Others have and will comment here on the story of a minor ruse that grew into a worldwide legend that is adroitly recounted in this book. But I want to discuss this book for what I think is its most remarkable aspect: a tour-de-force deconstruction of how false history can be invented by letting the desire, sometimes almost unconscious, for a certain outcome dictate the presentation and interpretation of evidence.
Greg King and Penny Wilson were ideally suited to this task. Not only were they accomplished historians of late imperial Russia, but both thought for years that Anna Anderson might really be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, supposedly massacred along with her family in 1918. More than most other advocates for the view of Anastasia's survival, they were deeply versed in the myriad evidence that had been put forth for almost ninety years in support of this claim. But the 1990's began to unsettle the picture, as discoveries of bodies in a remote Russian forest and DNA testing of those bodies and of tissue samples of a now-deceased Anna Anderson deepened the doubts surrounding Anderson's famous claim.
In light of this emerging evidence, King and Wilson began to show their mettle as historians and to reassess their own long-held convictions. As this process brought them to serious doubt of Anna Anderson's claim, there was one hurdle they still could not easily clear. Since 1920 there had been claims that Anna Anderson, who was originally dubbed "Miss Unknown" by Berlin police who fished her out of a canal after a suicide attempt, was, in fact, known by some to be a Polish woman who had come to Berlin seeking work in the wartime factories then being staffed largely by women. But, while Anna Anderson might be no Grand Duchess, King and Wilson felt there had to be some other missing piece to the puzzle that would preclude her being a Polish factory worker. And they set out to find it.
What they instead found was a remarkable manipulation of evidence that had begun almost immediately upon Anna Anderson's emergence into the limelight of royal pretender status. This manipulation of evidence was deliberately cynical in some hands but more often guilelessly inadvertent in others. However, as the romance of the prospect that a pretty, 17-year-old princess had mysteriously been saved from a brutal political massacre seized the world's imagination, the manipulation of evidence acquired a life of its own. The cumulative effect was that comments haltingly made, opinions heavily caveated, affidavits for limited purposes were all seized upon as proof positive that the crusty, eccentric little woman being toasted in the press and hosted and then housed by a growing array of high society was most certainly a missing Russian Grand Duchess. Through a process of repetition of this purported evidence, with each step further removed from the original sources, the conviction set in among many that Anna Anderson's identity was a matter of conclusive proof.
What King and Wilson, in fact, found as they revisited the early sources and put fresh eyes on them was something else entirely. Small amounts of often anecdotal information in favor of Anderson's claim had been hyped massively by the press and acolytes. Much larger amounts of countervailing information, gathered with more rigor for the more disciplined purpose of determining the truth instead of a hot-selling headline, had been dismissed by a popular postwar imagination that needed a lost princess more than it needed a reminder that Russia was now irreversibly in the hands of a communist dictatorship.
The process that King and Wilson deconstruct in this book by which myth can morph into history is not only fascinating. It is an object lesson to all students of Russian history right now.
Russia is moving toward the brink of becoming a failed state, with a population in steep decline, regions along the border with a China bursting at the seams emptying themselves of Russians, a breakdown of the old soviet system of dodgy public services being replaced with nothing but press manipulation by a governing cabal holding onto power for the sake of power itself. With government policy failing on front after front, Russian leaders are doing their best to romanticize a past, the vision of which they hope will hold an ugly present at bay.
This new book by Greg King and Penny Wilson should be read not only by those who want to witness the spinning of a popular legend of missing royalty from the fabric of poverty and mental instability. It should be read by those who want to understand how the study of history, when put in the service of romantic desire, can be the most deceptive of studies.