One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part III (Selective reporting)

One of the many good things about King and Wilson’s book is that it documents all the reasons why this most famous of all pretenders wasn’t whom she claimed to be. One of those reasons was the selective reporting of information.

If one only goes by Peter Kurth’s book (which is an excellent biography on its own merits), and other sympathetic sources, as I did for many years, it seems like there’s a very strong case for this woman having been Grand Duchess Anastasiya. But now that many documents have been released from archives, the historical evidence paints a much different picture.

Take the famous list of 18 questions Prince Sigismund of Prussia (nephew of Empress Aleksandra and the only non-hemophiliac son of Princess Irene) and his brother-in-law Prince Friedrich of Saxe–Altenburg gave her in 1932. They all related to the Imperial Family’s stay in Spała, Poland in autumn 1912 (when Aleksey almost died of a very serious injury).

The princes refused to make these questions public, claiming the pretender’s opponents would accuse them of giving her the answers. They also believed none of the answers had appeared in print. King and Wilson provide all 18 of the questions, some of which answer one another, and others which point towards the answers.

Not only that, two-thirds of the answers had appeared in at least two memoirs, which the claimant had in her possession. She kept the list for five days, and when she returned it, not all the questions were answered. Other answers were wrong.

Pierre Gilliard, French tutor to Nicholas II’s children, went to Berlin with his wife Shura and Grand Duchess Olga Aleksandrova in 1925 to meet the claimant, and they all came away convinced she wasn’t Anastasiya. Gilliard was so convinced, he wrote a book laying out the case against her.

Unfortunately, twelve months prior, a book promoting her claim had been published by Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann. The latter never hesitated to publish or report anything casting her in a favorable light. Not only that, her book stayed in print much longer. Gilliard’s book was also only published in French, and hasn’t been widely available for much of its history.

Gilliard was viciously attacked for daring not to accept the claimant and correctly pointing out errors (e.g., the claim that the Aleksandr Palace had a room with malachite windowsills), while Keilmann conveniently left out or reworded such damning evidence of fakery.

A lot of her supporters like to compare photos like these, since they have similar angles, lighting, or blurriness. They conveniently ignore all the myriad of photos where they look absolutely nothing alike. Even if Anastasiya had survived and sustained damage to her face, she would’ve looked like a deformed version of herself, not an entirely different person.

Additionally, she famously, repeatedly refused to speak Russian, though she understood the spoken language. She spoke wonderful German until Aleksey Volkov, an elderly groom of the chamber who escaped execution, expressed great surprise and confusion about her “exceptionally good German” and refusal to speak Russian. Overnight, her German deteriorated!

Still other things she allegedly remembered, or comments allegedly referring to things only the real Anastasiya would’ve known, never happened. They were invented by die-hard supporters, or took on a life of their own. For example, she was said to have perfect English and French, based on single brief sentences.

She had a convenient excuse for everything—memory loss, not paying attention, bad memories of Russian, feeling insulted her relatives were introduced under false names, covering her face, turning to the wall, not wanting to constantly recite names, dates, and facts to prove her identity.

She claimed, e.g., she knew who Princess Irene of Prussia (pictured above) was all along, but was very hurt Irene pretended to be someone else. Then why show zero recognition and run away? When Irene followed her, she found the claimant in bed, her back turned.

Other things she sussed out from leading questions and comments, and from all the White Russian émigrés she met in Berlin. Some of these visitors, like Feliks Dassel, are now known to have regularly visited her long before their supposed first meetings!

To be continued.


One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part II (Wild stories, false memories)

One of the biggest reasons I was an Anastasian for almost twenty years, even long after many rounds of DNA testing from different countries and labs, was because this most famous of all pretenders had so many alleged memories only the real Anastasiya could’ve had. How very wrong I was.

A lot of what I believed has been proven to be the result of a decades-long game of telephone of sorts. The initial information was misreported, misunderstood, or selectively reported, and since there were no widely-available rebuttals, more and more people believed it and passed it along themselves.

Peter Kurth’s excellent biography is a prime example. I was led to believe she knew things only the real Anastasiya could’ve known, like a personal nickname for an obscure soldier; Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig’s secret diplomatic mission to Russia in 1916; and Gleb Botkin’s “funny animals.”

But as King and Wilson prove, she learnt these things by reading books and magazine articles, and talking to people with intimate knowledge. In Berlin, she met quite a few Russian émigrés who gave her such printed material and shared stories.

Some people read between lines that weren’t there, or interpreted things a certain way out of a fog of nostalgia or wanting to believe. When she began her decades-long charade, the people fighting over her identity weren’t far removed from the cataclysm that drove them from their homeland. Who could think straight in the midst of such raw emotions?

Franziska Schanzkowska also made many shocking mistakes the real Anastasiya never would’ve, and entirely made up other stories. Among them:

She claimed Nicholas II didn’t have a tattoo, when he had a large dragon on his right arm. He got it in Japan in 1891, and it was so big and colorful, it took seven hours to complete.

She claimed there was a room in the Aleksandr Palace with malachite columns and windowsills. It was quite obvious which palace she made this false claim about, in spite of her supporters insisting she was referring to the famous Malachite Room of the Winter Palace.

She claimed she reviewed her infantry regiment on horseback in 1916. In reality, Anastasiya was named honorary colonel-in-chief of the 148th Caspian Infantry Rifle Regiment in 1915, when they were already at the front.

She said she had a room next to Mariya, when “The Little Pair” always shared a room, in every single palace and residence.

She claimed she visited England several times, when Anastasiya only went in 1909.

When asked who Aunt Ella (Empress Aleksandra’s sister) was, she claimed it was a secret, and only later gave the answer.

She claimed Aleksandra’s favorite child was Mariya, when it was famously Tatyana.

She claimed Nicholas and Aleksandra had different bedrooms, though they always shared a room.

She claimed Trotskiy visited the Aleksandr Palace, was very rude to Nicholas, and stole jewelry in 1916. This visit never happened!

And so many other demonstrably false claims!

One of the things which makes Kurth’s biography so good, in spite of his obvious bias, is that he had a good filter. He knew how to report his subject in a very favorable light, and which things to leave out. The same can’t be said about the awful biography by the late James Blair Lovell.

Lovell not only made many embarrassing, easily-spotted mistakes, but he also reported every rambling, bizarre, mundane thing that ever came out of his subject’s mouth.

This nonsense includes the infamous, disgusting, evidenceless King Kong story (where the entire Imperial Family except 13-year-old Aleksey were gang-raped in front of one another in Yekaterinburg), and the fifth daughter claimant.

Her rescue story was likewise full of holes. She claimed a guard named Aleksandr Chaykovskiy (Tchaikovsky) smuggled her to Romania in a peasant wagon, with his brother Sergey and mother Veronika, and that they had a child conceived of rape.

No record of a guard by this name exists, nor is there evidence it was a pseudonym used by the real Stanislav Mishkevich. Not only that, it made zero sense to take a rescued Anastasiya into the path of the Red Army and away from the then-advancing White Army!

No records of this stay in Romania, their marriage, the birth and adoption of this child, or Chaykovskiy’s death in a street fight have ever been found. Moreover, the real Anastasiya wouldn’t have hesitated to go to her very accepting cousin Queen Marie. Once in Germany, she wouldn’t have hesitated to go to her aunt Irene or uncle Ernie.

To be continued.

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part I

Happy International Left-Handed Awareness Day!

I first read this book in November ’95, shortly before I turned sixteen. I checked it out of the Guilderland Library the day Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, 4 November. Kurth does such a great job of establishing a case for the claimant as Grand Duchess Anastasiya, it made me into an Anastasian for almost twenty years.

So strong was my belief, I did a research paper arguing her case my junior year of high school. My teacher told me I made a very strong case. This was after the first round of DNA results which disproved her claim, but based on what I’d read, I was positive monkey business had gone down with the chain of custody, and that shady characters with an agenda were behind it.

While I’m not normally into conspiracy theories, Kurth made such a compelling case for her, based on forensic comparisons of ears and faces, handwriting analysis, emotional reactions, and personal memories, I refused to believe this woman could’ve been anyone else, least of all a supposed mere Polish peasant.

Then, in 2007, Anastasiya and Aleksey’s remains were finally discovered and positively identified (and btw, are still being denied a funeral because the Russian Orthodox Church refuses to accept the results of countless DNA tests). Even after that momentous discovery, I still refused to believe the truth!

And then I discovered everything I thought I knew about this case was wrong.

I first read this book in 2015, and was absolutely blown away by all the newly-unearthed evidence not only proving Anna Anderson was indeed Franziska Schanzkowska, but that she couldn’t possibly have been Anastasiya either. Peter Kurth wrote a very good biography of her, but as King and Wilson prove, much of the information which seemed to prove her identity was at best misreported or misrepresented, and at worst outright falsehood.

Much of the widely-available documentation came from people highly sympathetic to her claim, like Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann; Gleb Botkin and his sister Tatyana; and the von Kleist family. Those who strenuously opposed her claim, and rejected her after meeting her, like former tutor Pierre Gilliard, lady-in-waiting Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, and Anastasiya’s aunt Grand Duchess Olga Aleksandrovna, have had some quite nasty things said about them for decades.

The claimant didn’t look anything like Anastasiya, yet a lot of people believed her facial features had been altered beyond recognition because of traumatic injuries. Select findings from the long-running German legal battle seemed to prove their ears, foreheads, and faces were identical, but there was not only never a consensus, but other forensic examinations had the exact opposite results.

Additionally, a supposedly reversed ear photo which led to negative findings was shown to indeed NOT have been printed in reverse after all. Another supposedly matching ear photo was that of Grand Duchess Mariya.

In short, when examined critically, the forensic evidence, per the most advanced techniques of that era, didn’t exactly make a strong case.

People who knew the real Anastasiya very well, and who met the claimant, all soundly rejected her. These people included her aunts Olga and Irene; her French tutor Gilliard and his wife Shura (Anastasiya’s former nursemaid); her English tutor Sydney Gibbes; a number of former courtiers; Baroness Buxhoeveden; and several extended relatives.

Meanwhile, those who met the claimant and insisted she was Anastasiya had never known the real Anastasiya very well. These included people who only had limited or fleeting interactions with her, like Crown Princess Cecilie of Prussia.

Grand Duke Andrey Vladimirovich, her first-cousin once-removed, may have been the Tsar’s aide-de-camp, but even he admitted he didn’t know her very well. Another cousin, Xenia Leeds (née Princess Kseniya Georgiyevna), only met her eight years into the charade, and likewise hadn’t known the real Anastasiya very well or seen her since childhood.

Additionally, the claimant professed a lot of demonstrably false “memories,” made obvious mistakes, didn’t have nearly the linguistic abilities she was claimed to, showed no reaction to things the real Anastasiya would’ve recognised in a heartbeat, and spun an extremely implausible rescue story.

To be continued.

Top Ten Tuesday—Books with sensory reading memories

Top Ten Tuesday, formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Books with Sensory Reading Memories (i.e., linked to very specific memories).

1. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse. I was reading this when my family left NY in August ’96, and it went into storage at my maternal grandparents’ house with almost everything else we owned. When I picked it back up in 2003 or 2004, I kept the bookmark in the place it’d been all those years ago, as a reminder of that depressing time.

Interestingly, that bookmark is one I left in a library book about Tad Lincoln, and got back when I checked the book out of the library again at thirteen. I knew that was my bookmark, and no one had taken it in all those years!

2. The Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu (Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation). This was one of the few things I had during my junior year of high school, 1996–97, while we lived with my paternal grandparents. My relationship with that book of ancient Chinese wisdom was forged in fire. It got me through a lot of tough times. Just smelling the pages takes me back to that dark period.

3. Anything by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, my favourite writer and one of my heroes. Each and every book, story collection, play, or prose poem takes me back to the time I first read it.

4. The Play of God, Devi Vanimali. I read this beautiful book about Lord Krishna in summer 2002, while my parents and little brother were at Cape Cod. I was sick to death of that place, and decided to stay home. It was so hot, I had to go into my parents’ room for the AC unit at night. We didn’t have central AC.

5. The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman. This book is absolute garbage, but I have so many memories of being a naïve 14-year-old who believed everything she read, and eating this crap up every time I went to a library or bookstore, until I finally checked it out in late ’94 to finish reading it at my own leisure.

6. Upon the Head of the Goat, Aranka Siegal. Not only was this the book that started my Magyarphilia, but it was one of the books I read that spring of ’95 that awakened my Jewish soul. When Piri and Iboya are being threatened by anti-Semitic bullies, I felt afraid and threatened myself.

7. Pretty much any book I read during the 11 months I couldn’t walk, from August 2003–July 2004. How could one not remember being so immobile and helpless?

8. Related to #1, pretty much everything by Hermann Hesse. I have so many memories of the first time I read each of his books, starting with Demian at age 14–15. He was the first real adult author I read, and became my next-fave writer.

9. Beatlesongs, William Dowlding. My receipt from June ’94 is still in it. That was a very happy trip to Borders. A TV in another room upstairs was playing Help!

10. Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom, by Isabella Leitner (originally published in two volumes, Fragments of Isabella and Saving the Fragments). Hands-down the most haunting, memorable book I’ve ever read. It was only upon rereading it as an adult that I realised how sparse the supporting details and backstory are. It’s driven by emotions, this story of four (later, sadly, three) sisters who survived for one another, because of one another.

I’ve since listened to, watched, and read a number of interviews with Isabella and her surviving siblings (now all deceased). They filled in so many blanks I was curious about, and often left me wondering why some pretty important details were omitted, like the fact that there were twin boys who died at eight months, not just five sisters and a token brother.

When a book’s contents and description are mismatched

Seeing as how I ran out of time to put together an original blog post yet again, this is a book review I wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably in 2003. It’s edited down from 900-some words.

3 stars

I expected more from this book, and was rather disappointed it didn’t delve more deeply into anything. The way it changed names and events was also annoying. It’s one thing to change names, but I dislike composite characters. That doesn’t give us a real picture of these people. So we have people like Jered, who goes from raving anti-Semite to loving leader of his church’s tolerance movement overnight, and Willow, who flits from religion to religion without any real, deep attachments to any of them.

Some of the events actually happened in her third and fourth years of divinity school, but she had them taking place in her first two years to give intellectual background. Why not just write about all four years from start to finish instead of making everything a composite?!

The author is an intermarried writer living in the San Francisco area when the book begins, but she wants to learn more about her native Judaism for material in an article or book. How does she solve this quandary? She enrolls in Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee! Why would you uproot your family and spend so much money on a non-Jewish divinity school to try to return to your roots?

Mrs. Orsborn wants to be in a shul for Rosh Hashanah, and there are a number to pick from. She’s standing at the door of an Orthodox shul, ready to go in, but walks away and goes to a Reform shul when she remembers a bad experience in another Orthodox shul.

You can’t give up because of ONE isolated experience! She could’ve had a beautiful, spiritual experience, but with the mindset that it’d be terrible simply because it was Orthodox and behind a mechitza, maybe it would’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mrs. Orsborn winds up at a fairly new Reform congregation without a permanent building. She also is ready to walk away from that one because it was so crowded and unfamiliar. The High Holy Days experience isn’t representative, since many people are only there then, and the topics of the sermons will be different.

She comes to like this new shul, however, and it’s very dear to her because it split off from the larger Reform shul in the area after the rabbi gave a speech denouncing intermarriage. A lot of intermarried families left to form their own community after that. Tell me how much sense it makes to settle on one shul when you’ve never given any of the others test drives. That was not an informed decision.

Her whole spiritual struggle was nothing more than deciding whether or not to join a fairly standard American Reform shul! If she really missed the atmosphere at Shabbos Shul so much, she should’ve tried to form her own group, not gotten upset the only area shul she ever set foot in wasn’t similar enough to her old shul.

This book was really disappointing. There are better, more compelling accounts of people’s return to their native faiths, not just accounts of waffling over whether or not to join a typical house of worship.