How did the daughter of a German-Polish factory worker who didn't speak Russian convince people she was the child of Tsar Nicholas II? Because, says John Klier, the public wanted to believe in miracles.
When Anna Anderson first acquired fame in the West through her claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, trainee agents of the NKVD, the Soviet security service, enjoyed a good laugh. Their instructors assured them that Anna was a fraud: the real Anastasia was dead and buried along with the rest of the imperial family.
Not the least of the ironies of contemporary Russian life is the wave of pretenderism that has swept the country after the collapse of Communism. Hardly a month passes without a story in the press claiming that one or more Romanovs escaped the Bolshevik firing squad. The Moscow office of the Russian State Prosecutor, charged with investigating the alleged Romanov grave found outside Ekaterinburg, continues to receive letters from self-proclaimed sons, daughters and grandchildren of one or another of the four Grand Duchesses, miraculously saved from death. There are even claimed sightings of the elderly Tsarevich Alexei, who was mortally ill with haemophilia in 1918.
In short, neither ideology nor national boundaries are defence against the appeal of the Anastasia legend, which has given this unprepossessing young woman a longevity that would be the envy even of Elvis Presley.
It is perverse justice that contemporary Russia should endure Anastasia-mania. It was the Bolsheviks themselves who made possible the legend by a policy of calculated deception surrounding the execution of the imperial family in Ekaterinburg on the night of July 17, 1918. Even a hardened Bolshevik like Lenin, who had no scruples about the use of terror, recognised the propaganda disadvantages of murdering women and children.
The young Soviet state initially announced that only Nicholas had been shot and, well into the 1920s, Soviet agents circulated disinformation that the royal children were alive. Ironically, Bolshevik claims were buttressed by Tsar Nicholas's mother, the Dowager Empress Maria, who refused to acknowledge the death of her son and grandchildren publicly before her own death in 1928. By this time Anna Anderson's claims were well-established.
Within 48 hours of the Dowager Empress's death, many of the surviving members of the Romanov family in exile rushed to reject Anna's claims. This action alone convinced Anna's partisans that the family had something to hide.
Their loyalty was characteristic: Anna Anderson would never have made her mark had it not been for the kindness of strangers. Fished out of a Berlin canal in 1920 after a suicide attempt, she was initially dispatched to an insane asylum. It was a fellow inmate who first identified Anna as a missing Russian Grand Duchess, and convinced members of the staff who themselves debated whether they were hosting Tatiana or Anastasia. The German press quickly picked up this exciting story.
For the Russian emigres, a live princess was more useful than a dead martyr, and exiled White Russians rallied to Anna's cause. They provided a milieu in which "Miss Unknown", as the Berlin police had styled her, was able to assemble a new identity from random information about the Romanovs. German aristocrats joined the game, inviting "Anastasia" as a house guest, while a succession of lonely, middle-aged women appeared to become the pretender's "court", enduring her eccentricity and insensitivity, which they took for royal hauteur.
Gleb Botkin, the son of Evgeny Botkin, Nicholas II's personal physician who was murdered along with the imperial family, became convinced of Anna's claims in 19, devoting the rest of his life to her cause. He published books in her defence, and provoked scandals in the emigre community by denouncing members of the Romanov family in exile for turning their backs on the "Grand Duchess".
Botkin's credentials were based on personal experience. He had known the imperial family in childhood and had played with the child Anastasia. He was convinced that the exiled Romanov family disavowed Anna's claims out of pure greed and only to secure undivided the Tsar's financial legacy, which rumour counted in the millions. In fact, only one authenticated bank account was ever found - in Germany, and it was sadly depleted by the ravages of postwar inflation.
The squabble over these funds provoked the longest lawsuit in German history and allowed Anna to parade her assumed identity before the world. She gained sympathy when her heavyweight legal adversaries were funded by Lord Mountbatten, a relative of the Tsarina.
Late in life, Anna was transformed into Anna Manahan by a marriage of convenience with a burly American historian-genealogist named Jack Manahan. This alliance allowed her to live out her life in America, surrounded by the attentive Jack and a house overrun with feral cats.
How did Anna Anderson inspire such loyalty? She did possess some physical traits resembling the woman the young Anastasia might have grown up to be in later life. But ultimately her success says more about the psychology of her supporters - the so-called "True Believers" - than it does about Anna herself.
In the eyes of the True Believers, Anna could do no wrong. Details of her life and conduct invariably proved her identity. Every scrap of information which she revealed about life at court was taken as a childhood memory. If she made errors, this was proof that she had been traumatised by her brush with violent death.
Her supporters accepted with complete satisfaction her explanation of why she refused to speak Russian - that it was the last language she heard before the assassins opened fire. Yet it was also her native tongue, and the language she spoke with her father, siblings and servants.
Individual supporters had their own internal demons to exorcise. For German aristocrats, many of whom had lost their courts if not their grand names, Anna's pitiful exile was a symbol of the postwar chaos. Botkin continued his family tradition of "faithful unto death", sacrificing his own domestic tranquility for Anna, just as his father had chosen to die with the Tsar. Appropriately, his daughter, Marina Botkin Schweitzer, has continued this tradition, remaining one of the strongest supporters of Anna's Romanov identity.
Jack Manahan's marriage proposal was a generous act. But Manahan had spent his life studying the complex genealogical tables of the European royal houses, and he derived enormous pleasure from introducing himself as "the son-in-law of the Tsar".
Did Anna Anderson herself believe in her royal identity? In the beginning, she tended to remain silent, leaving others to advance her royal claims. But she soon found herself immersed in the hopes of emigre monarchists who had assigned her this new identity. An extreme eccentric, Anna always had difficulty in relating to the real world, and she eventually took on the persona of Grand Duchess Anastasia, buttressed by a host of willing and generous believers. Towards the end of her life, she had clearly come to accept her fantasy world, amusing herself by regaling her supporters with increasingly bizarre accounts of life in the tsarist household.
Perhaps Anna's greatest strength was her apparent indifference to public opinion. This convinced many True Believers that she could not be an opportunist, a "mere pretender".
If she did have secrets, she took them to her grave when she died on February 12 1984. Her remains were cremated.
Yet the very information that had enabled NKVD trainees to laugh at the western media kept the Romanov mystery alive. In 1979, using reports written by the assassins themselves, a team of amateur investigators located a mass grave near the Urals city of Ekaterinburg.
Ten years later, these so-called "First Finders" made their discovery public. A massive scientific effort began to establish the identity of the remains which pitted research team against research team, scientific technique against scientific technique. Russians and Americans, dentists and forensic specialists - they all energetically pitched in.
The British contribution to this effort centred on the work of the Home Office's forensic science services. One of its scientists, Peter Gill, pioneered the identification of human remains through the analysis of genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid, otherwise known as DNA. Gill's work established that five of the bodies in the grave were a family group. Using blood samples from the Duke of Edinburgh, a relation of the Tsarina, and from two relatives of the Tsar, Gill established with 98.5 per cent certainty that the bones were those of the imperial family. Gill's findings still left the identity of Anna Anderson unresolved. Two bodies were missing - one of the daughters and the Tsarevich. The DNA research could not establish the identity of the missing daughter, but the consensus of anthropologists is that the missing daughter is Anastasia.
As if on cue, American researchers discovered that tissue samples from Anna Anderson had been preserved at a hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she had undergone an operation in 1975. After a lengthy legal wrangle, Gill was able also to test this sample. His conclusion was that, whoever Anna Anderson was, she was not related to the Romanov dynasty. Further research linked Anna to a German-Polish factory worker, Franziska Schanzkowska, an identification first made by the German police in the 1920s.
For the sceptics, and those convinced of the power of modern science to resolve all the mysteries of human identity, the Anastasia riddle has been solved at last. But the True Believers remain unconvinced. In Russia, a research group has been formed in Ekaterinburg to refute the claims that the grave contained the family of Nicholas II. They argue that it was a KGB provocation, prepared long ago with Romanov remains taken from imperial burials interred in the St. Peter and Paul fortress in St Petersburg. In the West, Anna's partisans question the provenance of the Charlottesville hospital sample.
Not even the sceptics can deny that two bodies are missing from the common grave, and that one of them may well be that of Anastasia. The Bolshevik accounts indicate that the two bodies were burned, but investigators have been unable to find the large amount of ash that would have resulted from such a cremation.
If, as seems likely, Anna Anderson was the most successful pretender of the 20th century, her success can be attributed to the obsessive wish-fulfillment of her acolytes, who adored the nostalgia of lost royal palaces and a well-ordered Europe undestroyed by the ravages of two world wars. For the general public, who never knew this world, it was the celluloid glamour of Hollywood that put Anna on the map. Most people encountered the story in the wildly successful film, Anastasia, a fairy-tale romance starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.
The real Anna was never reconciled to Anastasia's grandmother, never fell in love with a romantic Cossack and never gained acceptance from most of the surviving Romanovs. Instead she lived a hand-to-mouth existence for most of her life, surrounded by friends who were, in their way, as obsessive as she was. But there was another side to this story - one of charlatans and publicists, who transformed an obscure woman into a romantic figure in order to satisfy a public that wanted to believe in miracles.
John Klier is Corob reader in modern Jewish history, University College London. He is co-author, with Helen Mingay, of The Quest for Anastasia: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Romanovs, published on July 3 by Smith Gryphon Publishers, price Pounds 15.99.