When the 1997 animated feature Anastasia was released, it was supposed to be a defiance of both Disney, who had just begun to establish a monopoly, as well as the corporation's very idea of a heroine. The titular character was written to oppose and confront the ideas set up by Disney of what a princess was supposed to be. For context, some of Disney’s notable works at this point included Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Ironically, Anastasia is perhaps one of the first examples of what would become the quintessential Disney female character. No longer constantly helpless to her circumstances with problems out of her control, but rather independent, resourceful, humorous and smart. Most of all, she was an active character, more proactive rather than reactive (something that even Disney’s most progressive female leads at that point, Jasmine of Aladdin and Pochanatas in her respective film, weren’t quite capable of). And she was based directly on the actual Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who by all accounts, was exactly all that. Described by her staff as one of the most charming young girls they’d ever met, gifted and bright, but also mischievous, lively and witty. If that sounds familiar, it’s because, coincidence or not, that is now Disney’s new favourite formula for writing its heroines.
The film wastes no time in diverging from actual history, as it opens with Grigori Rasputin, a former advisor of the family, using dark magic to place a curse on the Romanov royals. This “curse” results in the Russian Revolution, leading to a siege on the palace. Anastasia and her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie, aided by a servant boy, Dmitri, are the only ones able to escape; Rasputin also dies while following them. However, in the escape, they end up being separated and Anastasia loses her memory.
Years later, Marie has offered a reward for anyone who brings her granddaughter to her — an opportunity that is taken advantage of by a now grown-up conman Dmitri, when he meets Anastasia, assuming her to be a look alike. What follows is the rise of the undead Rasputin, Anastasia and Dmitri inevitably falling in love and Anastasia coming to the realization of her identity.
However, the way Anastasia’s story is wrapped definitely deserves a notable mention. In the final showdown that occurs in the last moments of the movie, Anastasia is the one that ultimately destroys the risen Rasputin, not Dmitri, despite the latter being present at the scene. In fact, Anastasia quite literally smashes Rasputin’s life source under her foot, allowing her to avenge her family. Additionally, instead of taking her place beside her grandmother as the grand Duchess, Anastasia relinquishes her title, simply ending with a promise to return one day. This open ended conclusion also leaves room for audiences to fill in the rest, where Anastasia simply hid out from the public eye but led a happy and fulfilling life. And at the time it was released, in 1997, Anastasia may very well have been categorized as speculative fiction, but as of 2007, it was sadly confirmed to be alternative history.
The Grand Duchess’s fate was one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century and inspired not just this film but several other works as well. The Romanov family was known to have been murdered in 1918 after having been held in confinement for several years, but shortly after, rumours of sightings of Anastasia, sometimes with her family, began to circulate. Unfortunately not much weight can be given to her supposed sightings, since several young people in Russia at the time were passing themselves off as Romanov escapees. But that didn’t deter speculation (or hope) from growing around the Grand Duchess’s survival, fuelled in large part by the coincidence that her name meant “resurrection.”
Another more sinister reason that the rumours of her survival might have spread so wide was the encouraged deliberate misinformation helmed by the Russian revolutionaries to hide the fact that the Romanovs had been murdered. A few days following their deaths, Germany demanded that Russia ensure the safety of the princesses; not wanting to endanger the recently signed peace treaty between the two nations, Russia told Germany that the family had been moved to a safer location.
The rumours only continued over the years, as first several women came forward claiming to be her, and then in 1991, when the discovered burial site for the imperial family and their servants was finally excavated, Anastasia was missing. For many it confirmed suspicions that Anastasia had survived the event, had been assisted in escape by sympathetic guards or other scenarios.
However, in 2007 the speculation was finally laid to rest when a burned partial skeleton was discovered, confirming Anastasia’s demise. The young Grand Duchess, despite the hopes of many, did not live past seventeen.
While historical several parts of the film Anastasia were questionable to start with, the filmmakers admitted as much from the very beginning, having used actual history simply as a backdrop for the events of the film. For instance, the questionable villainization of Grigori Rasputin, whose entire reputation is based on hearsay and was actually assassinated shortly before the fall of the Romanov dynasty as well as the economic decline of Russia — the timing meaning that his “evil” spirit was largely blamed to have cursed the nation.
However, just as it was easier to blame Rasputin's dark mystic powers for the downfall of Russia rather than deal with the very real civil war that was ripping through the country. It was much easier to believe that Anastasia had lived out her life well, far removed from the tragedy that was her reality. Rather than the tragic period piece set in the middle of a war that ended in her demise, it was easier to see her as the archetype Disney princess who eloped with her true love in Paris.
Anastasia is a retelling of the Grand Duchess’s story, one much more imaginative, whimsical and light hearted, sugar-coated for easier consumption. It is an alternative plot which makes reality easier to cope with. That is what we call fairy tales, after all, and there is no truer fairy tale than that of the real Grand Duchess Anastasia.