When you think of the most famous Russian figures throughout history, people like Vladimir Putin and Anna Kournikova probably pop into your head… not the strange tale of 17-year-old Anastasia Romanov. However, the young duchess became a legend throughout Russia after she and her family were executed, and she supposedly survived the attack. From her tragic death to the imposters who paraded as her after the execution, this is the elusive life of Anastasia Romanov, who continues to haunt the minds of the Russian people.

Anastasia’s famous early life

Anastasia Romanov was a political icon from the day she was born and not exactly in a positive way. Born on June 18th, 1901 into a royal Russian family, Anastasia was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, who ended up being the final emperor of Russia. The Romanov dynasty had been in power since the early 1600s, but despite their established reputation as rulers in Russia, the Russian people eventually began to develop a disdain towards the aristocratic government around the time that Anastasia was born. This meant that, despite the fact that she was a little kid, plenty of people disliked Anastasia from the get-go.

Growing up, Anastasia was both genius and mischevious, both causing trouble and inspiring wit in those around her. At first, her parents were disappointed that her mother had given birth to a girl, as they were eager for a boy to take over as heir. However, after her little brother, Alexei, was born, they grew fonder of Anastasia. Along with her siblings—three older sisters and a younger brother— Anastasia had a fairly normal childhood (aside from the fact that she was the Grand Duchess of Russia). She received extensive education in religious prayer and Russian spelling from her mother and a Swiss tutor, who recognized how bright and witty young Anastasia was. She also didn’t receive any royal treatment when it came to her home life. She and her siblings took freezing cold baths, slept on cots, and completed chores around the house that servants in other households were expected to pick up. Still, they were a close-knit bunch who treated one another with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, Anastasia’s childhood was cut short at the age of 17 due to the terrifying political upheaval against the Romanov family.

The Romanov’s supposed execution

Around the time of WWI, tensions in Russia were high. The 65 living royal Romanovs were faced with increasing public hostility from their own people, who felt that the Romanov’s were to blame for troubles within the military and economy of Russia. With a Russian civil war on the horizon, Nicholas II admitted that he was underprepared to lead as their ruler and attempted to politely abdicate the throne. His retirement as their leader was accepted. Sadly, although Anastasia and her family were placed under house arrest and exiled to the Ural Mountains, the Russian people had sparked long-lasting widespread outrage and hatred towards the Romanovs. A civil war was already brewing once the Romanov family was struck from the throne, and those responsible for the impending communist party were eager to eliminate their influence once and for all.

The Romanovs were already living in Hell once they were exiled. They were forced to remain stuck in a five-room house in the tiny city of Yekaterinburg. Anastasia and her siblings were unable to go outside to run, play, or get any fresh air during the day. However, they were still alive…though not for long. Not long after Nicholas II abdicated the throne, a new group came on the scene: the Bolsheviks. They were eager to implement communism in Russia, yet they seemed to understand that the influence of the Romanovs hadn’t quite worn off. Additionally, the troublemaking children of the Romanovs were frequently sticking their heads out of the windows and disobeying the guards’ orders, striking fear in their captors that they were going to try to escape. So, on the evening of July 16th, 1918, the Romanovs were woken up from their quiet slumber and instructed to go down to the basement, where they were locked in and sentenced to death. Their execution was brutal and long, with their captors both shooting at and stabbing the sorry bunch until they bled out. While this final chapter for the Romanovs may sound devastating, it soon became questionable if all of the family died during the shootout—particularly young Anastasia and Alexei.

Did she really die?

This is where Anastasia’s story goes from a senseless tragedy to a historic mystery. Rumors about their deaths began to circulate, and some believed that Anastasia and Alexei may have survived impacting bullets due to the jewels that their mother sewed into their clothing. As these rumors circulated in the years after the Romanov family was executed, a number of Russian women came forward to admit that they were the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Most of these women clearly seemed to be vying for the extensive Romanov fortune that was left behind by the executed family. The most famed of these imposters was a Russian woman named Anna Anderson, who was troubled, suicidal, and confined to an asylum for several months in 1920 after leaping from a bridge. Due to the scarring on Anna’s body and her anxious behavior, patients and hospital staff began to circulate the rumor that Anna was actually Anastasia. Anna was unwilling to confirm this information at first (if you were nearly executed for your family name, would you want to identify yourself?) yet across the years, the delusional woman began to accept her role as the missing Anastasia.

Once released from the hospital, Anna found relief in a number of old acquaintances of the Romanovs who offered her food, a place to stay, and legal counsel. Seeming to understand the wide importance of Anastasia’s legacy, Anna began to repeatedly attend court to prove that she deserved the Romanov inheritance after surviving the traumatic execution of her family. However, other members of the Romanov family were adamant that Anna was not Anastasia, and protected their fortune with fervor. The court eventually denied Anna any right to the inheritance, as there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that she was Anastasia. It was a good thing they didn’t hand over the money. In 1990, a grave with eight bodies was exhumed, revealing several members of the Romanov family…although, Anastasia and her brother were missing. However, in 2007, another grave was uncovered nearby the first, and forensic testing confirmed that it contained the bodies of young Anastasia and Alexei. Despite the short life that Anastasia lived, she remained a legend in Russia for decades afterward, becoming the most famously elusive young woman in Russia’s empirical history.