Today is the birthday of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. She, along with the rest of her family and several household servants, was murdered by members of Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, on July 17, 1918. She became famous throughout much of the 20th century because of persistent rumors that she had survived the mass killing, fueled by the emergence of a number of imposters claiming to be her, most notably Anna Anderson about whom a number of books, plays, movies and other works were produced.
Depending on how you read the accounts of her childhood, and your general inclinations, you might think of the young Anastasia as either cute and impish, or cruel and mean. She was notorious for playing pranks on her sisters and the servants, some of them a bit over the edge. For example, once she wrapped a rock in a snowball which she threw at her sister, hitting her in the head and knocking her to the ground. In general I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for poor little rich princesses, but given the circumstances of her life (and death) she can be cut some slack. She had a congenital deformity of her left foot, and a painful condition in both feet that made it difficult for her to walk sometimes. She had a weak muscle in her back and was prescribed a twice-weekly massage which she hid under the bed or in a cupboard to try to avoid. She, like her mother and at least one of her sisters, was a carrier for the Hemophilia B gene. Although not a hemophiliac herself, she was prone to excessive bleeding. Anastasia’s mother, perhaps to avoid raising her daughters with an excessive sense of self importance, treated the girls in a spartan manner. They had to sleep on hard camp cots without pillows, take cold baths, tidy up after themselves, and spend several hours daily doing needlework which was sold to raise money for the poor. Obviously these experiences were counterbalanced with personal servants, fine clothes, and a life of luxury, but they may perhaps temper our judgment – that and her hideous death (she was beaten, stabbed, shot, and bayoneted).
During World War I Anastasia, along with her sister Maria, visited wounded soldiers at a private hospital on the grounds at the imperial estate in Tsarskoye Selo. The two teenagers, too young to become Red Cross nurses like their mother and elder sisters, played games of checkers and billiards with the soldiers and tried to uplift their spirits. Felix Dassel, who was treated at the hospital and knew Anastasia, recalled that the grand duchess had a “laugh like a squirrel.” In February 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne and Anastasia and her family were placed under house arrest at the palace in Tsarskoye Selo during the Russian Revolution. Civil war broke out between the provisional government and the Bolsheviks. As the Bolsheviks approached Tsarskoye Selo, Alexander Kerensky of the provisional government had them moved to Tobolsk in Siberia. After the Bolsheviks seized majority control of Russia, Anastasia and her family were moved to the Ipatiev House, or House of Special Purpose, at Yekaterinburg where she and the family were ordered killed by the Bolsheviks. The savage butchery of their killers is well documented by eye witnesses.
Rumors of the survival of some, or all, of the imperial family were spread not long after their deaths as part of a disinformation campaign by the Bolsheviks. A few days after the family had been murdered, the German government sent several telegrams to Russia demanding “the safety of the princesses of German blood” (their mother was born a German grand duchess). Russia had recently signed a peace treaty with the Germans, and did not want to upset them by letting them know the women were dead, so they told them they had been moved to a safer location.
Such rumors, along with the fact that the grave sites of the imperial family were unknown until only a few years ago, allowed for a number of imposters to claim that they were Anastasia. Almost all of these claims were easily dismissed. But the main claimant, Anna Anderson, became the stuff of legend, aided by the fact that she had several credible supporters (all with ulterior motives), along with a penchant on the part of the public and the press to believe a romantic fairy tale. Most of the heavily fictionalized dramas about Anna/Anastasia, including the 1956 film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman, leave it open ended as to whether Anderson really was Anastasia. Anderson kept up a court battle in Germany for decades, with the courts finally ending the case in 1968 without reaching a definitive conclusion. Mitochondrial DNA testing on a lock of Anderson’s hair and some medical remains eventually proved conclusively that she was not Anastasia. The discovery of a burial site in 1981 (excavated in 1991), revealed the remains of 9 of the Romanovs (confirmed by DNA testing). A second site was found in 2007 containing the remains of the tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters. DNA evidence cannot determine whether this grave contained Anastasia or another of her sisters, but the deaths of all the children and their parents are now confirmed.
Dining in the Russian royal court was an elaborate affair, with formal meals strongly influenced by French cuisine. But the royal family is also known to have eaten rather simpler traditional Russian fare on picnics, hunting expeditions, and the like. So here is my recipe for classic Russian pelmeni, meat filled dumplings I have enjoyed many times in Russia. They can be served in chicken broth, or eaten with one of several dips. My favorite is sour cream with fresh dill. There are special molds to make pelmeni which are available online, but I prefer to make them by hand.
2/3 cup (1.6 dl) buttermilk
1 tbsp (.15 dl) sour cream
2 large eggs
2 cups (4.8 dl) warm water
1½ (7 g) tsp salt
8 cups (1 k) all purpose flour
1 lb (.45 k) ground chicken
1 lb (.45 k) ground pork
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves crushed and finely chopped
½ tsp (2.5 g) freshly ground black pepper
¾ tsp (4 g) salt
olive oil for frying
For the dough, in a large bowl mix together the buttermilk, sour cream, warm water, eggs and salt until well blended.
Add half of the flour and mix well. Then add the remaining flour, one quarter at a time. The exact amount will depend on a number of factors. Add the flour slowly at the end and stop as soon as the dough is no longer sticky. Then knead the dough for about 5 minutes.
Let the dough rest.
For the filling, heat a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and slightly amber. Add the garlic and sauté for an extra minute, but no longer.
In a large bowl mix together the chicken, pork, onions and garlic, plus the salt and pepper.
To assemble the dumplings, pinch off a ball of dough about ¾ inch (2 cm) across and, using a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll it into a 1 ½ inch (4 cm) circle.
Place 1 teaspoon of filling in the middle of the circle of dough.
Using your forefinger lightly smear a little cold water around the rim of the circle, and fold the dough over to form a semi-circular package. Then take the two corners of the diagonal, pull them up (away from the circular edge) and pinch them together.
To cook the pelmeni bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Put as many pelmeni as needed into the boiling water (you can freeze what you do not use). When they float, continue boiling for around 3 minutes. Test one to make sure the filling is cooked through and the dough is al dente (or a bit softer if you like – Russians prefer them on the mushy side).
Note: To freeze, place the pelmeni separately on floured baking sheets and put them in the freezer. When they are frozen put them in freezer bags. Do not thaw them, but place the frozen pelmeni directly in boiling water to cook. If you thaw them they will stick together (ask me how I know!).