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Suzanne Rohrbach Massie ’52: Cold-War Intermediary

Suzanne Rohrbach Massie ’52 is so unassuming and down-to-earth that it’s hard to believe she played a key role in ending the Cold War. But Massie once served as a trusted advisor to President Ronald Reagan and also rubbed elbows with George H. W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, and Lyndon Johnson.

Suzanne Rohrbach Massie '52
Suzanne Rohrbach Massie '52

In her latest memoir, Trust but Verify, the bestselling author of five books recounts her years at the Reagan White House. 

“The title is a phrase I taught President Reagan in Russian (doveryai no proveryai),” Massie explains. “It’s an old Russian saying, and the president used it frequently in meetings and arms negotiations. It made quite an impression on Gorbachev.” 

Reagan once called Massie “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.” 

Her love affair with Russia began long before she met the president, during her first visit there in the spring of 1968. She and her former husband, Robert Massie, had borrowed money from their life insurance policy to visit Leningrad and finish researching what would become their bestselling book, Nicholas and Alexandra.

“I instantly felt at home,” she says. “I was never taken as a foreigner. The Russian people always called me ‘nash,’ which literally means ‘ours.’

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone back to Russia since then,” Massie adds. “When I saw the multiple ways in which the Russian people suffered—under 27 solid years of war—I simply fell in love. Guts they had, and generosity.”

Under Stalin’s bloody purges, Massie explains, as many as million perished. Another 20 million lives were lost during World War II. During the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, 800,000 died. To say nothing of the bloodbaths that began with the revolution in 1914, or the Civil War that followed. 

Massie explains that she fell in love with the Russian people—not out of pity—but because of their courage and resilience in the face of despair. “Suffering brings with it not the probability, but the possibility of new creation. Is it any wonder that the greatest longing of the Russian people is to be safe and secure?” 

That was the same message Massie brought to Reagan during the four years she served as his advisor beginning in 1984. During this period of the Cold War, the two countries stood perilously on the brink of nuclear war. Six months before, on September 1, 1983, the Soviets had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 passengers on board, including a U.S. Congressman. To make matters worse, the U.S. was preparing to install Pershing missiles in Europe, aimed directly at the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries had virtually ended when Massie put her foot in the door. Having received acclaim in the Soviet Union for her bestselling Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, she was granted an audience with KGB official Rodomir Bogdanov. During their first meeting, Bogdanov shook his fist and exclaimed, “You! You don’t know how close war is!” 

Massie slept very little after that. Paying travel expenses out of her own pocket and acting as a private citizen, she made several trips to the Soviet Union and the Reagan White House, carrying secret diplomatic messages to convince top officials that each side wanted peace.

“My father, a member of the Swiss diplomatic corps, taught me to believe that every citizen has a responsibility to act,” Massie writes in Trust but Verify. “So on my own, I acted.”

During her nearly two dozen visits to the White House, her message to Reagan was always the same: In order to know what people will fight for, you have to know what they love. In the case of her beloved Russia, that meant a priceless cultural heritage of art, ballet, literature, music, and religious freedom. 

But the greatest of these, and what touched President Reagan most, was Massie’s revelation that, contrary to Communist efforts to abolish all forms of worship, religion was quietly alive and well in the Soviet Union.

“Before going into every meeting with the president, while waiting outside the door of the Oval Office, I would always say the same prayer: ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord.’ And then I went in and briefed President Reagan on the human side of things in Russia.”

Massie’s efforts to aid the U.S. at this critical juncture in its history have made her a sought-after speaker throughout the United States. During her career, she has met such dignitaries as Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Colin Powell, Vladimir Putin, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who took an advanced French literature class with her at Vassar, once called Massie before taking a trip to Russia to ask what sights she should see. 

She still lives by her favorite quotation, “Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Despite her contribution to world peace, she considers her greatest achievement to be the help she gave to a group of Russian children with hemophilia in St. Petersburg during the 1990s. (Massie nearly lost her son Bobby to the disease, a struggle she writes about in her book, Journey, coauthored with Robert Massie.)

Massie still keeps a tiny apartment in her beloved city of St. Petersburg—it waits for her return to Russia. In America, she and her husband—MIT mathematician, computer genius, and world-renowned educationist Seymour Papert—live in their Maine home, an exact replica of Alexander Pushkin’s country house in Russia. 

Deborah Herz is managing editor of Report from Newport, the alumni magazine of Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. For more information on Suzanne Rohrbach Massie, visit www.suzannemassie.com.