Remembering Historian Robert Massie’s Career And The Lessons It Taught

Robert K. Massie’s books on Russian history set the bar for research and writing style. Image Source: Patrick Burns/The New York Times / Barnes & Noble

On Monday, December 2, 2019, revered author of Russian history Robert K. Massie passed away at his home in Irvington, Kentucky. He was 90 years old and died due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease, according to his wife and literary agent, Deborah Karl.

Robert Kinloch Massie III was born in Versailles, Kentucky. He was born to an educator father and progressive activist mother. He earned degrees from Yale and then Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

Though he had brief stints as a journalist and came to primarily make his name as a Russian history scholar, Massie also briefly taught at Princeton and Tulane and was president of the Authors Guild.

Massie’s literary career contains exhaustive biographies of key rulers of Imperial Russia, from Peter the Great, who exponentially increased Russia’s interaction with the West, to Nicholas II, whose reign contributed to the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution and rise of the Soviet Union.

Massie utilized a unique style to a topic that had not been thoroughly explored

When research and literary works are motivated by personal means, the passion is often infectious. Massie and his then-wife at the time, the equally esteemed Russian scholar Suzanne Massie, had a son with hemophilia. During his time as a young journalist, breaks were spent doing research at the New York Public Library. Within those shelves, Massie hoped to learn more about how to help their son, Bob, himself a hemophiliac.

There, he learned about the most consequential case of hemophilia in history: that of Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, son of Nicholas II.

The Massie family felt a deep connection to Russian history

Nicholas and Alexandra propelled Massie into the world of Russian history literature. Image Source: Barnes & Noble

Alexei’s condition propelled his family further into a lifestyle of isolation, penetrated only by the divisive monk, Grigori Rasputin, believed by Alexei’s distraught mother to be capable of healing the sickly heir she and Nicholas had prayed for for so long, and who she doted over day and night.

Massie wrote about hemophilia for The Saturday Evening Post, and his compulsion for covering Russian history made itself evident soon after when he wrote about Nicholas and Alexandra specifically. The Post did not print this second article, but soon after this excursion, Massie quit his job to pursue his research full-time.

Massie spent the next ten years dedicatedly compiling the research and narrative to his debut Russian history novel, Nicholas and Alexandra. The book sported nearly a thousand pages, and sold 4.5 million copies. As time passed, it established itself as a unique account of the reign of Russia’s last tsar. Later, it would also become the basis of a movie by the same name. Indeed, the subject matter of Massie’s work had a tendency of finding its way to the big screen.

Massie, compelled by the experiences shared between him, his wife, and their hemophiliac son, approached his retelling of Nicholas’s life from the view of a worried father. Alexei’s hemophilia was tied to key factors in the downfall of the Romanovs, and thus a catalyst for Russian and world history.

Russian history and culture were not his only areas of interest

Eventually, though, Massie caught the bug to write about Russia’s rulers again. His research for Nicholas and Alexandra drew his attention to another historical titan: Peter the Great, a literal and figurative giant in his own time. He did, however, report a lack of biographies dedicated to “Pyotr Veliky,” and so he wrote his own. 1980 saw the release of Peter the Great: His Life and World.

Massie could not find an exhaustive biography of Peter the Great, he wrote his own. Image Source: Patrick Burns/The New York Times

Though Peter the Great was the star of this award-winning book, the story did not begin with him exclusively. Rather, Massie covered events before Peter’s birth, for he understood the importance of a solid understanding of the past to better explain the present.

Briefly, Massie insisted he had “had done enough about Russia” and instead wrote about naval battles. The result was the 1991 book, Dreadnought, an exploration of the naval rivalry between Great Britain and Germany and its contributions to igniting World War I. Enthusiasm for this subject stemmed from his time in the Navy as a nuclear targeting officer in the 1950s.

Once again, reviews raved about Massie’s engaging writing style that drives a reader onward like any good mystery or thriller would, though they critiqued his reliance on secondary sources, a common area of criticism for Massie.

The history Massie wrote about ended up reaching out to him to resume his old work

In a 2012 interview, Ms. Karl, recounted asking him why he answered these questions individually. “Why don’t you write a little book about it?” she proposed. And so, in 1995, Massie released The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.

Within its pages, The Final Chapter entwined history with science, political intrigue with courtroom drama, in a well-rounded outline of how the mystery behind the Romanov family’s fate came to be solved. Later passages even tie these events to figures very well-known in modern day.

From the initial discovery of the remains to the victims to the birth — and resolution — of the Anna Anderson conspiracy, everything was addressed with accounts from individuals directly tied to the case.

Dedication and personal care helped Massie leave a strong legacy

Robert K. Massie won a Pulitzer Prize for Peter the Great: His Life and World. Image Source: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Massie is survived by an extensive family, including his wife and ex, several children, seven grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

Robert and Suzanne Massie established a solid understanding in Russian history and culture. The likes of Ronald Reagan turned to such people to bridge a cultural gap between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Though many are grateful for the knowledge Massie bestowed on so many, Massie himself felt unwavering gratitude to his books, all of which he considered “friends.” He kept his books about Catherine the Great nearby to tend to and appreciate.

“I like to make sure they are alive and well,” Massie wrote. “If they have collected dust, I take out the small towel I carry in my briefcase and wipe them of.” Library books received similar care.

In his book exploring Peter the Great, Massie ends the historical text with a question for readers: “How does one judge the endless roll of the ocean or the mighty power of the whirlwind?” Surely, historians must ask themselves a similar question when contemplating the impact of Robert K. Massie on their understanding of a topic as nuanced, complex, and fascinating as Russian history.

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