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OLD RUSSIA: UNDER A MICROSCOPE AND THROUGH A TELESCOPE

By Maggie LewisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 1980



Irvington, N.Y.

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).

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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.

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.