I Was Anastasia begins with a Fair Warning:
If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory—all the twisted coils—and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them? Because I do not think you can. I do not think you are brave enough. But, like so many others through the years, you have asked: Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess. Or am I an impostor? A fraud. A liar. The thief of another woman’s legacy.
Perhaps one of the longest-lasting puzzles of the 20th century, the story of the possibilities of one of Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters surviving the massacre of his family during the Russian revolution brought forth many claimants and much speculation. It captured the imagination of the world and sent archaeologists searching for proof as to whether there could have been a survivor or not. Movies and documentaries were made. Books were published. Court cases ensued. There was a fortune to be claimed. And one claimant steadfastly ascertained her identity. This is the story of Anna Anderson, undoubtedly the best-known claimant of the title, Grand Duchess Anastasia. And it is a fascinating tale.
The story begins with Anna Anderson nearing the end of her life and works its way backwards to the assassination at Ekaterinburg alternating with the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia in her teens as her life inexorably wends its way forward to the same event. From a pampered, privileged member of the ruling dynasty to the sequestered and demeaning life of captivity, first in the winter palace, then in Siberia, her story is told based on much research and is full of intimate details. Are they one and the same character?
This is one of those books that sent me searching the internet for more details and factual information. I had been fascinated in the 60s with the story of the discovery of the site of the burial place of the bones of the imperial family and the attempt to destroy them and at the time had read many books about the Tsar, his relatives — King George & Emperor Wilhelm — Rasputin, and Anastasia, but then became distracted with life and somehow missed further developments and research as they unfolded. I did not know about the latest revelations with DNA and photo comparisons nor had I seen any of the videos of interviews with Anna Anderson.
This book peaked my interest way beyond my expectations. It was deftly told, beautifully written and a totally compelling read. If I had been aware of all the recent discoveries maybe I wouldn’t have found it so captivating but I’m grateful I learned them after I read the book. Perhaps the most controversial thing was that the book made Anna Anderson a sympathetic character, spurned by surviving members of the Romanov family, her life in poverty, pursued by those trying to disprove her claim, used by those seeking recompense if she came into the Tsar’s fortune, whereas in videos shot of her late in life she appeared an imperious, petulant old lady who drew no sympathy from me whatsoever.
If you are unaware, as I was, of the resolution of this puzzle, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Read the book. It’s a bit slow to start but picks up into an extremely compelling read. Lawhon’s details of life inside the palace, the grand duchesses tending wounded soldiers in hospital, the illness of Alexei, the role of Rasputin within the palace, loyal servants, the refusal of Nicholas to acknowledge the crumbling dynasty around him are captivating; the story of Anna, smuggled out of countries in the dead of night, wasting in sanatoriums, harassed by detractors, attempting suicide, meeting with Ingrid Bergman to discuss her life and agreeing to the making of the movie with Yul Brynner, are absorbing. This is historical fiction at its best. * * * * *