- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005


By Nina Berberova.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester

New York Review of Books, $24.95, 360 pages, illus.


Maria Ignatieava Zakrevskaya, sometimes known by her married names Benckendorff or Budberg but always by her distinctive nickname Moura, is one of those people who crop up a lot in other people’s lives.

I first encountered Moura as part of St. Petersburg’s pre-World War I jeunnesse doree in the nostalgic memoirs of Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British ambassador to Russia whose term spanned the end of the Romanovs, Kerensky’s provisional government and the Bolshevik revolution. During that time, Moura occupied a central role in the dramatic adventures of the British intelligence operative Robert Bruce Lockhart as told in his published diaries and before that in his book “British Agent,” which was made into a 1934 Hollywood movie in which she was played by Kay Francis.

For H.G Wells’ last two decades, Moura was the most important woman in his life, so much so that she was rumored to have married him, although in fact she refused to seal with a wedding ring or certificate her attachment to him. Some indication of her position in Wells’ life may be gleaned from the remark made by Rebecca West, the mother of his son, Anthony, to another of Wells’ mistresses, Odette Keun, at Moura’s memorial service in London in 1974: “I suppose this means we move up one!”

Even while Wells was still alive, Moura was drawn into the circle of the celebrated Hungarian-born filmmaker, Sir Alexander Korda, who, like her former lover Lockhart, was also a British intelligence agent. The Korda connection led to her working on many of his films and after his death on the movies “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Nicholas and Alexandra” for Sam Spiegel, as well as various theatrical projects for Laurence Olivier. Anyone who has read the delightful 1980 family memoir, “Charmed Lives,” by Sir Alexander’s nephew, Michael Korda, will be unlikely to forget its indelible portrait of an aging Moura with her Russian-accented bass voice and penchant for large vodkas and larger cigars.

But if there was one central man in Moura’s life, it was probably the celebrated Russian man of letters, Maxim Gorky, with whom she took up in the chaotic months following the October 1917 revolution and whose life was intertwined with her own until his death nearly 20 years later. Certainly, it is this relationship with Gorky which is the main focus of the exiled Russian writer Nina Berberova’s fascinating, if too often murky and labyrinthine, study “Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg.”

Published in Russian in New York with the more revealing title “Iron Woman: The Story of the Life of M.I. Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg, About Her Herself, and About Her Friends” a dozen years before its author’s death in 1993, it was translated into French later in the 1980s and even saw the light of day — much to the joy of an aged Berberova — in post-Communist Russia. Although some of her other works, including “The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels” and her memoir, “The Italics Are Mine,” were published in the United States thanks to the editorial efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, until now an English version of her book on Moura has not been available.

It is not surprising that Moura’s relationship with Gorky should be at the center of this book, since Berberova had some first-hand knowledge of it. As the companion of the important Russian literary critic and poet Vladislav Khodasevich, with whom she had exiled herself permanently from Russia in 1922, Berberova shared a house in Italy with Gorky and Moura; indeed, she had undergone many peregrinations with the Gorky entourage in Germany and central Europe before this. Writing more than half a century and several lifetimes later, she draws upon her memories of this intimacy and upon the confidences which Khodasevich relayed to her from both Gorky and Moura herself to produce a many layered portrait of an uncommonly enigmatic woman.

It is plain that Berberova did not much like Moura and that the two women were never close. Moura seems definitely to have been one of those women who did not bother much with others of her gender. All her considerable energies and charms were focused on men: The great, the celebrated — the more powerful the better, they could be of more use to her.

So in some ways, Berberova gleaned more from what Khodasevich and even Gorky told her about Moura than from anything said directly between them. She is, however, certain that Moura played a key role in Gorky’s decision to forsake the safety of exile for the more than perilous world of Stalin’s Soviet Union. An avowed monarchist in her own politics, Moura appears to have been one of those who accepted the inevitability of communist domination in Russia and who did not seem to have a problem serving Stalin whether directly or indirectly.

Always the ultimate survivor, she was dependent upon Gorky’s earnings in order to support herself and her children; these had dried up in the West by the 1930s and the Soviet Union was his only source of real money. Stalin wanted him back there as the price for all that hometown bestsellerdom and so back to Moscow he must go, which he did not long before his death in 1936.

Given Berberova’s lifelong antipathy to communism and the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that she casts a cold eye on Moura’s role as a Soviet agent. Even observers less prejudiced would have to conclude that, whatever her activities on behalf of other powers, there can be little doubt that she rendered invaluable service to Stalin. Indeed, her role in repatriating to the Soviet Union the papers which Gorky had taken into exile and which he had expressly forbidden her to return even after he had placed himself back in Russia appears to have been crucial. And thus the letters which various highly placed figures had (unwisely) written to Gorky enabled those hapless men to become grist for the infernal mills of injustice into which Stalin so cruelly fed them in the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s.

If Berberova ever had much time for Moura, she had even less after the events of the later 1930s and so it is understandable that she followed her career — from a distance — with a distinctly jaundiced eye. It is always valuable to have an evaluation of an unprincipled person by someone with ironclad integrity and a solid political and moral compass. Thus, Moura is revealed as a true femme fatale, capable not only of enchanting men but of luring them into turbulent, even dangerous waters. Berberova can sometimes bring herself to admire Moura’s courage and sangfroid; she can even acknowledge her undoubted charm. But she produces a chilling portrait of a woman who scrupled at very little in order to achieve her goal, which was basically her survival in circumstances as favorable as possible.

Moura certainly kept her head when all about her were losing theirs, but once you have read Nina Berberova’s pungent portrait of her, you cannot help thinking at least a little bit about those people who did not succeed in keeping theirs. And this is not the least of Berberova’s accomplishments in her admirably humane book.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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