Was She Really Grand Duchess Anastasia? by Dave Howey

In the winter of 1977, I was a 16-year-old junior at Fork Union Military Academy, a bleached, spit-shined military school whose campus lies between Charlottesville and Richmond, roughly in the geographic center of Virginia.

My grades were good enough to get me into the National Honor Society and the school made sure that Honor Society cadets were recognized and rewarded. In 1977, one of the rewards was to travel to Charlottesville to see a movie, dine out at a local steak house and hear a speaker.

The speaker for this trip was an unusual one, a lady from nearby Scottsville, Va., named Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia, the surviving daughter of Nicholas II, the last Romanov czar of Russia. Few of us knew much about the history of the Romanovs or the Anastasia myth, and even less about this lady and her husband, who was an American.

I don't remember where we ate that night, or even what I had for dinner, but I remember very vividly the wild almost fantastic tale her husband told us: the ill-fated Romanovs, who, after being ousted from power, were brutally murdered; and the fabled escape of the young czarina, Anastasia, the lady sitting there in the restaurant that cold night.

Her husband talked for her since she spoke very little English. Her only functional language was German, her Russian having been wiped out, we were told, as a result of the trauma from seeing her family gunned down in the cellar of a house in Ekaterinaberg, Russia.

Her husband told us, in almost campfire-ghost-story fashion, how Anastasia had been spared death likely as a result of the ballistic protection from the heavy jewelry the girls wore around their necks. He told us also of the escape and rescue of the young czarina, Anastasia, who was purportedly helped by a Russian soldier, and her subsequent failed attempts to gain recognition by relatives of the Romanovs.

For a young 16-year-old military school cadet, the story sounded so romantic and so possible. Of course none of us wanted to believe in the brutal, obscene death of a young 16-year-old girl. Instead, we chose to believe in the romantic tale of Anastasia's survival. After all, here was this woman and her husband telling us that her survival was true. And as fate would have it, my meeting with this lady took place when I was 16, the same age as the young czarina when her family was murdered.

Since that night, I have followed the tale of this Anastasia and the whole issue of the Romanov murder. Somehow, I have felt inextricably intertwined with the story. But one question has begged my attention: Was this the real Anastasia? Or was this just some impostor shamelessly using the name of this girl to gain fame and attention?

The Anastasia that I met on a cold winter night in the heartland of the Commonwealth of Virginia went to her grave in 1984, 7 years after I had met her. She claimed to the very end that she was indeed the last surviving Romanov. Of course, for a young, gullible 16-year-old from the deep south, it was certainly easier to believe than not to believe, especially when it was someone I had actually met.

Since my graduation from Fork Union in 1979, the murdered Romanovs have since been exhumed and given proper burial. Recent DNA tests have virtually proven that the Anastasia I met that night, Anna Anderson, was actually a Polish national, named Franziska Schanzkowska, posing as Anastasia. But in the back of my mind, I still reminisce about that cold, dark winter night, 20 years ago, when a shy, quiet 16 year old boy from South Carolina met and dined with a would-be Russian princess.

Dave Howey ( dhowey@idir.net )

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