One of the most chilling and unforgettable events of the 20th century took place in a cellar in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in July of 1918. The czar, the czarina, Crown Prince Alexei and the four grand duchesses were executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries that warm summer night, their bodies consigned to an old mine shaft to destroy any lingering evidence. Then the rumors began: perhaps one of the grand duchesses had escaped. This was the story put forth by one Anna Anderson, a real-life character who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. She could never quite explain her miraculous escape, claiming temporary amnesia, but she lived to the ripe old age of 82, never wavering from her claim to the Russian throne.
This month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner, Ariana Franklin's City of Shadows, poses an intriguing what if in this taut retelling of the Anastasia legend, set in pre-WWII Berlin. The details of Anna Anderson's rescue from a Berlin insane asylum dovetail quite nicely with Germany's flirtation with insanity in the heady 1930s. While the few remaining members of Russia's royal Romanovs would have preferred to discredit the would-be Anastasia, others in powerful positions, including Adolf Hitler himself, jockeyed for position in Anna's attentions, all the better to forge a favorable alliance in the event that the Russian Revolution should come to naught. And so, for a lifetime, Anna Anderson and Anastasia shared a history; even though later evidence tended to indicate that Anderson was in fact a Polish peasant girl with a checkered past, many still believe that Anastasia and Anderson were one and the same.
Franklin's atmospheric rendering of Berlin is exceptional, her characters sharply drawn yet sympathetic. The story unfolds in staccato bursts, punctuated by insightful glimpses into the Russian Revolution and the Nazification of Germany.