finding your roots

Last Russian Princess Anastasia is her Grandma ?

Giuseppe Deetan May 15, 2012

Filipino’s grandmama could be Russia’s Anastasia

Grandmama Tasia and Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov

Grandmama Tasia and Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov

COMPARE THE PORTRAITS The picture at left is that of the writer’s “Grandmama Tasia” when she was a young girl. The one at right is the portrait of the young Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov of Russia, which she found on the Internet. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

I first met Caty Petersen in October 2010 through a mutual friend, who was convinced that I was the right person to write Caty’s story.

She divulged nothing more than that, asking me to just keep an open mind and join them for lunch, which at least promised to be a pleasant one; Kai was one of my favorite restaurants, and we hadn’t seen each other for months.

Caty rushed in, late and breathless and wide-eyed, a large brown envelope in hand, which she handed to me.

Over the next hour, I listened to her relate the highlights of a most unusual tale, riveting in many aspects, and somewhat incredible in others.

The story tumbled out of her, unrestrained. It was a search for roots.

Caty’s grandmother was Russian, but wasn’t someone she really knew that much about, and now she had pieced together a story that was clearly begging to be told. I convinced her to write the story herself.

So this is the story of her grandmother, but it is as much the story of Caty, whose journey of self-discovery really began over a century ago, in the heart of Russia.

By Caty Petersen

(First of two parts)

“You found them!” My mom half-sobs and half-shrieks on the phone.

WITH a birthday lechon as she celebrated in her late 70s

It’s May, 2009. I’m on holiday with my husband and son in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a mission to trace my Russian roots and hopefully reunite with relatives of my Russian grandmama. Getting ready to leave my hotel room for more sightseeing, I’m on the phone with my hysterical mom who’s halfway across the world in Manila. She asked that I call her immediately after receiving pictures I e-mailed her from the previous day’s visit to Catherine’s Palace.

“No, Mom, I didn’t.”

“But you have Mama’s picture when she was young! How did you get this?” my Mom asks, absolutely confusing me.

I reply, “Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t find our relatives here because Grandmama gave us the wrong name. What picture are you talking about?”

My Mom identifies the photo I took of a portrait of Russia’s last queen—Czarina Alexandra Romanov.

Having just discovered an hour earlier that my grandmama’s name, Tasia, is actually a diminutive of the name Anastasia, I start hyperventilating.

Anastasia was also the name of the Czar’s youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov of Russia, who, according to lore, may have possibly escaped the massacre that killed the last royal family of Russia.

Shocked, I try to calm my Mom and myself. “No Mom, that’s not a picture of grandmama when she was young. That’s a photo of the Tsaritsa (Russian term for their Queen) when she was young.”

My mom cries and insists that this particular photo is indeed her mom when she was that age. I now keep silent. My mom is too emotional for me to continue arguing with.

“TASIA” loved to wear lace dresses even in her old age.

Grandmama’s face

I turn my gaze back to the picture she’s looking at. Suddenly, I seem to see my grandmama’s face staring back at me. Then I, too, start crying.

For some reason, I had always found it funny to call my grandmama “Babushka,” the Russian word for grandmother. Instead, I chose to call her grandmama, while the rest of the grandchildren called her Lola Puti (white grandmother in Tagalog).

But I delighted in her term of endearment for me as a child—“Katushka”—especially when she sang it to me in words that were totally foreign, while she rubbed my back during bouts of my almost-weekly asthma attacks.

On the day I was born, my dad named me Frian, an odd name for a big, bald and loud baby girl. But somehow, his choice was not meant to be. My grandmama rushed to the hospital and announced I was to be called Catherine, after Catherine the Great, her motherland’s greatest Empress of all time. This was a surprise to all, because she had until then refused to give any of her children and earlier grandchildren Russian names. Until I came along.

Growing up, I was a very talkative, inquisitive and curious child (I still am). Because my grandmama lived with us for many years, I became very familiar with and entranced by her uniqueness.

She said her name was Tasia. And her last name was always a cause for family debates, because it irritated her no end that no one in our family could pronounce it properly. To our Filipino ears, it sounded like Kazzuhina, so that is how we said it and spelled it, much to her chagrin. It didn’t help that she would write it down in Cyrillic, the alphabet she grew up with, which added more to the confusion.

ONA RARE outing, a vacation in Baguio, in front of Hyatt Terraces

She told us this much: that she was 18 when she arrived in the Philippines after spending months on a ship from Russia, escaping the Bolshevik Revolution when it escalated in 1918. Handed over to the ship captain by family members for safekeeping, she was locked in her cabin for her safety, isolated from all other Russian passengers fleeing the revolution.

She did not join the rest of the White Russian émigrés (anti-communist, monarchist Russians who emigrated from Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution) who got off in China and Japan.

The only passenger left, she alone disembarked in a Philippine port, assisted by the protective ship captain, without any identification papers or documents.

Brought to a monastery or orphanage somewhere in Manila, she was looked after by nuns for some time until she was turned over to a wealthy spinster who played matchmaker to her and my future grandfather, Lope Pelayo.

Infatuated

Refusing to marry my infatuated grandfather on the grounds that she “just can’t,” she nevertheless lived with him for over four decades and bore him nine children. My mother is their sixth child.

On his deathbed in 1964, my grandfather was finally wed to my grandmama when the Mayor of Manila and family friend, Antonio Villegas, intervened and informed her that none of her children would inherit anything if she did not marry him.

As a precocious child growing up and at times sharing a bedroom with my mysterious grandmama, I reveled in her regal, unchanging daily rituals.

Watching her from my bed, I often lost count of how many strokes the maid brushed my grandmama’s hip-long silver hair nightly, while she sat in her mandated matching slippers and nightgowns. After which, my grandmama would move to sit on the edge of her bed while another maid knelt on the floor with a basin of warm soapy water to wash my grandmama’s feet, then dry and powder them before she would retire for the night. This happened every night without fail, even though she had just bathed less than an hour before.

THE AUTHOR on her milestone visit to Russia

To call her vain would be an understatement. She refused to leave her bedroom without having powdered her face, put on lipstick and perfume, and with a well-coiffed hairdo—even if she was just coming out for breakfast.

More often than not, the family would impatiently wait for her to sit at the head of the table, which had to be set with cloth napkins. She did not allow the use of paper napkins. The same rule applied to tissue paper; only cloth handkerchiefs were to be used at all times. Looking back, I can’t help but smile, knowing that today’s advocates for saving trees would commend her for those little eccentricities.

More enthralling were her stories of growing up in Russia.

She said she was the youngest of four daughters, and the fifth and youngest child of the family was the only boy, Alexei. Her best friend was her older sister, Maria. These were the only names she mentioned.

She talked about how utterly beautiful Russia was to her, how she rode around in a golden carriage drawn by eight white horses, or by boat whenever she and her family traveled.

Walls covered with jewels

She kept us in awe when she spoke of massive walls covered with jewels, or how they enjoyed the freshest butter, breads and cheeses because they were made right in their own house.

THE AUTHOR today

Her love of animals, caring for kittens and lovebirds when I was a child, must have stretched back to her own childhood. She demonstrated to us how she and her sisters would cut the bottom of their gowns around a sleeping cat or dog when their beloved pets snoozed on top of their long dresses as they sat sewing or doing embroidery. When we protested that it all seemed a bit extravagant, she merely smiled and said that it was how they did things back then.

Because she rarely smiled, it was a pleasure to watch her waltz around the room with a blissful smile on her glowing face whenever we played classical music. So when the time came for me to be introduced to society at the age of 18, I promptly chose Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” as the accompaniment to which my escort and I, with 12 pairs of my accommodating friends, danced and twirled, having spent eight Sundays of rehearsals.

Watching the video of that magical debutante night, I catch glimpses of my grandmama smiling and moving her well-coiffed silver head to the music as she watched her Katushka waltz her waltz.

It was certainly a rare event to get my grandmama out of the house. A recluse, she refused to venture out even to the supermarket or the church. There was always this fear of being seen by her fellow “white-skinned people” that made her shrink away from the outside world.

My incessant pleas during my teenaged years to write to the Russian Embassy to ask for their assistance in locating our Russian relatives so I could have them as my pen pals were rebuffed by her immediately.

Her stern response was always a warning: “If they discover I am here, we will all be killed.”

The family was used to hearing her intone that warning, without fully understanding what it meant, because she never explained why, or who “they” were. We all acquiesced and lived our lives as privately as possible out of respect for her, resigned to the idea that she was an orphan and that no relatives existed.

It’s December 2011. While my husband is busy preparing the dinner he promised us later at home, I’m in Paloma Garcia’s place, a mere 15 minutes away, although the surreal experience I’m about to encounter will make me feel like I’m on a different planet altogether.

Sitting in front of me is this unsophisticated and soft-spoken young man. I’ve never seen him before.

He’s a spiritual medium, who Paloma believes is genuinely gifted. This meeting is unplanned; he happens to be available today, and so I have come over to see if he can connect with the spirit of my Grandmama. Perhaps he’ll tell me why she has been appearing in my dreams, for weeks at a time.

A few feet away, in the adjacent dining room, are two people I trust completely, Paloma of course, and Emily [Abrera]. They are here to observe, and give me support.

The medium lights a small white candle and asks me to write my Grandmama’s name, birth date and day she passed away. He also asks for my Grandmama’s photo.

He looks at everything, closes his eyes and appears to be praying. Silently I say a prayer too.

All of a sudden, I sense heaviness all around me; even the air in the living room feels oppressive and still. And I feel what I can only identify as extreme sadness and pain.

“There is a secret she has been keeping,” the medium’s voice, gentle yet urgent, startles me. He places one hand on his chest, “There’s also much pain. Look at your grandmother’s picture, at her eyes. They’re talking to you.”

At this precise moment, a hair-raising, disembodied sound coming from my friend’s cat right outside the door behind me punctuates the afternoon. Should I laugh or be irritated? I get goose bumps.

He continues, “Your grandmother died from an illness. But she is not at peace. She’s not from here … she needs you to bring her bones back to her home. She keeps telling me you need to bring her home. To her family.”

He closes his eyes for a few seconds as if listening to someone, and starts again, “Her family … there are six of them.”

At this point, I think, “Nope, this guy is wrong. They’re seven in the family.”

Except the medium interrupts my thoughts with, “Yes, there’s six of them waiting for her.” Okay, now he’s got it right. I move to the edge of the sofa.

He turns his head to the side and closes his eyes again, “Her family. They were killed…because of the father. The sins of the father. There’s some kind of curse on their family, passed on from previous generations through the father.”

I notice that I have begun shaking.

He continues his staccato reportage: “There are angry men. There are many of them…very angry at the father. Killing them, killing the family.”

I cannot help it; tears start streaming down my cheeks.

“Ay. So much blood. There are other bodies thrown on top of the family. So much blood.” He shakes his head anxiously, and starts making these strange hand movements, as if brushing away something invisible and unwanted from his arms. He says to no one in particular that the spirits of the killers are touching him.

I suppose there is a sound to my sobbing, prompting my two friends to join us in the living room.

Emily, ever the cerebral one, asks the medium to try to describe exactly what he sees.

“This happened a long, long time ago,” the man says.

“How do you know that?” Emily asks.

“Because everything looks old and faded, like there’s no color,” he responds.

Emily asks what else he sees.

‘Little chapel’

“I’m in a big house; it’s not in this country. There are many rooms…the walls are spacious…they look different. I’m going through other rooms now. I see the family. They’re not from here. They’re dressed in elaborate outfits with long sleeves, made of thick material…it is cold in this place; I’ve never seen it before. This is not happening here.”

The medium now looks directly at me and repeats, “Your grandmother says you need to bring her bones back to her home. She needs to be with her family, in the little chapel. She is the key to many questions. It is your task to bring her home.”

There they are: two words that hit me like a brick. Little chapel.

Why didn’t he say cemetery? Is this just one more in a list of uncanny coincidences?

In Saint Petersburg, in a quiet corner of the main cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress is a little chapel called St. Catherine’s. This is where the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family are buried. A red rope bars public entry into the chapel but through the open doors, one can view the single grave marble marker and the family’s plaque memorials on the wall of the chapel inside. Anastasia Romanov’s plaque is one of them.

Not expecting him to answer, I ask, “How? How am I supposed to bring her home? I can’t just put her bones in a backpack and smuggle her back to Russia. And how in the world do I bring her into that little chapel?”

Set her free

He calmly replies, “She will help you. It will all happen. Faster than you think. But you have to start this right away…when the New Year comes in.”

I still can’t imagine how. “Is she really going to help me?”

He grimaces, saying, “Ay. Now she sounds like she’s screaming. Her voice is shrill…masakit sa tenga (ear-piercing). Is she really like that?”

I nod, remembering. “That’s how she sounded when she was upset. She shrieked.”

He continues, “Well, she says don’t ever ask that question again. She’s always helped, so you shouldn’t even ask her that question.”

He says my grandmother is fading into the darkness again. And he touches his neck. “It feels like there’s a chain around her neck…it’s heavy and it hurts.”

I cry out, “What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure,” he sadly replies. “I’m sorry. She’s gone. But now I see a dark-skinned man, a Filipino. He’s your grandfather? He says you need to set her free. Bring her home.”

I never met my grandfather. He passed away two years before I was born. I know him only from pictures and the descriptions of my Mom and her siblings. When I do think of him, I imagine him as a gentle, loving person devoted to my Grandmama.

I am exhausted; my eyes are swollen; and my head now hurts. I can’t believe what has just happened.

Crown ring

The person who was responsible for that session I fondly call Palomsky. My former high school teacher who referred me to Palomsky described her as the genuine thing, the best feng shui master/astrologer in town but also warned me about her impersonal, straight-to-the-point manner with everyone when it came to reading charts.

Palomsky can be understandably intimidating, as are most people who are not shy about expressing themselves. In her case, having a special gift that lets her see through people, Palomsky is very selective about who she surrounds herself with, and may be a bit curt with those who don’t pass the test.

But I adore her. She and I have a special bond that seems otherworldly, which we both like to believe extends far back into our previous lives.

In October 2010, when I met with her for my second reading, she looked at the silver and onyx crown ring I wear above my wedding ring and exclaimed, “I love that ring!”

In the last 10 years, for some unknown reason, I’d steadily been collecting crown-themed items, in addition to the assortment in what I call my growing Russian-inspired caboodle: heavily embroidered clothing, thick Russian linens, Russian Orthodox-Byzantine crosses and even fur hats.

Royalty in birth chart

Peering at my astrological chart, she turned serious.

“Who’s the foreigner in your family?” she demanded to know.

“My Grandmama,” I answered. She looked again at my chart then looked back at me, this time with some astonishment.” You have royalty in your birth chart,” she blurted out.

Had I ever thought that? In truth, until my recent trip to Russia with my husband and son-never. But the series of events that had occurred since that trip had led me to ask many questions.

Sensing my nervousness and discomfort, Palomsky explained that a person’s astrological chart is based on fixed data: one’s birth date and exact time of birth. She said that any good astrologer who did my chart would come up with the same reading. Trusting my intuition implicitly, I told her everything that had been happening for the past three years…there was a lot.

In some ways, I felt I was getting to understand my Grandmama better, but in other ways, some of the possible interpretations made her story, and mine, so preposterous that even I had to laugh at times. More and more, however, I felt I needed to tell it.

Palomsky then suggested introducing me to someone she thought could help me. She wouldn’t tell me who, just that she was a sort of public figure, highly esteemed, and most important, that she was someone with scruples, who couldn’t be bought. Soon after we parted, Palomsky called me back to confirm a lunch date the following week to meet her friend. I couldn’t wait.

Something in common

When I finally met Emily Abrera, advertising industry leader (who wrote the introduction to yesterday’s story), I immediately liked her.

As it turned out, the three of us had something in common: Catherine.

I’m Catherine; Emily’s second name is Catherine. And Palomsky went to a convent school named after St. Catherine. Over lunch, I shared with Emily everything I’d been discovering about my Grandmama, and asked her if she would consider writing her story. She seemed interested, and instructed me to start gathering and documenting all the data I had available, and to organize the material.

For the most part, Emily just listened to all I had to say, every now and then backtracking to see if I was recalling details accurately. If I got emotional in the telling, she would firmly and coolly bring me back to the present, reminding me to stay on track, and stay faithful to my purpose.

Some time after our second meeting, I received a text message from her asking if we could meet before my travel schedule took me away again. We set it for the next day’s breakfast.

As soon as the coffee was poured, she asked, “What was your Grandmother’s last name again?”

I replied, “We always thought it was Kazzuhina, and we spelled it that way. But we probably never got it exactly right. Grandmama always complained that no one could pronounce it properly.”

Emily pulled out from a folder a page she had printed out from Wikipedia, on the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Odd that it hadn’t caught our attention before, but the first line said:

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov of Russia (Russian: Velikaya Knyazhna Anastasiya Nikolayevna Romanova).

Emily said, “I don’t speak Russian, but the spelling of that word looks suspiciously similar to Kazzuhina, don’t you think?”

Story is far from over

Steve and I stared at the name Knyazhna, and yes, it looked and sounded very similar to the last name my Grandmama used as her surname, Kazzuhina. The same one that the genealogist in Moscow had told me bluntly was not a Russian surname.

The genealogist was right. Kazzuhina isn’t a name, and neither is its twin, Knyazhna. It’s a title. And it means Duchess.

This was just one more link to a possible Russian heritage I do not dare to claim for my Grandmama. But there are too many parallelisms and coincidences.

That morning’s discovery also triggered a chilling insight: could all the sinister and mystifying surveillance and computer hacking I had been experiencing for several years while in the US, and to some extent here in Manila, have something to do with my efforts to solve my Grandmama’s identity mystery?

Had I been asking too many questions? Was it making anyone uncomfortable?

Too many questions remain unanswered, so my quest will continue, as I seek to discover: Who was she really, my grandmother Tasia, before she landed in the Philippines all those years ago? And will I eventually be able to help bring peace to her and her family?

This story is far from fully told, but at least I have begun, as my Grandmama wished. With each day that passes, I am getting to know her, and me, a little more. Implicitly, we have made a promise to each other. She will keep finding ways to guide me, and I will see our story told, to the last page.

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Comments

  • garth tuttle

    June 25, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Hmmmmm: lore is one thing, but DNA tests have confirmed beyond a shadow of (reasonable ) doubt that none of the Romanovs servived : Anastashia was burried with her parents .

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The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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