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News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 31, 2017 and Island Ad-Vantages, August 31, 2017 and The Weekly Packet, August 31, 2017
Local voices, global issues: Suzanne Massie, people and history of Russia

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Leningrad apartment

Suzanne Massie sits at her desk in her Leningrad apartment.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Massie

by Anne Berleant

In the sunlit dining room of Suzanne Massie’s East Blue Hill house—a “direct copy of Pushkin’s country,” she noted—Massie brings out a photo of her late husband, Seymour Papert, “just for inspiration,” noting “he was the only humanist I ever met in the computer world.”

Humans are Massie’s field, specifically the people of Russia, like the poet whom she met while touring Pavlovsk Palace, and then, because she seemed different from the average Western tourist, he asked her to come to his poetry reading that night.

“This was a very unusual happening. I think God had to do with it. You couldn’t think of it yourself, it was so far-fetched,” she said.

The year was 1968. The city was Leningrad. Massie was researching Nicholas II and his wife the Empress Alexandra, inspired by an unusual link: their son, and hers, were both born with hemophilia.

“When my son, at age 2, had a cerebral hemorrhage, I decided I had to do something difficult,” Massie said. “I heard quite by accident, in my little suburban development, [about] an adult education class on Russia. So I went. The teacher took one look at me and said, ‘You have a Russian soul.’”

At the time, Massie was a suburban wife who had turned down a Fulbright scholarship because travel expenses were not covered and because her Swiss diplomat father told her it was time to go to work. She became a researcher at Time Magazine, and then a photo editor at Life, in an era when photojournalists were “dripping in glamour, coming in with their trench coats and cigarettes.”

Her first trip to Leningrad in 1968 came at a time when individual foreign visitors were allowed only three days in each Russian city.

“It was dark, there was no food, it was a terrible, terrible time,” for the Russian people, she said.

The Russian poet took her to hear his poems and translations of the English poet Byron, and then invited us to his “shabby, communal basement apartment” next to the Winter Palace.

“After that day, all I wanted to do was go back,” she said. “It started with my love affair, not with a person, but a city.”

After traveling between Paris and Leningrad for four years, where she assisted the hemophilia community by bringing in much-needed medicine, her Russian visa was revoked.

“Why? In Russia there are no whys. Only Western people ask for reasons. But I knew I would go back,” she said.

Unable to visit, Massie wrote, publishing Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia in 1980, now in its 24th printing, as she kept working her connections to return to Leningrad.

In 1983, Russia allowed her back in.

In 1984, she had her first meeting with President Reagan, who wanted to hear about the Russian people, as he and Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev began to work towards warming Cold War relations.

“This, 1983 and 1984, was the worst period of the Cold War. I was determined to do something,” she said.

Massie had become known in the U.S. as someone who knew Soviet people, not politics, she said. She had known Maine Senator Bill Cohen for years. Hw was then on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and she went to see him.

“After talking for a while, he reached for the phone and called National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane…Step by step, I was introduced to Reagan.”

She was brought to the Oval Office on January 17, 1984.

“There we were, with no relations with the Soviet Union,” she said.Massie found out that she had been called on to go on a “back channel mission” to Russia.

“I said okay but not before I’ve looked in the eyes of the president,” she recalled. Reagan, she said, “was interested in the Russians, what they were like.”

She met with Reagan nearly 20 times in his second term, 1985 through 1988. He wrote her 10 letters, and called her several times, including one unexpected time, while she was hanging a lamp at home. She introduced him to the Russian phrase he used throughout the U.S. arms-control negotiations with Russia, “Trust, but verify.” This is also the title of Massie’s memoir about her relationship with Russia, and Reagan, published in 2013. The book will be published in Russia this fall.

U.S. and Russia today

In recent months, with “wild” media reports on and judicial investigations into Russians hacking into U.S. servers, possibly influencing presidential elections and politics, Massie said America is turning Russia-phobic.

“We’re talking about Russia as if it were still the Soviet Union and it’s not,” she said. “The Soviet Union doesn’t exist.”

She keeps a small apartment in her favorite city, renamed St. Petersburg in 1991, and said Russian teenagers are the first generation to be raised without Communism in a country where 82 percent of the citizens believe in God.

“I have spent the last 40 years studying Russian culture, history and the Russian people,” Massie said. “I have been traveling [there] since 1968. I knew all sorts of Russian citizens, high and low, people from every walk of life.”

Massie said the current media reports on Russia are “allegations, not facts, and dangerous, particularly when based on so much wrong information. It certainly isn’t based on any real observations on what is happening to the Russian population or to Russia today.

“People aren’t learning anything about what’s happening to the Russian people. We have no information about that. It’s a near-absolute blackout.”

Massie described herself as an independent, who writes about people, not politics.

“I’ve always fought for that,” she said, “to be independent and able to know Russians, and I have. That is the thing I’m most proud of.”

Reagan and Gorbachev may have signed their first agreement in 1985, restoring the cultural exchange between the two countries but Massie had been doing that, as an American citizen visiting Russian citizens.

“I always thought that was extraordinarily important, that we get ordinary Americans and ordinary Russians together. That is still happening today despite the chilly political climate. We need to get over our ignorance and rhetoric.”

Leningrad apartment

Suzanne Massie sits at her desk in her Leningrad apartment.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Massie
At home

Suzanne Massie looks for a passage in Land of the Firebird, a book she authored on the history and people of ‘old’ Russia.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Massie
Russian boxes

Massie’s East Blue Hill home displays artifacts and mementos from her travels, such as these Russian boxes.

Photo by Anne Berleant