Anna Anderson once said in English, “You either believe it or you don’t believe it. It doesn’t matter. In no anyway whatsoever.”
Emotions have always run high when it comes to the Romanov family. Some 50 blocks north of Manhattan’s theatre district is a Russian journey into the past of another kind. As much as a cathedral can be hidden, St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church is tucked away on 97th Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues. The baroque facade with five onion-shaped domes is not on the route of the tourist buses, the ones that sway past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. John the Divine. Its visiting hours are unclear; if you call the phone number listed on the website, no one answers and no message clicks on. It will ring 20 times without an answer.
And yet, when you push open the heavy doors of St. Nicholas Cathedral, it brings you face to face with ravishing, soaring beauty. Lit by flickering candles and chandeliers, the space is filled with centuries-old religious relics, icons, paintings, and murals. The air hangs with incense so intense it almost smothers the delicate scent of the faded roses gathered in vases that dot the floor.
“It is not a museum, it’s a working church,” says an elegant young blond man lingering after services on a recent Sunday. He is a descendent of first-wave emigres, the ones who poured out of Russia in the chaos of the 1917 Revolution. Fiercely proud of the cathedral where he was baptized, the young man explains the stories behind several Orthodox saints, and points out a painting on the back wall of a crowned and robed man with a beard: Nicholas II, the father of Anastasia.
When the Russian community of New York City wanted to build a cathedral at the turn of the last century, the pious czar donated 7,500 rubles and urged others to contribute. A large wall plaque testifies to Czar Nicholas’s pivotal role in founding this church.
In the 21st century the cathedral has seen a resurgence. A plaque to another benefactor can be found on a wall of St. Nicholas: Vladimir Putin, the man dominating world news right now. He made his own donations and in 2001 quietly visited the 97th Street cathedral. After decades of government mandated-atheism and persecutions—a time when the Romanov royal family and aristocratic class were anathema—Russia has a president who supports the Orthodox faith and has promoted certain aspects of the country’s pre-Revolution history. In 2000, Nicholas, his wife, and children were sainted by the Russian Orthodox church. A survey of Russians at about the same time found that 30 percent of the population felt Czar Nicholas’s reign “brought more good than harm.”
The fascination extends far beyond Russia. When asked about his forthcoming series about the doomed family, Matthew Weiner told The Hollywood Reporter, “I love this idea that these characters believe themselves to be, whether they are or not, descendants of this last autocratic family who are part of one of the great true crime stories of all time.”
Why do the Romanovs have such a hold? Other powerful dynasties fell in the upheaval of World War One—the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns—but no musicals have been made of their fates. It could be the shock of the execution, which surpassed in horror even the deaths of the French monarchs in the throes of the French revolution. After all, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were tried in a court before being guillotined, and their daughter was spared.
Perhaps we are forever caught up in our feelings for those young children, murdered in Siberian exile. Who knows what else they could have become if they made it out alive?