OLD RUSSIA: UNDER A MICROSCOPE AND THROUGH A TELESCOPE

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

I wondered if I'd find the Marie and Pierre Curie of Russophile literature when I drove to Irvington -- a pretty town on the Hudson River -- to talk to Robert and Suzanne Massie. AFter all, she did the research for his "Nicholas and Alexandra" and now, between them they have just produced 1,402 more pages of Russian history. Suzanne Massie has published "Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 493 pages), and at the same time Robert Massie's "Peter the Great, His Life and World" is out at Alfred A. Knopf (New York. 909 pages).

Do they discuss serfdom at dinner, perhaps starting with some cabbage soup and going on to sturgeon? Does Mr. Massie like to go out in his fields and scythe alongside the gardener in the style of Konstantin Levin in "Anna Karenina" while Mrs. Massie happily folds up piroshki in the kitchen? The Massies' big Victorian house on a hill overlooking the Hudson is pale gray, with various knobby bays, a veranda that flounces around the bottom like a petticoat, and various peaks and points in the roof high above the venerable tree in front. A very American house, but still, that porch would be a good place to linger in Chekhovian indecision on long summer days. . . .

Luckily, Robert MAssie, smiling and looking authorish in gray flannels and a pullover, opened the door and interrupted these musings before it was too late and I got going on Lermontov or something.

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He showed me into, literally, a brown study. There, among dark paneling and volumes of history, he had spent anywhere from eight to twelve years on "Peter the Great." (He has been working on it since 1968, with two years off to write another book, "Journey," with his wife, and six months off to teach at Princeton. "Knopf is trying to get me to say [it took] 10 years. I'm not sure that's either true or, in fact, reflects great credit on me. How could it possibly have taken 10 years?")

His story of Peter is full of maps and battle plans, broad views from Russia of Europe and vice versa, and peculiarly compelling descriptions of boat-building. It is a history of a remarkable man who, although immensely powerful, always had a 14-year-old boy's fascination with the way things run. Mr. Massie wrote it with the same fascination, and it's infectious. By the time you finish the first chapter, you know all about prefabricated wood houses in Moscow in the mid-1600s, how the czars were regarded by their people and what they had for dinner, and what the Russian sky looks like in the summer. No wonder it took him a long time.

Mr. Massie, a handsome man with a dry smile, demonstrated at the outset a remarkable ability to be quiet and figure things out by searching among all his history books and actually finding an extension cord for my tape recorder.

Suzanne Massie's book has a very different personality. It is bubbly, full of details like what types of berries grow in the north and what kinds of preserves and sweets they are made into. It paints such an alluring -- and colorful -- picture of Old Russia with its hand-carved, curlicued wood buildings , it embroidered flowers and beautiful icons that you half hope for a Muscovian snowfall so that you can wrap up in a floor-length fur and dash out across town in a troika.

And she's like that, too. She wore a black turtleneck, not a fur. But she bustled down from the upper reaches of the house and settled on the near end of an immense brown leather couch, talking about an encouraging letter from Solzhenitsyn, the New York Times's negative review of her book, and generally declaiming. Her peppy blond hair and blue eyes that bolt excitedly to you when she gets going show where she gets that dynamic writing style.

The people look as independent as their books, which share only a few sentences on the building of St. Petersburg. While Mr. Massie was looking out into the trees and reflecting on Peter, Mrs. Massive was commuting to a studio in New York where she summoned Pushkin & Co. as her muses and knocked out "Land of the Firebird" in three years.

What I wanted to know was if being married to each other made any difference to their writing about Russia at all. What I asked was, "Are you writing about two different Russias?" The response was instant and simultaneous. Like unmatched bookends, they sat bolt upright at their ends of the couch, and, aquiver with interview energy (both are veteran journalists), began deferring to each other.

Mr. Massie: "Good question."

Mrs. Massie: "I'll let you answer it first."

Mr. Massie: "I'llm let you."m

Mrs. Massie: "No, you answer it."

Mrs. Massie won. Mr. Massie had to start. But it was a dubious victory. He began talking about her book.

"Sue is concerned -- a big fraction of [her book] was concerned -- with pre-Petrine Russia, Muscovite Russia. . . . She knows more about Russia before Peter, and her view of Russia before Peter is more complete and she feels very strongly that it is a society that suffered as well as profited from Westernization."

So, of course, as a counterattack, Mrs. Massie began talking about how wonderful Peter the Great -- the book and the man -- were.

"It has a view of old Europe; in other words, you're not just seeing [Russia] . I found this true in much of Russian history -- it's talked about as though nothing elsewere happening anywhere else. So I've met a lot of people who think Peter lived in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, I think you've really Peter in his own time. It's a very helpful and, I think, a very exciting thing, because [the reader sees] all the other actors on the stage."

Thus introduced by each other, they were free to settle down to what they were reallym interested in, however many Russias we were talking about: their own books.

"His behaviour was very modern," Robert Massie said of Peter, an immensely powerful man who dragged Russia into the 17th century literally by the hair: One of his efforts at modernizing Russian society was to make every man shave off his beard, beards being an Old Church tradition. They had to shave or pay a tax. Sometimes he shaved them himself.

More practically, he learned to build a boat that could sail against the wind instead of the primitive river boats Russia had, started the Russian Navy, and opened Russia to trade with the West from various ports, including St. Petersburg, which he had built.

The 6 foot, 7 inch dynamo took a two-year trip, called the "Great Embassy," to Europe with an entourage to learn boat building and to recruit Europeans who could help build the Russian fleet. He insisted on traveling incognito, though his height tended to tip people off.

"Nicholas and Alexandra" had gotten Mr. Massie interested in Russia, but it was Peter's overwhelmingly powerful personality and greedily sweeping view of things that kept him going.

"I really had to start from scratch and then, as you see from reading the book, I decided to give myself not only an education in Russian but also in European history. So I read books about other countries and economic histories and military histories and so forth.

"I was trying to show -- by showing . . . what Europe was like -- how he must have felt . . . when he came out from this older civilization. . . . I have to be very careful around Sue, the adjectives I use," -- Mrs. Massie chuckled darkly -- "and saw . . . this differentm civilization . . . this modern, rationalistic, commercial, imperialistic, maritime, Protestant culture. . . . There's a great difference, an astonishing difference, to come from old Muscovy where he was a god, and to think William III [of England, whom Peter visited in London and Amsterdam] was just a sort of senior official of the government, a king and stadholder . . . he was practically elected."

The reason he has to be careful around his wife when describing the old regime is that she is on a crusade against what she calls the "dark-night-of-czarist-tyranny myth."

"If you read a lot of Russian history," she says indignantly, "you'll find often in Western histories there are a lot of pejorative words: medieval, backward, barbaric, exotic. And barbaric, for instance, can't be applied to Russia, because barbaric usually means a culture that's pagan."

Thus, the faintly contrary tone (as in "quite the contrary . . .?) in her book. She unseats many old images of Russia and points out how advanced, enlightened, and, well, fun, life in old Russia was, contrary to what you may have heard. For instance, while the rest of Europe was discovering perfume as a necessary antidote to their less rigorous standards of personal hygiene, Russians laved themselves several times a week in their steam baths, and plunged into icy rivers afterward.

The Russian winters were kept partially at bay by the huge greenhouses of 19 th-century St. Petersburg, which produced lettuce and asparagus in January and February and strawberries in March. And there were rich peasants, and there were 14,000 magazines and newspapers in publicatoin on the eve of the revolution , of all political persuasions. And most of all, there was art.

She feels Westerners get too many of their ideas about Russia from the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, who, she says, were writing in a time of intense social self-examination not typical of the Russian soul. More typical, she feels, are the piquant tales and lyrical poems of Pushkin, less frequently translated and less well-known here.

"Pushkin, the Russians feel, has got them more accurately," she says; then, with even more feeling, "I reappreciated him [while] doing this book because I really had to reread, and he is the Mozart of writers."

She talks freely about how the Russians feel and "Russian feelings" from both personal experience and a sense of heritage. Her mother, the daughter of a Swiss watch dealer, was invited to spend the summer with Russian friends. It was the summer of 1914, and the visit stretched to six years.

"She escaped the revolution with the family she'd been living with and reemerged when she was 21. And the result was that she was really quite more Russian than she was Swiss, and she passed this on to me, her own love and her own stories and her own experiences, and I had that from a child," she says. When she was told her son had hemophilia, she began studying Russian to give herself some way of challenging her thinking, which made her a great help to her husband when he began to write the history of the most famous parents of a hemophiliac, Nicholas II and Alexandra.

She has also lectured on Russian culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is on the board of the International League for Human Rights. But more than scholarship, she prides herself on identifying so closely with Russians that they take her for one of them. Since her book came out, people have called her and said, "It's not possible that you're not Russian."

"my book does not concern politics or diplomacy or wars or conflicts between countries. . . . For instance, I don't include all the czars." (She spells it "tsars," which is the transliteration of the Cyrillic characters, and pronounces it, by the way, very authentically, with kind of a winded "t" sound at the beginning, as if she had fallen out of a cherry tree while saying it, instead of sibilantly, the way some Westerners say it who can't believe anyone would want you to say "ts" at the beginning of the word.)

"Not all the czars had anything to do with the culture. . . . After Pushkin, in effect, the czars no longer affected art at all from above. . . . I was trying to talk about the culture and that's why I called it 'The Beauty.' I called it 'The Beauty' and tried to show as many aspects of that beauty, or to indicate as many as I could."

Concentrating on "the beauty" has not won her universal acclaim. John Leonard, writing in the New York Times, took her to task for an overly cheerful view of Old Russia, as well as the manner in which she conveyed it:

"Mrs. Massie intends a cultural history of Russia by adjective and snippet," he complained. What about anti-Semitism, the exile of as many intellectuals before the revolution as after, and the fact that peasants weren't allowed to travel, he demanded.

She dismisses such comments as "the McCarthyism of the left," part of a prejudice against Old Russia in the minds of Westerners. She is surprised, she says, that writing Old Russian hisotry is still controversial, though this summer Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself wrote her that he imagined the book's "passage will not be light."

The book ism rich in snippets and adjectives. It covers nearly 1,000 years of culture, but touches on details as delicate as the Polish influence in Moscow in the mid-1600s, which caused a fashion for feathers in hats. The effect is rather like going through trunkfuls of old teasures with a confiding person by your side who exclaims over each one, shows it off, perhaps tries it on, and tells you where it came from.

Mr. Massie, on the other hand, takes the 42 years of Peter's reign and fans out all over Europe, following Peter's rovings with an appetite for European ideas only a little smaller than the Czar's. While Mrs. Massie manages to put 1 ,000 years under the microscope, Mr. Massie uses a telescope to get a sweeping view from the point of view of one czar's reign.

"It seems to me it's two different -- " I began.

" -- certainly two different writers," says Mr. Massie comfortably from the distant end of the couch, where he had been leaning back, feet on the coffee table, so quiet I thought he might have dozed off. Hardly.

"I don't know if we're answering your question about Russia, but she approaches this with a permanent, deep, and lifelong passion for Russia and everything Russian which she got as a little girl from her mother. Whereas I didn't know anything about Russia and sort of came in in a strange way. I was a journalist and political writer before writing books and have always been interested in power and the wielding of power and in the life of men who do.

"In 'Nicholas and Alexandra,' this was a man who was stuck with a job which he didn't want, and did a poor job of it but was a good father and a good husband and so forth. In Peter's case, this was a man who was not, certainly, destined to become czar [but] who reached out and grabbed it. He was the 14th child of his father. He wielded power in almost ultrahuman fashion. And they happened to both be Russian.

"When 'Nicholas and Alexandra' was over, I was so interested in this whole new world that I just spent about three or four years with that. I wanted to continue and it was Sue who suggested . . . that Peter was somebody to be interested in." He says this mildly, and adds, "I'm a Scot. I can be awed, but I'm not in love."

Perhaps he's not in love with Mother Russia, but he is most certainly enamored of his work. At one point during his 12 Petrine years, he changed publishers, which caused a lot of legal problems. He could have quit then, and avoided some of those problems, including a stiff financial penalty since he had nothing written, just bales and boxes of research. But he "just couldn't think of stopping." So on he went, an dwe have "Peter the Great," the kind of book he wanted to read, and Atheneum, the abandoned publisher, has 25 percent of his gross proceeds (which will be considerable, since the book is on the New York Times best-seller list).

Others feel the same way. Kyril Fitzlyon, writing more enthusiastically in the Sunday New York Times Book Review than John Leonard ("disappointing") said, "It would be surprising if it did not become the standard biography of Peter the Great in English for many years to come, as fascinating as any novel and more so than most."

Mr. Massie was educating himself, but that fascination with Peter that pulled him through the research shows in his book. Readers are drawn through all 909 pages of intrigue, beard-shaving, revelry, and seafaring. Though he admires Peter and compares him to a whirlwind, a reader who finds him gross and overbearing doesn't feel crowded by glowing adjectives.

He is able to brook disagreements. I asked them if they differed on the value of Westernization, and Mr. Massie related it to the Tennessee Valley Authority's bringing not only light to rural farms, but also television and neon.

"You get down to a question of philosophy, about what is happiness, what causes happiness? My initial sympathies as a young man and as a Western progress-oriented citizen would be toward what Peter was trying to do, which was to, in a practical way, abolish ignorance and build new cities to increase trade and commerce, build canals to facilitate trade, send his people to the West to learn modern technology.It wasn't better, but it sure was easier to do things, with the more modern technology."

He definitely has the broad view required to take in Peter and his consuming power.

Whereas his wife's book is more on the order of a glowing review of a performance. "What this book does is take all of these different facets of old Russian culture, which everybody knows and . . . admires separately. They read the novels, they know about the ballet, they'll listen to the music. And they'll even go and admire the architecture. . . . But then somehow or other they don't connect it to the society and they don't understand the society has been given a bad press. . . . Sue is trying to put all this in the same review."

So that's it. From his corner of the couch he has made yet another telling observation. All the time I thought he was waiting for his turn to talk, he was following her argument. They could almost be interviewing each other, with insight born of years together. Having met them only hours before, I found that very helpful.

They seem so genuinely eager to find out each other's answers to questions that I believe Mrs. Massie's testimony that they haven't discussed their work much. After days at their respective desks, she says, "we were anxious to watch TV," rather than rehash the battle at Poltava.

But, for all their disparateness, they are a team. Robert Massie writes in his acknowledgement, "Authors usually thank their wives, but how does one thank a wife who is also an author? While I have been writing this book, Suzanne Massie has written two of her own books, at the same time caring for our home and children, and never failing her myriad friends, East and West. To this extraordinary woman, I express my gratitude and admiration."

"He's obviously a very graceful acknowledger," Suzanne Massie remarked. And they both offered kudos to their daughter Elizabeth for putting up with their intense, closeted existence. But it was obvious a lot of help came from Robert Massie, as well, who spent the last few years at home filling in the gaps between "the lady who cleans things up and keeps things going" and the arrival of his wife at dinner time each evening from New York. He just didn't regard it as work.

"I'm the one home now, so I'm the one who drives Elizabeth to wherever. . . . In two years she'll be gone and then I'll be freer, but I'll also be lonelier."

Autumn was drawing in, like autumn does in Turgenev. It was getting colder; leaves blew in circles outside the big windows, and the study had darkened fast as we pondered whether Westernization was a good thing or not.

"I'll go make some tea," Mr. Massie announced. He came back with Russian glasses in holders for Mrs. Massie and me, and a thick, British-looking mug with milk for himself. "You see?" he said, raising his mug in a toast and a demonstration of his scholarly remove.

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