One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part VI (Final thoughts)

Rereading Kurth’s book, over 22 years later, in tandem with rereading King and Wilson’s book, was such a study in contrasts. I wanted to see if I’d interpret all these things much differently, now knowing the truth. So many things uncritically presented as factual by Kurth are reported far differently, and more damningly, by King and Wilson.

King and Wilson make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the claimant was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska. Not only that, they show how she seemingly pulled off this charade for so many decades and fooled so many people who supposedly knew the real Anastasiya very well.

She relied on her incredible memory (which was never as shattered as she pretended it was), taking advantage of all the books, magazine articles, captioned photos, and personal stories that were offered up to her in good faith. To avoid blowing her cover, she carefully controlled whom she interacted with and what she said.

After such a dark, bleak life, Franziska saw in the Romanovs the kind of ideal, loving family she’d been denied. She wanted, needed to identify so strongly with their happiness, privilege, close-knit bonds. Taking on this pretended identity, even with the dark cloud of Yekaterinburg, was preferable to her own real life.

People who quickly, unthinkingly dismiss her, without knowing much else about her, fail to understand how complex her story really was. Franziska was more than just another pretender. Once she realised the enormity of what she’d set in motion, she knew she could never back out of it and return to being Franziska.

Not only was she guilty of fraud, but so many good people had become personally involved. They’d opened their homes, paid for her medical care and legal bills, given her priceless mementos, publicly and prominently defended her. She wasn’t like any of the other countless Romanov pretenders, whose claims quickly fizzled out and who never became international celebrities.

Countless DNA tests, from multiple labs, genetic samples, and countries, have proven over and over again she wasn’t a Romanova, nor a maternal descendent of Queen Victoria. Instead, her mtDNA has always matched Franziska’s sister’s grandson.

Though U.S. and Russian forensic scientists disagree on which daughter was missing from the mass grave and finally found in 2007, DNA tests have proved all seven members of the Imperial Family are now accounted for.

Taken together with all the unarchived documents disproving so much of what the world was led to believe for decades, the truth is obvious. However, there remains a small, committed band of Anastasians, still clinging to wild conspiracy theories and refusing to accept new evidence.

The most bizarre conspiracy I’ve heard is that she was a chimera. A. Freaking. Chimera.

People in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution wanted, needed to believe someone survived. Even today, people without any monarchist leanings or Russian blood are struck by the heartbreaking tragedy. This gave them hope to cling to, however delusional.

Thus, they were able to overlook troubling things like her refusal to speak Russian, blatantly false memories, obvious mistakes, strikingly different physical appearance, lack of response to things the real Anastasiya would’ve been deeply affected by or at least recognised, all the holes in her rescue story.

Of course it’s wrong to steal the identity of a girl who was murdered when she was barely seventeen, and to take advantage of so many good people for decades. But given the harsh life Franziska came from, this role of a lifetime was a golden ticket to go from a nobody to a somebody.

She probably didn’t think it would ever go so far, but once she was so firmly ensconced in it, with so many other people involved, it was impossible to end things. Admitting her fraud would’ve made her life even worse.

At the time of the Revolution, Tatyana (left) was the most famous and popular of the Tsar’s daughters, because of her prominent nursing work and exotic, regal beauty. Thanks to Franziska’s decades-long pretending act, Anastasiya is now the most famous by far.

If Franziska hadn’t claimed her identity, it’s very likely Anastasiya would’ve remained a footnote in history. Had she lived, she would’ve married a foreign prince and led an ordinary royal life, even if she’d married a prince from a country that fell under Nazi occupation or fascist rule.

Franziska had a much more interesting life than Anastasiya seemed destined for, precisely because of her pretending act.

There’s a Jewish teaching that parents have a moment of prophecy when they name a baby. It’s indeed eerily prophetic how Anastasiya means “resurrection.”

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One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part V (Who really was she?)

Peter Kurth made such a strong case for establishing this most famous of all pretenders as Grand Duchess Anastasiya, denied by her family and rejected by the courts, I couldn’t believe she was anyone else. I dismissed her real identity as ardently as he did. It was a ridiculous conspiracy or bizarre case of mistaken identity.

Many years later, I very reluctantly began to concede perhaps she really wasn’t Anastasiya after all. But surely she couldn’t have been a supposed Polish peasant, since she knew too much about the Imperial Family.

And then I discovered the mountains of newly-unarchived evidence dashing any lingering false beliefs. This new evidence goes far beyond DNA in proving, without a shadow of a doubt, this person was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska.

FS was the only other identity ever ascribed to her, besides the one she lay claim to for almost 64 years. Her positive identification as FS was first reported in 1927, yet her supporters have always framed it as a cruel conspiracy by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine to rob her of her inheritance.

Many people considered the matter settled, despite the fact that Franziska’s brother Felix quickly reneged on his positive identification of her. But thanks to the powerful, carefully-presented voices of her supporters, and the public’s preference for a fairytale story about a lost princess rejected by her family and fighting to reclaim her identity, falsehoods carried the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her supporters are loath to compare the only known pre-1920 photo of FS with any of her later photos, because the similarities are so obvious. Comparing any of her photos with those of her birth family reveals great similarities too, whereas she doesn’t have much of any family resemblance with the Romanovs.

I won’t spoil all the stunning new revelations reported by King and Wilson, but suffice it to say, FS was no Polish peasant. She was Kashubian (a West Slavic group in Poland), and descended from minor nobility. Franziska got a rather good education, and was very intelligent.

Franziska had a rather bleak, dark childhood, and didn’t fit in with most of the people in her hometown. They resented how she wanted to “get above her raising” instead of matter-of-factly accepting her station in life.

Franziska’s life in Germany wasn’t any better. After she went missing in 1920, her hosts, the Wingenders, didn’t immediately alert the police. She came back to them in 1922, when she ran away from the von Kleists, but the Wingenders never attempted to look for her in all that time.

When she was pulled out of the canal, she had nothing to live for. In a way, FS really did die, since she never lived as Franziska again, apart from those four days in 1922. Once the idea of impersonating Anastasiya was planted in her head, and heavily encouraged by the émigrés she met, she ran with it.

Pretending to be Anastasiya meant she never had to work again, and was able to live rather comfortably, even after her height of popularity. She always had a place to live, friends in high places, money, her needs taken care of.

Her brother Felix recognised as much, and thus reneged on his earlier identification. He wanted to leave her to her new friends and “career.” When a meeting with all four of her siblings was arranged in 1937 (demanded by Hitler), they ultimately had to deny her to protect both her and Felix from serious legal consequences. Franziska was guilty of fraud, while Felix had lied on a legal document.

Doris Wingender, middle daughter of Franziska’s former hostess, was virulently attacked just as much as Pierre Gilliard, for daring to accept money and an exclusive newspaper contract for this story.

Kurth describes Dr. Wilhelm Völler, the attorney of major supporter Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann, taking Doris to dinner by a hotel and stealing her newspaper contract from her purse while she was in the powder room.

Kurth doesn’t mention how Franziska very much recognised Felix when he came to see her by Castle Seeon, nor does he give any credence to the Wingenders’ account of Franziska coming to visit them, wearing clothes the von Kleists themselves recognised.

Decades later, during the trials, Doris submitted a photo of herself in those very clothes. It was discovered she’d drawn in buttons and a belt, and erased a figure. Kurth is horrorstruck the court ruled she didn’t do that maliciously or knowingly submit falsified evidence.

By summer 1927, eleven people had identified her as Franziska, yet her supporters continued to dismiss the evidence. Some spun conspiracy theories about what had happened to the “real” Franziska.

But no matter how much people wanted to believe this romantic fairytale and riveting conspiracy theories, DNA had the final say.

To be continued.

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part IV (How did she pull it off?)

Going only by Peter Kurth’s biography, one can be led to believe this most famous of all pretenders never slipped out of her role, always behaved, spoke, reacted like the woman she claimed to be. Every good, decent person accepted her claim and had sympathy for less than Imperial behaviour, understanding it was due to trauma, a strong personality, amnesia, etc.

Except that’s not how it happened at all.

While Franziska may have grown to believe she indeed was Anastasiya by the end of her life, after almost 64 years of playing the part, there were so many clues lying out in the open for decades. They either weren’t widely reported (due to not wanting to spoil the fairytale story the public preferred), or were brushed aside as unfounded accusations from people with agendas.

The claimant was famous for frequently covering her face or mouth, hiding under bedcovers, turning her back to her guests, running away, refusing to meet people she suspected wouldn’t believe her claim, and holing herself up in her room instead of interacting even with sympathetic hosts.

She told the von Kleists not to observe the etiquette normally demanded of her supposed position. Other times, she just refused to speak.

In the first photo, one can clearly see Franziska copying the angle and pose of a photograph of Anastasiya. In the second, the blurriness works to her advantage. The third is a photo of a drawing, printed in international newspapers in 1935 when she began her decades-long German legal battle. They all deliberately obfuscate glaring differences between the two women’s facial features, and don’t give many details for comparison.

If one carefully examines a lot of Franziska’s photos, it also quickly becomes obvious she’s sucking in or biting her lips to hide her large mouth. Anastasiya had a small, thin mouth, and Franziska knew it. In some photos, like the middle one, her bottom teeth can clearly be seen bulging through the skin!

As mentioned in previous posts, none of the people who accepted her claim knew the real Anastasiya very well, a fact they all admitted. While some of the people who rejected her likewise hadn’t known her very well either, more weight should be given to the fifteen people who knew her very well and rejected her.

Yes, most of the surviving Romanovs and other people from their extended family never met her, but that’s hardly a horrible slight. Some, like the Dowager Empress, refused to believe the Imperial Family had been murdered, while most of the rest were emotionally and mentally scarred, and wanted to get on with their lives as best they could.

There were also many Romanov pretenders who sprung up in the wake of the murder. Why should anyone be bothered to entertain all these people’s delusions, and constantly revisit that anguish?

Much blame goes to the Soviet government for not ending this charade when it started. They could’ve nipped it in the bud at any time by announcing, “We murdered the entire Imperial Family, and here are their bodies to prove it!” They kept a tight veil of secrecy for decades, creating fertile breeding-ground for conspiracy theories and vain hopes.

It also wouldn’t have mattered which of the five Imperial children anyone impersonated. Because their mother kept them in a gilded cage, they had no real friends outside of one another and some very trusted courtiers and servants. They didn’t even know many people in their extended family very well. Thus, it was harder to find people who knew the real Anastasiya very well, and could authoritatively state that wasn’t their friend, classmate, pupil, regular customer, etc.

Some supporters, like Gleb Botkin and his sister Tatyana, admitted they were forced to search for physical similarities, since the claimant didn’t resemble the person they remembered (and admitted they hadn’t known very well). Others, like Lili Dehn, Xenia Leeds, and Prince Sigismund of Prussia, only met her after years of studying and practicing.

Had everyone who knew the real Anastasiya well met the claimant, they would’ve rejected her just as the other fifteen close relatives and courtiers did. Also, neither side wanted to call in Anna Vyrubova, Empress Aleksandra’s best friend, who saw Anastasiya almost every day, because she was a fervent disciple of the late Rasputin. No one wanted to introduce that spectre into the case!

To be continued.

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.