By: Colleen Baxley and Emely Cardenas
Russian history is fraught with scandal, terror, and confusion. One of the biggest questions in relation to Russian history is based around the circumstances surrounding the death of the Romanov family in 1918. Popular culture was fueled by the scandal surrounding the Russian Royal Family. Such interest was only heightened with Anna Anderson, an American woman claimed to be the long lost Russian princess, Anastasia, until her death in 1984. Though DNA testing in the 1990s proved the woman was a fraud, the possibility of a living heir led to the capitalization of the story by the film industry. In 1997, 20th Century Fox released the animated film Anastasia and while the story is captivating, little is historically correct.
Nicholas II, the Tsar from 1894-1917, felt that all of Russia saw him as their ‘little father,’ yet constant fervor towards rebellion haunted his reign. Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, the princess of Hesse, were blessed with four girls, but cursed with being unable to produce a male heir to the Romanov dynasty. After the successful births of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, the Tsarina Alexandra was feeling helpless about producing a male heir. She, therefore, turned to mysticism and found solace in a man from Siberia whom she later named as her spiritual guide. This Siberian, Alexandra’s guide, was a man named Rasputin (Radzinsky, 103). A fear of industrialization, social mobility, and self-consciousness of radicals led Nicholas to retreat from the push towards modernization and find comfort in the occult (Warth, 337). Unfortunately for the Romanovs, rumors began being whispered about their new advisor’s personal life that consisted of a multitude of orgies with many young women as well as an excessive use of alcohol (Radzinsky, 103). Many of Nicholas II’s advisors warned him of Rasputin’s behavior and reputation, but for the sake of his son and heir, Rasputin was allowed to stay in the family’s good graces, acting as a healer to Nicholas’ son, Alexei (107-9). Because of this decision, suspicion and hatred of the Tsarist regime began to rise up, not only in officials, but also in the public (110).
World War I brought about new challenges for the family. Nicholas II decided that his uncle, the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, was not winning the war against Germany fast enough, so he claimed the position for himself in 1915. This act made Nicholas II solely responsible for any military failure (148). With Nicholas II at battle, Alexandra was put in charge of domestic affairs. Being from Hesse, many thought Alexandra was either a German spy or sympathizer, leading to public concern. Along with this fear, Russians felt that Rasputin too heavily influenced Alexandra. Rasputin began using his hold over Alexei’s condition to have certain men appointed as ministers, providing him with an inside man to the inner workings of Russian politics (149-51). Even the tsar’s extended family feared the influence Rasputin had over Alexandra and Nicholas II. These concerns led to the assassination of Rasputin in 1916 by the tsar’s cousin Grand Duke Dmitri and the extremely wealthy husband to the tsar’s niece, Felix Yusupov in an attempt to save the dynasty from ruin (163). Nicholas II exiled his relatives for the murder but the belief that Rasputin controlled the tsar and his family had already become widespread. The Romanov family could not rehabilitate their reputation and in 1917 the tsar was deposed.
Events leading up to World War I such as the Russo-Japanese War, Bloody Sunday, and the 1905 Rebellion also led to the formation and mobilization of revolutionaries in Russia. The tsar’s family life set the tone for his reign. Suspicion and hatred led to the decision to murder the autocrats in Russia. By 1918, the entire Romanov dynasty was killed by the Bolshevik resistance. Evidence surrounding the murders was scarce, leading to many conspiracy theories regarding the fate of the family. Three of the children were believed to have survived the onslaught of the Bolsheviks. Anastasia and Alexei were the most prominent of these rumored survivors.
In the Disney film version of the Romanov’s story, Meg Ryan and John Cusack lend their voices as Princess Anastasia and a servant boy turned con artist for the animated interpretation of the rumors surrounding the mysterious deaths of the last Russian dynasty. Under the guise of a children’s movie, 20th Century Fox explored the mysticism and scandal that encompassed the fall of Imperial Russia. The film accurately displays the hysteria surrounding the questionable fate of the Romanov family while trying to appeal to children; however, the movie fails to take into account the full history of the last Russian monarch.
The film opens on a scene depicting a Grand Ball held by the Romanovs. The year is supposedly 1916 and the 300th anniversary of the Romanov line is being celebrated. The biggest issue with this piece is that the Winter Palace had been vacated by the royal family long before, and the last time that it had been used in celebration was in 1903. Furthermore, the 300th anniversary of the Romanov family would have been in 1913 since Michael I, the first Romanov, came to power in 1613. The movie also claims that Anastasia, born on June 18, 1901, was eight years old during this celebration, but in reality was 15 in 1916. In addition to this, the Romanovs were not in the palace when the February Revolution occurred and actually survived for some time after it. The film implies the immediate death of the royal family due to the rising up of the Russian public against the Tsar under the evil influence of Rasputin.
The film then jumps to 1926, making Anastasia 18 and leaving an orphanage with the intention of going to St. Petersburg. In reality, at this point in history, St. Petersburg had been renamed Petrograd in 1914 at the start of WWI and then renamed Leningrad in 1924. The name change was an effort to sound more Russian and less European further separating the Bolsheviks from the tsarist regime. 20th Century Fox succeeds in suggesting the involvement of a strict Communist regime through the use of the color red, the sickle and hammer, a soldier in the Soviet uniform, the mechanization of society via song and dance, and also the change of passport ink color from blue to red.
Despite the film’s major inaccuracies, it is not without its minor offenses, one of which is the role of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Anastasia’s grandmother. Anastasia survives in the film with the help of her grandmother. Unfortunately, the Dowager Empress makes it on the train and Anastasia is unable to make it aboard. It is then implied that her grandmother goes and lives in Paris following the death of the rest of the family. In reality she first went to London and then later made her way back to her homeland of Denmark. While it is understandable why Paris–a well-known city that a younger audience may better recognize–was chosen as the European city featured as the family’s place of reunion, it is not historically correct.
The most notable discrepancy between the movie and history would be the character of Rasputin. In the opening scenes at the Grand Ball, it is made to seem as though Rasputin was evil, had magical powers and was a traitor to the Romanov family. The film also accuses Rasputin of being the main cause of the downfall of the Tsarist regime, and the death of the Romanovs. In reality, Rasputin was very loyal to the family and it was the combination of decisions made by the Tsar that turned the people against him and, in turn, caused the end of the Romanov line. The only characteristic with any possible legitimacy is Rasputin’s possession of magical powers. He had always been considered to be one of the most mysterious men in history, and the most notable reason behind this is his perceived immortality. The Tsar’s nephew decided to kill Rasputin, and first tried to poison the mystic. Then when the poison did not work, they beat and chased him through the Yusupov Palace down towards the Neva River. They shot him and finally threw Rasputin in a river tied to a stone. Later on, Rasputin’s autopsy revealed that he did not die of the poison or the gunshot wounds, but from the drowning. Obviously, while not immortal as the film shows, there are some historic facts that point to possible extraordinary traits attributed to the occult.
20th Century Fox took artistic license with their movie to appeal to a younger audience, as many movies do. However, the artistic license taken with Anastasia blurs the facts enough to skew the true nature of the story. 20th Century Fox’s tale of the demise of the Romanov Dynasty turns historical fact into just that, a tale.
Newman, Sarah. “Alexandra and Rasputin.” The Historian 108 (Winter 2010): 11-13. http://search.proquest.com.proxy3.noblenet.org/docview/857450073/BDB955D773B6449CPQ/3?accountid=40663.
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Slater, Wendy. 2005. “Relics, Remains, and Revisionism: Narratives of Nicholas II in Contemporary Russia.” Rethinking History 9, no. 1: 53-70. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost
Warth, Robert D. “Before Rasputin: Piety and the Occult at the Court of Nicholas II.” The Historian 47, no. 3 (May 1985): 323-37. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1985.tb00665.x.