The Anastasia Story

Harlan Berger
September 01, 1995

As the press fury last year indicated, Anna Anderson was not the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaievna Romanov, daughter of the last Tsar. DNA tests prove she isn't a Romanov.

I don't want to believe it. Why must I?

The press release about Penn State graduate student Terry Melton's DNA tests reads: "Using DNA evidence obtained from hairs believed to belong to Anna Anderson . . . " Believed to belong? I read further—through clouds of "hypervariable control regions" and "mitochondrial DNA"—to find that Melton and her advisor, anthropology professor Mark Stoneking, cross-checked the DNA hair tests with similar tests done by other researchers on "intestinal tissue thought to be that of Anderson."

Thought to be? Good Lord, the story of the century, and they're testing samples "thought to be?" Samples decades old, by the way, one perhaps on the shelf for half a century.

After reading the January/February 1995 Penn Stater piece on Melton's DNA work, I feel more confident that the risk of sample contamination or flat-out misidentification is low. The different samples were cross checked and found to be from the same person. Could both be from someone other than Anna Anderson? Not likely. Could samples degrade over time or undergo contamination sufficient to skew results? Perhaps, but not likely. Completely 100 percent unlikely? Can't guarantee that.

So I'll not throw out my New York Times files on Anastasia/Anderson, dating to the 1920s. Nor Peter Kurth's book, Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, well sealed in an attic box against mice and silverfish. If the young woman in a New York apartment in a 1920s photo, standing regally and holding a cat—Serge Rachmaninoff during that time period paid her rent—wasn't the Grand Duchess, she should have been.

She knew enough to be this century's greatest imposter, and I think it a harmless as well as a necessary pursuit for people to fool the world as she did (if she did). She knew details that she shouldn't have known. An example of her knowledge revolved around the Tsar's family serving in a palace-turned-hospital at Tsarskoe Selo during World War I. When a Russian officer who had recuperated at the hospital was brought to reminisce with Anastasia/Anderson long afterwards, he spoke of a billards table at which he and the Tsar's daughters had played. He located the table on the second floor. Anastasia/Anderson corrected him: The table was on the first floor. The officer and witnesses knew that. She sprang other such traps.

Coaching, said her critics, sniffing the air for conspiracy.

As Russian archives open, new firsthand accounts appear. One such is The Last Tsar, a recent book by Russian playwright/historian Edvard Radzinsky, which reports eyewitness accounts of the disposal of the Tsar and his family near Ekaterinburg. Four years ago near that city, Russian authorities opened a grave thought to be the family's last resting place. As reported in Nature Genetics, November 1994, British DNA tests of the remains identified two parents and three daughters and linked them to living Romanov relatives. Absent were the remains of the Tsarevitch Alexei and the "fourth daughter, thought to be the youngest, Grand Duchess Anastasia."

Then there's the alleged match between Anna Anderson's handwriting and Anastasia's from school tablets of the Grand Duchess. Several analyses over the years indicated that Anna Anderson's matched Anastasia's, and the first analysis was so strongly positive that it was suppressed. I had thought handwriting tests fairly conclusive. All hearsay, as a senior professor once told me, berating me for "wasting time on this hoax, when you have important work to report."

I was and still am more interested in a story that spans 70 years and seems to carry a life of its own than I am in proving anything. And the contrasts to the O. J. Simpson case intrigue me. As with Anastasia, people refuse to believe in science and seize on potential sampling error and unlikely conspiracies. As with Anastasia, science assumes greater weight in the analysis of evidence.

How to understand these two very different stories and the science linking them? Today, newspaper and television reports leap upon us without layers, without any logical progression such as Anastasia's Victorians would have lovingly built. Today, nothing exists to be peeled slowly until a conclusion comes clear. Instead, it's thin and thinner, skimpy and skimpier as one listens. TV and radio news reports leave the mind immediately, even while the talkers speak. We must first try to recall in order to analyze. What an advantage this provides our media lords! And they revel in their staccato, ephemeral delivery.

Once royalty lived and died on its ability to manage and allocate food and defense. Media figures are our new royalty, for they manage and allocate information in an age quite dependent on it. I much prefer the old royalty. Kings and queens, Tsars and Tsarinas were far less dangerous, easier to judge, and much quieter. The new lords make a great racket, literally and figuratively.

And the hoaxes they perpetrate are no longer so harmless.

Harlan Berger is former editor of this magazine.

Last Updated September 01, 1995