I was Anastasia: review

I Was Anastasia
Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday
release date: March 27, 2018

I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra in high school when I measured books by length–the longer the better–and  by heft. At nearly 700 pages (Amazon tells me the hardcover weighs just shy of two pounds) the book kept me captivated for at least a few days. I read it in a rush, transported to tsarist Russia. I sighed over the love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, despised Rasputin for the dastardly sway he held over Alexandra. I longed to live in their grand homes, to wear beautiful gowns like the tsarinas. It’s probably safe to say I wouldn’t have been one of the peasants shouting at the gates of Alexander Palace.

Massie’s book read like a novel, and I still recommend it to a certain sort of my students today: the dreamers, the romantics, the lovers of fairy tales. It is, in fact, the whole of my understanding of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Anything I read about the events in a history book is lost in the cobwebs.

Story is that powerful.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia

Ariel Lawhon’s recently released novel  I Was Anastasia is the first person account of Tsar Nicholas’s youngest daughter Anastasia, and her life in exile with the family. It is also the story of her life as the only surviving Romanov, a woman who lived as Anna Anderson but claimed to be Anastasia. Anna tried for years to get the courts to  rule in her favor so that she could inherit what was left of the Romanov estate. The story she tells is compelling: surviving the execution, she became a refuge smuggled out of post-war Europe. Anna came under the care of a number of wealthy benefactors. Some truly believed she was Anastasia; others were only interested in trading on her social cache. She spent time in a sanitarium in Germany and was later institutionalized in a mental asylum after a suicide attempt. Her fervent supporters included Gleb Botkin, the son of the Romanov’s physician who was murdered with the family. It was Gleb who arranged Anna’s move to the United States and her marriage of convenience to retired history professor Jack Manahan. As Anna’s memories unfolded in the novel, I was right there with Gleb–frustrated that others didn’t see the obvious truth of her claim.

I don’t think there is a Nicholas and Alexandra devotee who hasn’t wondered at one time or another if the tales of Anastasia’s survival were true. There have been at least six Anastasia contenders throughout the years, and our fascination with the story produced countless books, a movie staring Ingrid Bergman, and a Disney film. What a perfect ending to a fairy tale that would be–and the tale Anastasia tells in I Was Anastasia is believable and captivating.

Or is it?

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