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Once Upon a November: Anastasia Turns 20!

Let's talk about how the animated classic handles history, Rasputin, and of course, Dimitri's hair.

Have you heard, there’s a rumor that today is the 20th anniversary of Anastasia coming out in movie theaters … Because it is! We talked to a Russia expert to learn how accurate the history was, the truth behind Rasputin, and what really happened to Anastasia.

Two decades after its release (and a hundred years after the Russian Revolution), Anastasia is still a pop culture touchstone. The live-action Broadway musical adaptation premiered earlier this year, introducing a new generation of girls to spunky proto-feminist Anya’s quest to find her family, while conman-with-a-heart-of-gold Dimitri lives on as easily the sexiest animated hero ever.

(Trust us on this one.)

In honor of this momentous milestone, we reached out to Kate White, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice University, who’s taught Russian literature, culture, and film as well as the Russian language. She graciously answered our pressing questions about this dubiously historical classic.

So, when did you first see “Anastasia”?

When it came out. I assume I saw it in the theater, but I don’t remember at this point.

What was its impression on you, if any?

I remember loving the music, the love story, and Bartok the bat.

Who doesn’t love Bartok?

I think the Dimitri-Anastasia romance was a formative one for me and every other 90s kid, since we all seem to think that scoundrels can be reformed.

Fair but also, swoon.

<Deep breath> How bad is the history represented in the film?

Well, it might be easier to say what they got right? Which is that a lot of people wanted Anastasia to be alive, and a lot of women over the years have claimed to be her. The fairy tale of finding a living member of the Romanov family has captivated many, many people over the years.

Unfortunately the real Grand Duchess died at age 17 with the rest of her family—she was shot by Red Army soldiers in a basement in 1918, which was proven when the remains of Tsarevich Alexei and the last of his four sisters were found in 2007. (The rest of the family were found back in 1991.)

As best you can recall, is there anything that sticks out as particularly egregious?

As I learned more about Russian history in college and later, I always thought Rasputin was more interesting and creepy in real life than as an undead, soulless wizard.

The real Grigori Rasputin was the turn-of-the-century Russian version of sex, drugs, and rock and roll: sex, mysticism, and folk beliefs. He was a peasant who became a mysterious, wandering dispenser of religious wisdom after a supposed spiritual awakening around age thirty. A lot of his influence came from his relationship with Tsarina Alexandra, who trusted him to treat the Tsarevich’s hemophilia.

He was also a drunk who had sex with a lot of aristocratic women because he preached salvation through sin. And somehow his intense, creepy stare translates through photos over a hundred years later.

She’s not wrong.

Are there any elements you think the film does well — settings, costumes, etc.?

Having fallen in love with St. Petersburg myself, I can confirm that the movie does a good job with that setting. I think they even do a dance number around one of the city’s most famous monuments, the Bronze Horseman.

The Bronze Horseman statue in Saint Petersburg in real life.

The buildings still look like that, including the Catherine Palace, setting of the early ball flashbacks.

The “Hall of Lights,” ballroom at the Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful place. I couldn’t tell you for sure whether the costumes were on point but I have a feeling they’re not.

I do not even care. This is still the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen and I will be married/buried in it.

As a Russian teacher, does Anastasia ever come up in the classroom? Do your students still know the movie?

It does! I’m not sure how many of them remember it from childhood, but they do know it. One of my classes once chose to sing a song from it for that semester’s variety show – [20th Century Fox] had re-recorded all of the songs in other languages for worldwide release, like they do for a lot of animated films. “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” is even faster in Russian.

Finally, the most important question: Dimitri … Total hottie, right?

Totally accurate. I also just looked it up and realized that was John Cusack this whole time?

Yes. Yes, it was.

Also, Bernadette Peters, Broadway Icon, is Sophie???!! That’s honestly the bigger news for me.

She is!

For those of you who can’t get enough of Dimitri’s 90s floppy hair, Anastasia is streaming now on Netflix. Plus, the cast of the musical will be performing in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Whether their costumes can come close to the animated outfits that we love remains to be seen.

(images: 20th Century Fox, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr)

Lauren Henry is a writer and a PhD candidate in Modern French history focusing on colonialism, migration and identity formation. Ask her about France. Also Dimitri.

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