This is going to be fun! A nice piece of inconsequential weirdness to ring in the new year.
In 1918, the Russian royal family were massacred by the Bolsheviks. Theories that the Czar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter—the Grand Duchess Anastasia—somehow survived the executioners’ bullets have been around for decades. But spoiler alert: in 2007 DNA evidence was used to prove that she died in 1918 after all.Now, while it is a little unfair to blame a show from 1978 for not knowing that, it does mean that for once I’m going into an episode with absolute certainty. It’s not a case of ‘yeah, but…’ It’s not a case of ‘that doesn’t seem likely’. It’s not a case of ‘what, the Minoans?’ or ‘but last week, you said…’ or even ‘I don’t think that’s how archaeology works.’ This time, when they ask the question ‘did Anastasia survive?’ I don’t even have to wonder. Nope! Just nope!
We start with the basics. Black and white footage of the Czar and his family. Shots of the storming the Winter Palace. I think it’s from the famous Eisenstein film about the October Revolution, but I’m not sure.
“A legend endures, however,” Nimoy intones, “that the Czar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, escaped the massacre and is still alive today.”
Some lovely footage of the Russian court back in the day, while Nimoy talks about the family. They’re roller-skating on the royal yacht, how charming! And, man, did the ladies have big hats. Surprisingly, Nimoy does mention the isolation of the Czar’s family and their disconnection from the poverty of the people, which is odd in American media. There’s even film of staving Russians and Nimoy talking about the ambitions of the common people and the horrors of WWI. We go through the revolution very quickly. The royal family is taken to Ekaterinburg, where they were supposedly shot to death in the basement.
As a history of the Russian Revolution in two minutes it isn’t bad, and there are some nicely chosen clips and photos to illustrate it.
Now we’re in London fifty years later, where turtleneck-wearing journalists Tony Summers and Tom Mangle are sitting in a book-lined room. Well if you can’t trust a sensational story about royalty from the British press, what can you trust? Anyway one of these guys (not clear which) talks about looking into the fate of the Romanovs. He talks about White Russian investigations into the deaths and claims that the investigator ‘cheated’.
Nimoy describes the investigator, Nikolai Sokalov, as a devout anti-Bolshevik. He explored the supposed burial place of the Romanovs, but didn’t actually contain the royal corpses.
The other journalist claims that they found evidence that the female Romanovs were taken by Bolsheviks retreating from Ekaterinburg and held elsewhere for several months. He claims to have a lot of testimony of people who saw them at this new prison, but the testimony was suppressed in the 1920s. Anastasia was supposedly with these women but left after a couple of escape attempts.
Now we’re at a bridge in Berlin, where ‘a young unidentified woman’ was dragged from the water. She was taken to hospital but refused to reveal her identity for two years, at which point she claimed to be Anastasia. Anastasia’s grandmother, the Grand Duchess Marie, sent investigators to examine the issue, but their report was uncertain. Nimoy says: “They reported that, at best, the ailing girl had but a few more years to live.”
Hitting pause now. The woman in question – Anna Anderson – died in 1984. In 1994, DNA from one of her tissue samples was compared with DNA from the Duke of Edinburgh, a relative of Anastasia’s mother. Thanks to modern DNA testing and ancient royal inbreeding, we knew that Anderson was not Anastasia–even before Anastasia’s body was discovered.
Back to the show. This part is all illustrated in black and white photos by the way. Don’t know if I mentioned that. Anyway, while the Grand Duchess doubted her, other Romanov relatives believed that she was indeed Anastasia. Nimoy, resplendent in a tweed jacket, waistcoat and ascot combo, tells us that this set off a vicious feud amongst the surviving Romanovs. This made Anderson’s life unpredictable. She was in and out of hospitals, hated by some Romanovs, lionised by others and feted by American high society and European royalty.
Stock footage of WWII. Anderson was trapped in the Russian Zone after WWII, but rescued by a German prince and given a house. She lived there alone, (adopting the ‘Anna Anderson’ name) because her growing fame attracted attention. There’s some footage of gawpers trying to photograph her house. Nimoy says that she left there to marry an American.
And now footage of the woman herself – a little old lady in a dark pink dress, seated in a very fancy room with her beef-faced American husband, Dr Manahan. Manahan basically interviews her which is… interesting, I guess. The poor dear talks like she had a stroke. She says basically, you can believe her or not, she doesn’t care. I guess after fifty odd years, that’s a reasonable position.
Now Nimoy’s talking about new evidence in her favour. Nope. And the camera’s moving through the Manahans’ garden, while Nimoy stalls for time, talking about Anna’s many cats. Inside the house, Manahan (a former History professor) shows off a bunch of pictures of Anastasia and her relatives. Anna comes in, and the interplay between the two is almost ‘old married couple’ except that while Manahan is not young, he is substantially younger than Anna. They argue about which seat she’s to sit in and whether she should wear a hat. Nonplussed, Manahan goes back to showing off his pictures while Anna glares crankily.
Footage of Anderson giving a rare interview in Germany, before she left for America. She’s talking about her legal attempt to be recognised as Anastasia, then in its thirty-second year. It was one of Germany’s longest running court cases. Nimoy claims lawyers donated their services to Anna, while her opposition was funded by aristocrats. The German Supreme Court ruled that the matter hadn’t been proven one way or the other.
Ian Lilburn, a historian who followed the case closely, is interviewed. He says he began disbelieving Anderson, but ended up on her side. He talks about circumstantial evidence and the little details and anecdotes. He argues that she doesn’t fit the profile for a con artist. I have no idea what Anderson’s motives were. Deliberate fraud, delusion, some combination of the two, something else entirely? I don’t know and I have no way of knowing.
But I will say that Lilburn’s argument is tosh. No good con artist would try to meet your expectations of what a con artist is like.
Nimoy moves on to Grand Duke Vladimir, a surviving Romanov descendant who lives in Paris and was the heir assumptive to the Russian throne. He gives a very diplomatic reply to questions of Anderson’s identity. He’s very calm and reassuring as he says that she can’t be Anastasia and it would take too long to explain why he thinks that. Next up Prince Frederick of Saxe-Altenburg who has been a consistent supporter of Anna Anderson, who he’s known for forty-six years and believes that she is Anastasia. These interviews add little to the ‘some Romanovs are for her, some are against her’ line we got earlier.
A clip from the film Anastasia (1956) in which Helen Hayes’ Grand Duchess Marie recognises Bergman’s Anastasia. Nimoy points out that this never happened in real life, so I’m not sure what the point of it is.
But, ‘recently in Munich’, new scientific evidence has been found’. Yay? Dr Furdmeyer, one of ‘Germany’s leading identification experts’, has made an anatomical comparison between Anderson and Anastasia. This is the only point in the episode where they put photos of Anastasia next to photos of Anderson. They really don’t look very similar. They have differently shaped noses, eyes, mouths and chins, but Dr Furdmeyer claims that there are too many points of similarity between them. He also claims that their ears are identical, but I don’t see it myself. And anyway, as mentioned, nope.
Back to the Manahans, Dr Manahan (who, by the way, is neither blue, nor naked, nor radioactive) says that he wants reputable historians to recognise his wife as the Grand Duchess. In the loud clear voice of someone talking to the hard of hearing, he asks Anna Anderson if she’d like that too. She shakes her head. “I spit on!” she says.
I kind of like the old girl, honestly.
Back again to one of the be-turtlenecked journalists, who is now gesturing with a pipe. He claims that we will never know if Anna is Anastasia, as it is not ‘too late’. It could never be checked. Not an unreasonable position for the late 1970s, but with modern DNA sequencing… Nope!
Nimoy sums up over a series of pictures of Anna Anderson and Anastasia. Nimoy concludes that only she knows for certain if her story is true—which is probably a pretty good summary of the situation at the time. Then he says that Anderson is tired of years of trying to be recognised as Anastasia, and now asks only to be left alone.
Um… But didn’t your show just… Okay, whatever.
So, there you go. Like I say, from the lofty perspective of 2016, we can see that this was rubbish start to finish. But I can’t honestly fault the makers of the show, who gave what was a pretty fair report on the situation as it seemed to stand in the late 1970s.
Nimoy: “Today, [Anna Anderson] and her husband are members of a prestigious country club in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
That’s got to be a bit of a come down, after the Winter Palace.
Ian Lilburn: “Her character is not the character of an imposter at all. She never cooperated properly with her lawyers. She is ready to quarrel most of all with the people who have done more for her than anyone.”
Again, I don’t want to imply specific motives on Anderson’s part, but there are just so many things wrong with that statement, it isn’t funny.
Nimoyness: 7/10, Stock footage: 9/10, File Photos: 8/10, Good for it’s time: 10/10, Still stands up today: 0/10. Overall: 35/50. Credit.