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 AgainPhoto: 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 AlexeiPhoto: 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 NikolaievnaPhoto: via YouTube
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 DancerPhoto: 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.