Monday, 11 June 2012

The Red Army

For my 50th birthday my in-laws gave me a copy of The Folio Book of Historical Mysteries, edited by Ian Pindar.  I've been reading it in bits and pieces over the past few months.  Like most anthologies it mixes the brilliant with the pedestrian.  Predictably there were articles about whether the Turin Shroud was real, whether Shakespeare really wrote his own plays, the identity of Jack the Ripper and the "real" story behind the murder of JFK.  Along with this were some surprises.  Who would have thought there was an actual historical event behind the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, or that the characters in The Three Musketeers were based on real people?  And I had certainly never heard of the fabulous Voynich Manuscript, a beautiful, elaborate book probably dating from the later 15th century written in a completely incomprehensible "language".

Amidst all these gems and rocks are two little tales about the fall of imperial Russia.  The first is rather well known.  Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, along with his family and other household members, were executed by the Red Army in July 1917, sending shockwaves through the royal houses of Europe, most of whom were related to the Tsar in some way.

Then early in 1920 a young woman was rescued from a canal in Berlin where she had apparently attempted suicide.  She refused to say who she was and was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for a number of years, remaining unidentified.  During this time one of her fellow inmates noticed a marked similarity to the youngest Russian princess, Anastasia. 

Thus began a 60-year saga, still unresoved at her death, over whether this woman who came to call herself Anna Anderson was in fact Anastasia, miraculously escaped from the assassination of the rest of her family.  Various Romanov cousins and former friends and servants visited her and either confirmed or denied that she was or could be the lost princess.  The woman herself at times seemed to claim she was, at other times denied it, and more often than not refused to answer any questions.  In her favour was a certain physical resemblance and a similar age.  Against was her lack of royal airs and graces and the fact that she didn't speak Russian, although her carers claimed she spoke it in her sleep.  Muddying the water was her lifelong mental illness which made most of her statements unreliable.  The inherent unlikelihood of her story didn't prevent the publication of numerous books, regular magazine articles and two Hollywood films.

It was only after her death that DNA evidence conclusively showed that Anna was not a Romanov, and was almost certainly a working class Polish woman called Franziska Schanzkowska.  The romance was bulldozed by prosaic fact.  The Red Army had been as efficient as one would expect.  Still, you wonder if the story would have been much better had Anna turned out to be the heir to the Russian throne.  A poor, erratic woman with a chronic mental illness could hardly have been a great advertisement for restoring the hereditary Russian monarchy.

Anastasia, but not Franziska, would undoubtedly have seen the Amber Room, pictured here in glorious facsimile.  This remarkable artefact was presented to Peter the Great by the Prussian King Friedrich Willhelm in 1716 and installed in a ballroom in the Catherine Place at St Petersburg.  It consisted, apparently, of a series of elaborately ornate removable panels made entirely of amber which lined the walls of a palace ballroom.  This gaudy and absurdly expensive work of art quite possibly says everything you need to know about the Russian aristocracy, dancing happily in a room worth millions of roubles while their peasants froze to death.

Nonetheless the room was better treated by the Red Army than its occupants.  After the revolution the Catherine Palace was turned into a museum and the room was left intact for people to visit, no doubt as a reminder of the gap between rich and poor that the Bolsheviks were supposed to be closing.  However, in 1941 the Germans took St Petersburg, then renamed Leningrad as saints of the revolution replaced those of the opium of the people.  As part of their looting of the city they packed the panels and associated artworks in crates and shipped them back to Konigsberg in East Prussia. 

In 1945 it was apparently still there when the Red Army took Konigsberg in their turn.  However, it never made it back to Russia.  There are two theories about why.  One is that in the course of the initial invasion the room was either destroyed by fire or stolen by Red Army officers and sold piece by piece for their own profit.  The other is that the Nazis managed to hide it somewhere, and it is still hidden to this day.  The first official Russian investigator to arrive on the scene a few months later concluded that the room had been destroyed.  However, he recanted in the face of a later investigation which claimed it was probably still hidden somewhere in Germany, and the way was opened for decades of treasure hunting which is still going on to this day.

For Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, who wrote the article I read, the jury is still out to some extent because they were unable, even after the collapse of the USSR, to secure the release of the official archive.  However, they conclude that the original investigator was right and the Amber Room was destroyed in the fire that destroyed the Konigsberg Palace in April 1945.  However it was not acceptable to show the Red Army as having wantonly destroyed a Russian national treasure or, worse still, stolen it for their own profit.  Knowing the political climate in post-war USSR, it is not hard to imagine the investigator saying whatever he needed to stay out of the gulag.  Much safer to blame the Nazis, even if it did lead to the Stasi wasting millions on a wild goose chase.

It's hard to know what to make of all this, really.  By all accounts the Romanovs were well past their use-by date.  The romance of finding a last surviving link to the glories of Imperial Russia in the person of a lost princess, or a lost treasure, turns out to be no more than fantasy.  The harsh reality is that both were destroyed by the Red Army.  The fading glories of a romantic past were not left to fade gracefully, or preserved as monuments to a bygone age.  They were brutally rubbed out by a bunch of clumsy thugs.

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