Robert K. Massie, narrator of Russian history, 90

The Boston Globe 1 week ago

NEW YORK — Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular books on giants of Russian history, died on Monday at his home in Irvington, New York. He was 90.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Deborah Karl.

In monumental biographies of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1729-96) and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, who were assassinated with their five children and others in 1918, Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.

One was even grist for Hollywood: “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1967) was adapted into a film of the same title in 1971.

Mr. Massie reached beyond strict biography. He wrote a book addressing the puzzles that arose after the skeletons of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last royal rulers of Russia, were discovered, along with those of family members, in Siberia in the 1990s. He also produced two naval histories of World War I that bristled with drama.

Mr. Massie said his literary odyssey was set in motion by research he did at the New York Public Library during lunch breaks from his job as a young journalist. It was purely personal research at first: He wanted to know more about the bleeding disease of hemophilia and how he and his wife at the time, Suzanne Massie, who became a noted Russian scholar, could help their hemophiliac son, Bob.

During his research he became fascinated with perhaps the most famous childhood case of hemophilia, that of Alexei, a son of Nicholas and Alexandra. It was to help Alexei that Alexandra had summoned Grigory Rasputin, the notorious faith-healing monk who gained influence over the imperial court. Public disdain of Rasputin contributed to the Russian people’s turn against the monarchy, helping to pave the way for the revolution of 1917.

Mr. Massie eventually quit his job to pursue the subject full time. A decade later, “Nicholas and Alexandra” was published to acclaim. Though nearly 1,000 pages long, it sold more than 4.5 million copies and is regarded as one of the most popular historical studies ever.

Robert and Suzanne Massie in 1975 addressed their son’s illness and how it had affected their own lives in “Journey,” a book they wrote together. Some reviewers saw their willingness to discuss deeply personal matters as a deliberate effort to draw a contrast to the Romanovs’ secretiveness.

Their marriage, however, ended in divorce in 1990. Mr. Massie married Karl in 1992.

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