by Yurovsky when he detailed where the bodies had been left. A year later, these were identified as the two missing Romanovs, although testing has been inconclusive as to which body was Anastasia and which was Maria.

DNA studies have accounted for both parents and all five children, concluding they did indeed die in July 1918, and in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the entire Romanov family as passion bearers.

Anastasia Romanov Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova
  • Known For: The youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who was killed (along with the rest of her family) during the Bolshevik Revolution. Mystery surrounded her death for decades, as numerous women claimed to be Anastasia.
  • Born: June 18, 1901 in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Died: July 17, 1918 in Yekaterinburg, Russia
  • Parents’ Names: Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia

Sources

  • Carey Goldberg. “Unraveling a Royal Mystery: For Decades, Westerners Have Speculated That Some Members of the Romanov Family Survived the Bolsheviks' Bullets. Now, Police Work and Science Promise to Find the Truth.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 3 Feb. 1993, articles.latimes.com/1993-02-03/news/mn-1053_1_romanov-family/2. 
  • Harris, Carolyn. “The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 27 Dec. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/murder-rasputin-100-years-later-180961572/. 
  • “Memories of the Russian Court - a Book by Anna Vryubova on Last Imperial Family of Romanov Russia.” The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna: Preface, www.alexanderpalace.org/russiancourt2006/.
  • “Full Text of ‘Wilton Robert The Last Days Of The Romanovs.’” Internet Archive, The Library Shelf, archive.org/stream/WiltonRobertTheLastDaysOfTheRomanovs/Wilton Robert - The last days of the Romanovs_djvu.txt.