Robert and Kate ... the Great

For the West, Russia has always been a birthplace of myth and legend.  Its customs and history make it seem to travelers as strange as Mars.

But for Robert K. Massie, Russia isn’t so alien – especially when he considers the life of the 18th century German princess who ruled it.

“It is a remarkable story. There is so much there that is instructive for us, and our politicians,” he said Monday night to a large audience at Claremont McKenna College.

Massie was there to discuss his most recent work, a bestselling biographical history of Catherine the Great published by Random House.  Massie delivered his remarks as Ricardo J. Quinones Lecturer, a post that’s part of the school's powerhouse humanities centerpiece, the Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.

Massie himself is a powerhouse -- animated, vigorous ... is this fellow really in his 80s?

"C'mon, I expected some protests over my views," he quipped at one point, surprised that the audience didn't take him to task for praising Catherine's modernizing tendencies though she allowed serfdom to continue. On the other hand, he added, "we can't get on a moral high horse in this country" because of the long, shameful history of slavery in the U.S.

When you look at bestsellers lists today, it seems like only political rants or novels about teens in dystopian worlds or teens with supernatural powers and good looks are truly popular (by market standards, at any rate).  Peer closer, however, and you’ll also find Massie’s name on the paperback bestsellers lists (his "Catherine" is now out in paper from Vintage) – it’s an encouraging sign that a serious, old-school historian still commands the attention of the reading public.

But success always comes with a cost. In Massie’s case, though he’s been affiliated with various universities, he’s a free agent as a historian -- and he alluded to the difficulties of this choice in his own life.

“The life of a freelance historian is tumultuous,” he said, with a smile as he neared the end. “It’s a life of ups and downs, and mostly downs.”

(And this coming from a guy who’s sold millions of books and had several of his titles turned into movies.)