Big Week for Russia Scholar Robert K. Massie

That the sometimes opulent, often tragic past is so much more compelling than fiction is no better illustrated than in the story of the Romanov dynasty, which, dripping in jewels and steeped in intrigue, ruled Russia for some 300 years. On September 18, 2012, all four of Robert K. Massie’s iconic books on the imperial house of Romanov were reissued.  Massie, a true gentleman scholar from Kentucky, is a foremost expert on czarist Russia who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great.

Massie, now in his eighties, is an unlikely Russophile. A Rhodes scholar and journalist, he came across the story of Czar Nicholas’ hemophilic son Alexei while doing research on his own son’s affliction with the genetic disease. The Russian imperial family never wished to make it known the little czarevich was gravely ill.  “But no one knew much about Nicholas either. He was either Bloody Nicholas or stupid, weak Nicholas, who had let everything fall apart,” Massie told the New York Times.

Nicholas and Alexandra (1969) is the heart-wrenching tale of the last Romanov rulers, a personal account of their lavish lifestyle, their naïveté and passionate obsessions, and a monarchy doomed by being utterly out of touch with the millions of desperately poor Russians over which it ruled. With the intimacy of a family member, Massie suggests that Nicholas’s concern for his desperately ill son and heir Alexei, and Alexandra’s faith in the corrupt mystic Rasputin’s ability to heal him, distracted the devout czar from affairs of state and led not only to wrong-headed military decisions but ultimately to the Bolshevik coup that ended the imperial dynasty.

Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980) is Massie’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the boy Romanov crowned at age ten. With the instincts of a novelist, the biographer brings the legendary monarch urgently to life, chronicling Peter’s incognito travels in Europe, his love for his peasant mistress Catherine, his military prowess, and the genius with which he transformed and westernized medieval Russia, thrusting her into the Enlightenment at the turning of the eighteenth century.

Told by Massie in The Romanovs: the Final Chapter (1995), the tragic end to the story of Nicholas and Alexandra reads like a crime thriller.  The author lays out the facts of their demise as they became known in the years after the publication of "Nicholas and Alexandra." He reveals the gory details of the assassination of the entire royal family by Bolsheviks in the basement of a house in Siberia in June of 1918, the brutality of which Francine du Plessix Gray described as “chillingly prophetic of the chaos and incompetence of the state that would be erected upon the ruins of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty.” Because pounds of jewelry had been sewn into the corsets of the three youngest children, including Alexei, bullets fired at their chests ricocheted around the room until their enraged executioners bayoneted their bodies and crushed their skulls. Massie goes on to present the historical evidence unraveling the romantic notion that the young Grand Duchess Anastasia survived -- a notion inspiring fiction (even a Disney movie), and he recounts attempts by imposters, most notably Anna Anderson, whose claims were apparently disproven with DNA research.

Based on Catherine’s own memoirs, Massie’s biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011) proves an accessible chronicle of the life of another Romanov, who as a girl of fifteen was shipped from Germany to marry her second cousin, Peter the Great’s grandson Peter III.  Six months after the beginning of her husband’s disastrous reign, nobles, church, and army had had enough, and put Catherine on the throne at age thirty-three.  She led the coup mounted on a white stallion in a Russian regimental uniform. The empress corresponded with Voltaire, had herself inoculated against smallpox as an example to her people, enjoyed many lovers, and rewrote Russia’s legal code while seizing control of the system of imperial absolutism at the height of its influence, truly excelling at the enormous task of ruling over millions of Russians.  Massie dispels some savage myths about the empress’s military foibles and the outrageous rumors of her death by sex with her horse, reminding us that she and Diderot acquired the European masterworks that make up the art collection at the Hermitage.  We are left with little doubt about the competence of this enlightened Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias.