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Tragic Child

updated 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

HISTORY RECALLS THE YOUNGEST daughter of the last Czar of Russia as the revolution's most fabled victim—an angelic beauty whose death, along with the rest of the imperial family in 1918, has never been entirely free of mystery. Yet despite a life torn by the upheaval of World War I and the destruction of the Russian dynasty, Anastasia was known to loved ones as something quite different from the tragic figure she came to represent. She was, they said in diaries, a cutup. "There was an older relative who visited the family, and Anastasia would imitate the way she walked and wobbled, and everyone would be doubled over laughing," says Hugh Brewster, author of Anastasia's Album. "But that was Anastasia—brimming with life, brimming with laughter."

Little of the real story of the young Grand Duchess made it into Anastasia, the new animated film that is the latest in a long line of books, plays and films to turn her brief life—she was 17 when she died—into the stuff of fantasy. Historians complain the new movie is, well, cartoonish. Author Robert Massie (Nicholas and Alexandra) is seeing red over the notion that Anastasia, who was shot and then stabbed to death by Bolshevik executioners, could have escaped to Paris and fallen in love with a handsome young rascal, as the film imagines. "Next we'll see a fairy tale about Anne Frank and her boyfriend in New York City," he grumbles. But the film's executive producer Maureen Donley shrugs: "It's total fiction. We basically said, 'Yes, she survived, and here's the story of what happened to her,' and that's a fairy tale."

Anastasia's life was anything but. Her birth in June 1901 was a disappointment to Czar Nicholas II, desperate for a male heir to the Romanov dynasty after siring three daughters. The pressure to produce a healthy male took its toll on his wife, Alexandra (when the heir, Alexei, arrived three years later, he was a hemophiliac). While Anastasia was growing up, her mother spent years in bed with what Massie calls "psychosomatic symptoms brought on by anxiety and stress."

It was a chilly upbringing in more ways than one. Alexandra, the grand-daughter of England's Queen Victoria, ordered cold baths for the children each morning as an austere ritual. With few opportunities to meet people outside the family, the young Romanovs came to see their homes as well-decorated prisons ("We sit in the windows looking at the people passing," one of Anastasia's playmates wrote in a diary while the family occupied a Siberian estate in exile late in the revolution, "and this gives us distraction"). Yet Anastasia soon emerged as the family comedian, imitating others sometimes cutely, other times cuttingly enough to get her face slapped. "She quickly saw the funny side in everything," recalled her tutor, Pierre Gilliard, in a 1921 memoir. Nicknamed the Imp and Sunshine, she was a tomboy who rarely cried when she was hurt and who climbed trees to heights no one else dared. Sometimes she carried a joke too far: Once she concealed a rock in a snowball and pelted her sister Tatiana in the face. "Truly frightened at last, Anastasia broke down and cried," Massie writes. But Anastasia, Tatiana and their sisters Olga and Marie were very close, often wearing matching dresses and signing cards and letters OTMA, for the initials of their names.

When the murmurs of revolution became roars in March of 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne and move the family to exile in Tobolsk, Siberia. As the Bolsheviks kept a wary eye on the family, Anastasia continued to entertain with her skits and jokes. A family physician wrote that even the stern Alexandra was "dying from laughter" after one performance.

The Bolsheviks ordered the Czar to report to Moscow in April 1918, but instead hauled him, Alexandra and Marie off the train and imprisoned them in a house in Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. The rest of the family joined them later. Anastasia celebrated her 17th and last birthday in captivity, but even then she didn't despair, chanting prayers and hymns with her sisters and sewing diamonds and other jewels into her clothes in hopes of using the stones to secure her freedom. On July 17, 1918, as the pro-Romanov White Army attacked the Bolsheviks from the east, guards led the family into the basement—Anastasia clutching a pet spaniel—and opened fire. The executioners later said no one was spared. Anastasia may have survived the initial shooting only to be cut down by bayonets. The bodies were burned, thrown into a mine shaft and doused with acid.

As the White Army continued its march, the remains of the Romanovs were moved and hidden in another pit, not to be dug up until 1993. Even then, Alexei and one of the daughters were unaccounted for, although DNA experts disagree on whether Anastasia or Marie is the missing girl. But based on eyewitness accounts, historians say no one could have survived.

To some people, though, the most likely scenario has never been the most appealing one. Almost immediately after the world learned of the Romanovs' grisly end, rumors spread that Anastasia had escaped. Around 1920, a Polish peasant named Anna Anderson, who emerged in a Berlin hospital after a suicide attempt, suddenly "remembered" she was a Romanov after seeing a picture of the Russian royals. (First she claimed she was Tatiana, then settled on Anastasia.) Her resemblance to the youngest Grand Duchess impressed Romanov relatives living in Germany, who allowed her to be buried in their crypt when she died in 1984. DNA analysis later proved that she was not a Romanov.

Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church proposed sainthood for Anastasia and the rest of the Romanov family. Anastasia's admirers, of course, would prefer to think that she is not simply the bright and innocent young woman who died in a Russian basement. "People just want to believe she survived," says history professor John Kadlubowski of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "It makes for a much more romantic story."

KYLE SMITH
CRAIG MELLOW in Moscow, RON ARIAS in New York City and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles

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