In 1917, revolution erupted in Russia and Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, bringing an end to more than 300 years of Romanov rule. Over the next 16 months, he, his wife Alexandra, their son Alexei and four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were under house arrest in a number of places – as a second revolution and civil war broke out in the country – eventually ending up in Bolshevik captivity in Ekaterinburg. While there, the decision was taken by Lenin in Moscow that they should be murdered, and so removing any threat to the revolution.


In the early hours of 17 July 1918, the Romanov family, along with their doctor and three servants, were awoken and taken down to the basement on the pretext that the house may soon be attacked by anti-Bolshevik forces. Instead, a group of guards who had been given handguns entered the room and murdered everyone. Those who survived the initial frenzy of gunfire were finished off with bayonets, before the killers took the bodies on a truck to the Koptyaki forest outside Ekaterinburg and disposed of them in a mass grave.

The conspiracy theory: Anastasia’s survival

Several theories have it that somehow, the youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia, survived the massacre and was able to flee Russia, possibly with the help of a sympathetic Bolshevik soldier. According to the most famous version of this theory, she then lived the rest of her life in the United States.

Although most focused on Anastasia, there were claims throughout the 20th century that other Romanov children had escaped, or that the family had been spirited away from Russia before the killings were even said to have taken place.

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What is the source of the theory?

In the immediate aftermath, chaos and confusion reigned as the Bolsheviks, who were still fighting a civil war and deliberately spreading misinformation, announced the death of only Nicholas II. Rumours began to spread about the fate of his family. Then, in 1920, the first person claiming to be one of the Romanovs came forward.

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“In Berlin, a young woman named Anna Anderson was found having attempted, supposedly, to commit suicide by drowning herself in the canal. She was hauled out of the water and while recovering in hospital began claiming that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia,” says Dr Helen Rappaport, historian and author on Russian history. “From there, the thing snowballed. It was the beginning of a long and persistent legend that really wasn’t closed until the 1990s.”

Over the decades, dozens of people claimed to be Anastasia, one of her siblings, or even her son or grandchild. Anderson remained the most famous, however. “She kept up a clever pretence, despite many things about her that didn’t ring true. She failed, however, to con anyone in the immediate Imperial Family, such as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Olga [sister of Nicholas], and people like Sir Thomas Preston, former British consul in Ekaterinburg, and Pierre Gilliard [the children’s tutor],” stresses Dr Rappaport.

Still, Anderson – whom identification by family members and later DNA testing showed to actually be a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska with a history of mental illness – did gather supporters, mainly in German, and, says Rappaport, “dined out on her claims for years and even started this torturous legal claim to have her identity authenticated and thus gain access to all the Romanov money, said to have been salted away in bank accounts across Europe.”

The reasons why the theory endures

The lack of clarity from the Bolsheviks provided enough hope that the Romanov girls, aged between 17 and 22, had survived the brutal slaughter. While it seemed highly unlikely that Alexei, son and heir to the tsar, would have been spared, there was never an open admission to the killing of the children, and when accounts of what happened that night did start to appear they were full of contradictions and gaps.

“The documentary evidence was hidden away for a long time under the Soviet regime,” says Dr Rappaport. “Any discussion of the Romanovs was verboten; you couldn’t talk about them. Certainly under Josef Stalin, there was a complete clampdown.”

In those gaps, the theories proliferated – and were bolstered by each new impostor coming forward. Books and movies perpetuated the idea that Anastasia had survived, most notably the 1956 Hollywood hit, Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman.

“Ultimately, the real reason people would not accept that all the Romanovs had been killed was because two of the bodies were missing for a long time,” states Dr Rappaport. “The grave was found in secret in the 1970s and properly exhumed after the collapse of communism in 1991, but two bodies could not be accounted for. Russian anthropologists and excavators said it was Maria and Alexei who were missing. Other people, particularly some American experts, claimed it was Anastasia and Alexei. That continued to assist the myth.”

The evidence that debunks the conspiracy

In the years afterwards, several of the killers did speak about their experiences, including the chief executioner, Yakov Yurovsky. As late as the 1960s, a couple even proudly gave interviews about their part that night in 1918.

The conclusive evidence, however, came with the discovery of the two missing bodies, who had been separated from the others. “I was actually in Ekaterinburg in the summer of 2007 when they found the two missing children,” says Dr Rappaport. “What they found was pitiful, charred and fragmented remains, but enough to do DNA tests.”

In order to confirm the identities of the remains of those reburied in 1998, scientists had taken blood samples from Prince Philip, consort of Queen Elizabeth II and grand-nephew of tsarina Alexandra. After the 2007 discovery of the missing remains “A learned paper came out around that time, a collaboration between Russian forensic scientists and a team from the US led by Dr Mike Coble, which proved that all the DNA samples matched. All the Romanovs had died.”

Yet still, the conspiracy theory remains. Dr Rappaport suggests that part of the problem is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which to this day has not officially verified that any of the remains discovered both in 1991 and 2007 are members of the Romanov Imperial Family. “Not only that, it hasn’t sanctioned those remains being buried. There is this awful, lingering limbo in which the remains of the family are probably sitting in cold storage somewhere, waiting to be reunited and reburied together.”


Dr Helen Rappaport is a specialist in Victorian and late Russian imperial history. Her books include Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (Pan, 2014)


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.