Last False Anastasia

What name of the twentieth century evokes more romance and intrigue than that of Anastasia, Grand Duchess of Russia, daughter of the last Tsar, and a cutie to boot? She was reported executed by Bolsheviks in 1918–but wasn’t that just a bit too neat? Russia being Russia, rumor followed rumor; and lurking in the background there was the pile of Romanov gold everybody assumed would go to an actual Romanov survivor.

life cover of royal familySoon after the Ekaterinburg massacre of the imperial family, a young man claiming to be the Tsarevitch Alexis– Nicholas’ hemophiliac son–emerged in Siberia. But he soon recanted his tale of having miraculously survived the firing squad. The Tsar himself was reportedly seen walking the streets of London in 1920, his hair gone snowy white. Another rumors had the Tsar holed up in some obscure basement of St. Peter’s in Rome, a guest of the Pope. In yet another version the entire imperial family was cruising aboard a ship in the White Sea, never coming ashore at all.

This last version–the family together, never returning–was perhaps closest to the truth, since, as recent forensic investigations showed, the entire family was executed together at Ekaterinburg. This is what the Russians have always claimed, with good documentation. That other versions have lived on stubbornly in the public imagination is testament to romantic credulity and greed.

Most persistent was the claim that the Tsar’s youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, survived. (Anastasia is Greek for “the woman who rose again.”) Only 17 at the time of the execution, the Russian report had it that she had not been hit by bullets (some may have ricocheted off her jewelry) but merely fainted. She revived moments later in a pool of her family’s blood and began screaming. At this point she was run through with many bayonets and bludgeoned to death. This much was reported and this much was confirmed in recent excavations.

The Anastasia rumors lived, bolstered perhaps by her failure to die in the initial volley. As early as 1925 Grand Duchess Olga (the Tsar’s sister) interviewed one Anna Anderson in Berlin. Anderson was a young woman with a history of mental illness, and Olga quickly rejected her claim to be Anastasia. Yet just three years later the first of at least four books was published claiming Anna Anderson was Anastasia. One, purporting to be a first-person account, titled I am Anastasia, was even rejected as a forgery by Anderson herself. Her claim was featured in a 1956 cover article in Life. Over the years additional faux-Anastasias appeared, many of them interviewed and rejected by Olga, who died in 1960. The Anastasia mania inspired four films, five plays, a musical, two ballets, two TV shows, and a 1956 song by Pat Boone. Ingrid Bergman copped an Oscar for her role in the 1956 eponymously titled movie.

It seems like more than a coincidence that it was only after Olga’s death that Anderson went to court to be declared the true Anastasia. But just as her lawsuit was initiated, up popped the most ludicrous Anastasia wannabe of all, Eugenia Drabek Smetisko, whose death is the peg upon which this account dangles.

Smetisko was a woman of dubious character whose origins lay in Romania. Her 1929 US naturalization papers stated that she had been born in 1899 in Bukovina, on the border of Ukraine and Romania. Yet she claimed in her 1963 book Anastasia that this was subterfuge. Despite reports that she had a daughter and a son who was a judge living in Romania, her publisher went ahead with the book once she passed a lie-detector test. She had gone to the publisher claiming that the manuscript had been given to her by the real Anastasia. When she failed the lie-detector with that claim she confessed that she actually was Anastasia and passed. The larger lie seemed to quiet her galvanic response.

The book itself is a novelistic portrayal of the life of a young noblewoman attending functions, cruising in yachts, and generally living it up in high style until the executions, when she was hustled out of the country.

“I spent hours and hours in the writing,” she wrote, “days and nights of introspective experiences, of grief and horror.” She worked on her account during years of poverty, she wrote, often using pencil stubs and scraps of paper. The book is way over the top.

She stated she lost many documents in a peculiar incident aboard a train in 1919 in Serbia (“second homeland to us Russians”!). A stranger in her compartment offered her a ham sandwich. When it made her sick she left for the toilet. On her return the documents and the stranger had disappeared.

The book caused a sensation. Smetisko became a celebrity on the Manhattan party circuit and her story was also on the cover of Life. Soon Romanov pretenders were popping up everywhere, and Smetisko seems to have introduced to hosts at one time or another virtually the entire massacred family. The most outre of these was a former Polish army officer named Michal Goleniewsky, who had been a CIA agent in Poland before fleeing to America under the agency’s protection. He claimed to be the Tsarevitch Alexis, miraculously cured of his hemophilia. When they met, the two affected a joyous reunion. It had been 45 years since that nasty business in Ekaterinburg! But shortly after parting each denounced the other as a fraud, and both came under a pall of suspicion.

Goleniewsky disappeared, still enjoying the protection of the CIA. Smetisko posed as a victim for pictures in true crime magazines. Her publisher first threatened to sue, then stood by her– the publicity was great for sales. Smetisko dropped out of the news after that.

Smetisko spent the last 30 years in Newport, R.I., where she died January 31. The credulity and short memory of the press endure. The NY Post gave credence to her claim and listed her age at death as 95, which would have been Anastasia’s age. But Smetisko was 97.