People Who Claimed To Be Romanovs (But Totally Weren't)

House Romanov ruled over Russia for more than 300 years, with close familial ties to all the crowned heads of Europe. During the great nationalistic upheaval of the early decades of the 20th century, along with the first World War, monarchies began to topple. First to go was the powerful Romanov dynasty.

The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children, were imprisoned in central Russia (known as Ural) for many months. On the night of July 16, 1918, a group from the Ural Soviet brutally murdered the entire family and their few remaining servants. The victims were secretly buried outside the city where they were murdered, and most of the world had no clue what had happened to the last imperial Romanovs until their remains were "officially" discovered and unearthed in 1991.

The years following World War I and the Russian Revolution were chaotic for many. Thousands of Russian and Eastern European citizens fled their homelands and spread around the world. Russian princes and princesses and nobles of all ranks, along with masses of ordinary people, wound up in different countries leading very different lives from those to which they were accustomed. It was, in some ways, the ultimate opportunity to reinvent oneself.

Therefore, it was no surprise that some of those individuals made claims to the highest Russian status of all. The people who claimed to be Romanovs knew that everyone loved a fairy tale, and that the murders of the last tsar's family were so horrible, so wrenching, that even the millions around the world who had never known them longed to learn of a survivor. This is why so many fell under the imposter's spell. This is why most of the fake Romanovs achieved a measure of success, until exposure, death, or DNA tests revealed their true origins.

Why did the Romanov imposters make such claims? The obvious answer is for the potential monetary gain. Overwhelmingly, though, it was for the attention. These were lost people from a lost world.


  • The Woman Who Rose Again

    The Woman Who Rose Again
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Anna Anderson is the most widely-known Romanov imposter. Pulled soaking wet from a Berlin Canal in 1920, she was brought to a city asylum for medical and psychological care. Not long after she'd settled in, she noticed some fellow inmates looking at a magazine that featured a story and photos of the last Russian tsar and his family, who were murdered in 1918. Anderson pointed to one of the tsar's daughters and quietly claimed she was the girl in the photo.

    That moment marked the beginning of a more than 60-year career as a Romanov claimant. After considering two of the tsar's daughters, Anderson settled on Anastasia Nikolaievna, the youngest daughter of the Romanov family.

    Anderson looked nothing like the lost Grand Duchess, but she had two highly successful advantages in her pursuit of imperial glory. First, millions of people around the world wanted to believe that someone, anyone, had survived the massacre in a Central Russian basement. The murders were considered exceptionally vile because the entire family, including the five children, were violently killed together with the intended target, Tsar Nicholas II. The family - particularly the children - was well-known by the public thanks to the sale of numerous postcards bearing their enchanting likenesses. 

    While the general public felt devastated by the cruel murders, other Romanovs and their extended family and close friends in Russia, and all over Eastern and Western Europe, were also easy marks for someone such as Anderson. They, too, longed to find a survivor.

    Anderson's second advantage was her ability to convince and persuade. Over nearly half a century, she was taken under the wing of one grieving family member or friend after another, all of them eager to believe. All the while, Anderson listened, watched, and learned.

    During the first decade of her imposture alone, she learned a great many details about Anastasia and the life she lived with her family, including the clothing she wore, the people she knew, the places she visited, and the palaces she lived in. Anderson had a remarkable memory and used it to her advantage. Once she made her claim, she was never without at least one wealthy, ardent supporter who was desperate to believe a Romanov child survived.

    Her final touch of creative genius included a thorough back story, in which she explained how she had escaped, who had helped her, and how she came to be suicidal and threw herself into the Berlin canal.

    Part of that back story included an explanation as to why she could speak no Russian. She claimed that due to the rough language used by the guards during her imprisonment and the terrible night of July 16, 1918, she had "blocked" or "lost" the ability to recall, speak, or understand Russian.

    Bear in mind that while she convinced most, she did not convince all. Certain Romanov relations investigated Anderson, and their investigation concluded that she was actually a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska.

    Despite her detractors, her great luck in convincing others continued. She became so well known that she was featured in Life magazine. A film, titled Anastasia, was based on her story. 1950s crooner Pat Boone even recorded a song with the same title. More than a dozen best-selling books detailing her story and claims were published in her lifetime. The TV documentary series In Search Of featured the Romanov story and an interview with Anderson. Around ten years after Anderson's 1984 death, a popular animated movie titled Anastasia premiered. It was loosely based on the Anna Anderson tale. She and her story of improbable survival and escape are practically cultural icons.

    And yet... sometimes the truth prevails. When Anderson was in her late seventies, she was hospitalized for an obstructed colon. Surgery and a biopsy were performed at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a piece of Anderson's intestine was preserved as a tissue sample.

    Fast forward to 1991, when remains of the missing Romanovs were discovered outside Ekaterinburg, the Russian city where they were murdered. DNA science was still in its infancy, but the technique was developed to the extent that usable samples were extracted from the discovered remains. Then the DNA was compared with known living Romanov relatives, including Prince Philip of the United Kingdom. The samples matched. At long last the world knew the true fate of the last imperial family. 

    Of course, it didn't take too long for someone to remember that, while Anderson was already dead and cremated, her DNA was indeed preserved in the Charlottesville hospital lab. The test was performed, but there was zero match. Subsequent tests have revealed the same results. The most determined, most convincing Romanov imposter was at last exposed.

    Additional tests were performed using Anderson's sample with samples from Schanzkowska's close relatives. Those tests demonstrated a "unique relationship" between the two samples, and most historians and scientists support the argument that Anderson was indeed the Polish factory worker, Schanzkowska.

  • The Estonian Alexei

    The Estonian Alexei
    Photo: Diego Delso / via Wikimedia Commons

    Despite the fact that the 13-year-old Tsareivich Alexei suffered from hemophilia in an age when individuals afflicted with the condition lived short, painful lives, a surprising number of Alexei imposters appeared across the global landscape following the Romanov family's disappearance in 1918.

    One of these was an Estonian named Ernest Veermann, who immigrated to Canada and ran a print shop for a number of years, using the alias Heino Tammet. For some reason, he kept his purported royal past a secret until he was 68 years old. 

    When asked how he had survived the massacre - particularly as a hemophiliac - he claimed that actually, the doctor had misdiagnosed him, and that he did not in fact ever have hemophilia. This claim impressed few, as there were numerous extant photos displaying evidence of Alexei's sufferings and treatments. There were many written accounts left by doctors, family members, and caregivers which attested to a correct diagnosis.

    Veerman/Tammet was deaf in one ear, claiming that he lost part of his ability to hear due to a guard firing next to his head during the Romanov massacre.

    For a time, Veerman/Tammet rigorously pursued his claim, repeatedly writing letters to British and Scandanavian royalty and asking them to support his identity as Alexei. His efforts got him official visits from authorities, a medical exam, and an order to cease and desist.

    He continued his claims on a much more quiet level after that. Already elderly, his health went into a decline. He died of leukemia in 1977. His third wife continued to support his claim and produced a tooth for DNA testing, but the test was never performed.

  • The False Olga Nikolaievna

    Olga Nikolaievna was Tsar Nicholas's oldest child and first daughter of four. Alas, she died with the rest of her family in the Ipatiev House, Ekaterinburg, Russia, on the night of July 16, 1918. Her most famous imposter was a woman named Marga Boodts. Upon her marriage to a German military officer in 1926, she privately shared her claim that she was, in fact, Grand Duchess Olga, and that her uncle, the ousted Kaiser Wilhelm II, was supporting and protecting her until it was deemed safe to reveal her identity publicly. She stated that if she spoke out too soon she would be killed.

    Some years later, Boodts became aware of Anna Anderson's success as Anastasia. Perhaps she wanted to cash in in a similar way, because suddenly Boodts decided it was at last safe to do her public reveal. She publicly dismissed Anderson's claims while boosting her own. She wrote a book about her experiences since her "escape" from the massacre, but it was never published.

    When Boodts died in 1976, she was buried under a gravestone that read "Olga Nikolaievna." Supposedly the grave was destroyed in 1995.

  • The Belly Dancer

    The Belly Dancer
    Photo: Library of Congress / via Wikipedia Commons

    It seems a little ironic that the most prim and proper of Nicholas II's daughters, Tatiana, would be a belly dancer's choice of impersonation. The real Tatiana was pretty and had slightly exotic looks, but she would have been the last among the four Grand Duchesses to take up belly dancing, even in exile.

    That is not to judge emigres - both common and noble-- who were compelled to engage in a variety of unexpected occupations in order to keep body and soul together. Indeed, there actually were minor Russian princes and princesses who fled their homeland for other parts of Europe and the Americas and wound up as furniture salesmen, dancers, and restaurant hostesses.

    And then there is the mysterious case of Larissa Tudor. Not much is known about her origins. She was living in England in 1923 when she married Owen Frederick Morton Tudor. She died at the young age of 28, and at no point in her life did she make a claim to Tatiana's identity.

    And yet she was buried with a tombstone that read "Larissa Feodorovna." The latter part, Feodorovna, is a Russian patronymic meaning "daughter of Feodor." "Feodorovna" was the usual patronymic adopted by foreign brides marrying Russian crown princes. Still, the argument is a bit of a stretch, since Russian emigres were quite common throughout Europe in the early to mid-20th century, and there are plenty of non-royal Russian women whose father's name was "Feodor."

    Still, rumors persisted. Larissa did strongly resemble photos of Tatiana. And it seemed that Larissa left her husband a large inheritance, with no explanation to its source. People continued to talk. A story was spread that the dead Larissa was indeed Grand Duchess Tatiana, who had escaped the massacre that killed the rest of her family. She had then made her way to Istanbul, where she worked as a belly dancer.

    None of the stories were true, but the tale of Larissa Tudor is surely among the more romantic Romanov impostor stories.

  • The "Secret" Romanov Daughter

    The "Secret" Romanov Daughter
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    The story of a Dutch woman named Suzanna Catharina de Graaff put a whole new spin on pretending to be a lost Romanov. She claimed to be the "fifth daughter" of Nicholas and Alexandra, who was spirited away at birth so her parents would not experience the humiliation of having yet another daughter, but no sons.

    Anyone remotely acquainted with the family life of the imperial couple and the closeness they shared with their five children knows that de Graaff's story can be nothing but utterly false.

    It is true that Tsaritsa Alexandra and her husband were concerned that by 1901, they had yet to produce a son. This mattered in Russia, where the law dictated that the heir to the Russian throne must be male. This law was instituted by Tsar Pavel I, son of Catherine the Great. Pavel hated his mother and wanted to make sure no woman ever sat on the Russian throne again.

    Without a doubt, Alexandra, who was emotional and very sensitive, had started to feel like a failure for not producing a tsareivich, or crown prince. Indeed, in her desperation she may have experienced a "hysterical pregnancy" in 1903. In other words, psychologically she believed herself to be pregnant to the point that her body was mimicking symptoms. Eventually, she recovered and one year later at last gave birth to the couple's first and only son.

    But that story about the so-called "hysterical pregnancy" was not believed by everyone. A rumor went around that a fifth daughter was born, but secreted away and raised by trusted others.

    And here is where de Graaff stakes her claim. In reality, she was the daughter of a con-artist named Leendert Johannes Hemmes.  His role in her claim is that he was the person the royal couple entrusted to raise their fifth daughter, called Princess Alexandra. He claimed that the Romanovs paid him "hush money" to do so. Interestingly, in 1919, Hemmes (who was apparently not a very successful con man) built his family a luxurious new home.

    As for the "lost daughter," de Graaff apparently played along with her father's story to the extent that she also claimed to be the recipient of a Romanov dowry, including five million rubles, china, and other trinkets. A book on the case written years later claims that de Graaff's rubles were pre-revolutionary, non-circulated, crisp and new.

    De Graaff met the famous Anastasia claimant, Anna Anderson, in the early 1950s, and the two continued to exchange letters, since Anderson acknowledged de Graaff as her sister.

    De Graaff died in 1968, and it was only in the last two weeks of her life that she made her claim to royalty public.

  • Yet Another Anastasia

    Eugenia Smith first arrived in the United States in 1922. She was listed on the ship's passenger list as age 22, married, and hailing from Yugoslavia. She settled in the Chicago area and worked as a shop girl. At some point she quietly made the claim that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia, having survived the 1918 massacre of the Russian imperial family. For decades she continued to spin tales of her life in Russia and what happened after her escape. Her stories drew the attention of prominent people in the midwest, and, much like the more famous Anastasia claimant, Anna Anderson, she became a wandering house guest in the homes of her wealthy supporters.

    By 1963, she was ready to go public with her claims. She published a purported autobiography that contained riveting details of regaining consciousness in the Ipatiev house basement, surrounded by the blood and the bodies of her family. She told of how a soldier stationed at the house rescued her and helped her make the long journey west to Serbia. Her narrative ends at that point. 

    Publishers were somewhat reluctant, but finally agreed to produce Smith's book. As with Anderson, she gained more supporters and detractors, including Gleb Botkin, the son of the doctor who died with the Romanov family. Oddly enough, Botkin was an ardent supporter of Anna Anderson, so he vehemently rejected Smith's claim. One of her strongest sources of support came from another Romanov imposter, Michael Goloniewski, who claimed to be Tsareivitch Alexei.

    In the late 1960s, Goloniewski put out the rumor that his "sister" had been murdered "by Rockefellers," apparently because that family did not want Smith's "true" identity revealed. However, Smith was alive and well at that time. 

    The revival of the Anastasia story was good fodder for the press, though. Smith appeared on the cover of Life magazine, posed between portraits of her "parents," Nicholas and Alexandra.

    Later in life, Smith seemed to have retreated from her claim to royal status. When the Associated Press contacted her for an interview in 1984, she refused. Ten years later, with the Romanov DNA announcement in the news, she was contacted again, with offers to finance a DNA comparison test. She again refused.

    Upon her death, in 1995, a number of newspapers published her obituary using the real Anastasia's birth date and place of birth.