DISCUSSION: The Romanovs, The Lost Crown, and the magic of Anastasia

So, this is the first of my discussion posts. Rather than book reviews, which revolve around a single book assigned a star rating and discuss its merits and drawbacks, these discussion posts will be topic-oriented. Sometimes they’ll be inspired by books, sometimes they’ll just be subjects I feel like writing about.

I’ve been listening to tracks from the Anastasia Original Broadway Cast Recording quite a lot recently, so I figured now was as good a time as any to write my first discussion post.

I’ll begin by stating a fact: The Romanovs were not good people.

Much has been written on the general cruelty and decadence of the Romanov dynasty, which should surprise no one with a basic understanding of history–there are no royal lines with a clean track record. The last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was far from the worst of them, but he was still a painfully out-of-touch conservative who believed in his divine right to rule. He is especially criticised for being weak-willed and indecisive, traits that contributed to Russia’s excessive loss of life in the First World War. His wife, the German Tsarina Alexandra, made various poor judgments in influencing her family, most famously in her trust of Rasputin. Rasputin requires no introduction, but I’ll still add that some might call it grim when the best outcome of your life is an admittedly dope disco hit.

Here we are, with a Romanov ruler stuck in the past when Russia as a country desperately needs to move into the future. Revolution is brewing. We get the February Revolution establishing a Provisional Government that goes through several leaders in as many months, and is usurped in less than a year by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The days of the Romanovs, who have been living under house arrest since the initial coup, are numbered. And indeed, in the early hours of 17 July 1918, they meet their fate in a cramped basement of Ipatiev House in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, shot and clubbed and bayoneted to death in an affair that ends up being far messier than one imagines for an execution by firing squad. The oldest Romanov child, Grand Duchess Olga, is twenty-two. The youngest, heir apparent Alexei, is thirteen.

The Romanov royals may be dead, but their death is so startling, so sensational, that it captures the public imagination. The people the Romanovs are dead, but the idea the Romanovs are–as the decades go by–more alive than ever. The story of the ill-fated princesses passes into legend. Almost two dozen people claim to be various members of the family and gain enough traction with it to earn their own Wikipedia pages. By far the most famous of the career imposters is Anna Anderson, whose claims posthumous DNA testing eventually reveal to be completely bogus. Yet it doesn’t matter that she, and everyone else who claimed to be Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, or Alexei are liars or mentally ill. The damage has been done: The fantasy that one of the royals may have escaped will forever be ingrained in the public consciousness.

For whatever reason, Anastasia has become far and away the most popular of the Romanov children for storytellers to project their imaginations. Perhaps it’s the high profile of Anderson’s case, perhaps it’s her status as the youngest sister, a free-spirited seventeen-year-old who loved lighthearted practical jokes. Either way, she has spawned a cult classic animated film and a new Broadway musical loosely based on it, as well as accumulating an impressive portfolio of children’s fiction about her life and death, some of them markedly more faithful to the history than others. The only one of those books I’ve read is the Middle Grade novel The Lost Crown, which currently sits in my all-time recommendations list for very good reason. While I was well aware of the Romanovs, especially the beloved Anastasia, even before picking it up when I was ten or so, it was The Lost Crown that truly spellbound me with the Romanov legend. To the point that when I first heard about the Anastasia musical, despite having no prior knowledge of the 1997 film (which I still haven’t watched), I knew I had to go see it. (Well, the other reason was Ramin Karimloo. Such is life.)

The Lost Crown is ruthless in its historical accuracy. Yes, that’s a spoiler (surprise, they all die at the end!), and no, it doesn’t detach from the power of the novel in any way. The prose, the little moments carefully thought out by the author that betray such depth in a novel meant for tweens, make the whole read worthwhile. I still marvel at the sympathy the book brought out in me, even though I’d have said that I had no love for royals if you’d asked me at that time.

Which brings me to the Broadway musical I watched a couple months ago, as much of a pro-Anastasia narrative as you’re ever going to get. I did appreciate that it was fairly faithful to fact considering that it’s a G-rated show operating on the premise of Anastasia somehow escaping her family’s gruesome fate, complete with references to the White Russians and well-timed one-liners on the…shabby state of Leninist Russia that succeed at eliciting chuckles from the older members of the audience. No Rasputin spectre this time–take that, movie purists!

It’s hard to watch the musical and not want to cheer for Anastasia, who’s a plucky young woman in her twenties, worldly yet unfailingly optimistic, self-sufficient and brave despite being struck by amnesia and left without home or family. Come on, just listen to Christy Altomare’s haunting rendition of Once Upon a December, or the show-stopping Act I closer Journey to the Past. Broadway’s Anastasia is a true heroine and–dare I say it–role model. There’s little of elitism or entitlement about her; in fact, she’s ironically pegged for a “model citizen” of the new Russia by the apparatchik who serves as both the primary antagonist and the third wheel of a quasi-love triangle. (Typical role in a musical, let’s be real here.)

There are so many different portrayals of a nearly mythical figure: Anastasia Nikolaevna of history, the Grand Duchess of many MG/YA novels, Anya of the 1997 film and the new-and-improved Anya of the 2016 musical. It’s quite possible that all things considered, who she really was can’t hold a candle to what she’s come to represent. Fitting for a dynasty that, in retrospect foolishly, revered ritual and considered themselves the symbols of Mother Russia.


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