The woman who claimed to be Anastasia - more than just a heart-tugger

No, Peter Kurth's ''Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson'' (Little, Brown, hackneyed versions of this fragment of muddled history. Other writers, journalists especially, have given us the pathetic little Russian Grand Duchess, sole survivor of the Ekaterinburg massacre, seeking in vain for recognition from her family, or the mad, sad lady with delusions of royalty.

Kurth's approach is quite different. I would call it ''scholarly,'' if ''scholarly'' weren't such a discouraging word. He has spent 10 years studying a daunting mass of documents, including 40 bound volumes of evidence (in German) assembled for ''Anastasia's'' suit to establish her identity, 13 cartons of ''unsorted Anastasia papers at Harvard University,'' and dozens of accounts from Russian refugees. The result is a 394-page book, complete with footnotes.

Nor is this book just about Anastasia or Anna Anderson (one of the names she adopted). True, he relates exactly what happened to her after she turned up in Berlin, including her years in the United States. But he also suggests the extraordinary ambitions, pretensions, and petty squabbling of the huge white Russian refugee population in Europe. In 1922 there were 500,000 in Germany alone.

In 1930, a small, unidentified woman (I had better call her X) was fished out of Berlin's Landwehr Canal and taken to the Dalldorf Asylum. She refused to give any information about herself and was apparently suffering from loss of memory. But finally, little by little, her story began to emerge.

She either couldn't or wouldn't remember details of the massacre that was thought to have wiped out Czar Nicholas II, his wife, and five children, or how she escaped. She did recall that, badly wounded, she was rescued by a soldier, ''Alexander Tschaikovsky,'' who took her by farm wagon to Bucharest. She was probably raped. In any case she had a son by him and thought she had been married in a Roman Catholic church, although the ceremony may have been a fake. Her ''husband'' disappeared, and his brother brought X to Berlin, where he, too, disappeared.

Was X really Anastasia? That, it seems from this book, is no mystery at all. The one that fascinates Kurth (and me) is why the remnants of the royal family refused to acknowledge her. Friends and royal relations would recognize her (sometimes with tears); she would mention details only Anastasia could know, passed two handwriting tests, and possessed scars in the right places; and her eyes, like the czar's, were a distinct, brilliant blue.

True, she never spoke Russian (because, she said, she had last heard it on the lips of her family's assassins), but obviously understood it. Gaps in her memory could be explained by the terrible suffering she had been through (X-rays revealed head wounds) and her terror of being spotted by the Bolsheviks.

She hardly helped her own cause. Arrogant, haughty, ungrateful, she gave friends who took her in a hard time of it. Acquaintances from the past who visited her hoping to recognize her were often mistaken for spies and insulted - behavior that should surely have identified her as a daughter of the czar of all the Russias.

''The offspring of an old, highly cultured and . . . extremely decadent family'' is the way a doctor, the head of the hospital where she was a patient, described her.

''It is Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaievna. I have recognized her,'' said Tatiana Botkin, who had played with the royal children when Anastasia was 13. Grand Duchess Olga insisted, ''My reason cannot grasp it, but my heart tells me that the little one is Anastasia.''

Even ''Shura,'' her nursemaid when she was a child, gave every sign of recognition.

But except for her second cousin, Princess Xenia Georgievna, and Anastasia's uncle, the Grand Duke Andrew Vladimirovich (he exclaimed, ''I have seen Nicky's daughter. I have seen Nicky's daughter''), nearly all who identified her recanted later.

Evidence and records of investigations had an odd way of disappearing or turning up mysteriously altered. Even the so-called mass murder of the royal family in an Ekaterinburg cellar is merely a theory based on one Bolshevik's statement, and that given under torture to the anti-Soviet ''White Army.''

The reason for all this fact-twisting and mind-changing lies deep in white Russian politics.

At this point, enter the wicked uncles.

First villain: the Grand Duke Kyril Vladimirovich, the traitor who, in 1917, recognized the Provisional Government, and, in 1924, had the gall to proclaim himself Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (''nasty'' was Anastasia's verdict). He wanted no rival claimants.

Second villain: the Grand Duke of Hesse, who had been on a secret mission to the czar's court ''without . . . proper authority,'' while his country was at war with Russia. When Anastasia mentioned seeing him there, she lost any chance of his doing the avuncular thing. In fact, ''Uncle Ernie'' not only disavowed her, he took steps to ensure that almost every emigre Russian did so, too.

Above all, Anastasia longed to be recognized and welcomed by her grandmother, the dowager empress of Russia, Marie Feodorovna, the most powerful figure in emigre circles. But the empress was determined never, never to admit that there had been a massacre of the royal family, and so open the door to a flood of pretenders.

If all that sounds impossibly callous, listen to General Krasnov, Russian civil war hero: ''I reject her for purely selfish reasons. It is too difficult for me to admit my emperor's daughter could be in her condition.''

With aristocrats so revolting, no wonder the people had revolted.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.