- - Tuesday, July 21, 2015



By Deborah McDonald & Jeremy Dronfield

One World Publishing, $29.99, 400 pages, illustrated

The Russian aristocrat born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya in 1892 but known to posterity as Baroness Moura Budberg once said that when a famous palmist gave her a reading at the behest of Aldous Huxley, “the woman had declared, ‘Your life is more interesting than you are.’ ” That her life was interesting is an understatement. What word could accurately fit a trajectory which took her from the privilege of Romanov St. Petersburg’s jeunesse doree to Communist jails then on to a complicated minuet of clandestine border crossings and spying, often as a double agent, before ending up in London, where she dabbled in the worlds of literature and movies and had one of its most celebrated salons while on the payroll of MI5?

But reading this collaborative biography by two British writers, it is clear that no one could have lived a life that interesting had she not had simply oodles of that same quality as a person. As the authors write about her accepting MI5’s offer in 1951, a year of crisis for it which saw the spectacular defection of the Soviet agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, “Money was always welcome, but for Moura the real incentive was the same as it had always been — safety, security and survival. And the thrill of it all.”

Indeed, thrilling and enthralling were the twin keys to Moura. For as if her convoluted contortions through various theaters and spheres of espionage were not sufficient to occupy and excite her, she was one of the great femmes fatales of her day, or perhaps of all time. She was perhaps the most important woman in the lives of two of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers, Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells, the queen bee in their respective hives, which were filled with rivals who could not ever really dethrone her. Yet the key to her never really committing to either man, despite great engagement and devotion, was that her heart ultimately lay with the celebrated British spy Robert Bruce Lockhart, with whom she had collaborated in newly Bolshevized Russia, and whom she loved devotedly for the rest of their lives. The key to her restlessness may well have been that just as she could not reciprocate what Gorky and Wells gave her, Lockhart would not wholly accept what she so passionately offered him.

With Wells, she was perhaps merely giving a serial philanderer a taste of his own medicine, and although she frustrated and at times maddened him, they had a lot of fun along the way, including a grand wedding party when they had not in fact got married that day, as the guests had believed. For Gorky, she was a mainstay back home where they first got together and in the fraught years of his exile in Italy. Her slippery, even sinister, side appears in the role she may or may not have played in his return to Stalin’s Russia and in his mysterious death. Then again, she may have helped save the lives of some of those opponents of the regime mentioned in Gorky’s confidential papers by judicious editing, perhaps even destruction of parts, before handing them over to the Soviet authorities. Certainly, her ability to flit in and out of the USSR when that was difficult to say the least raises serious questions as to where her loyalties really lay. As in so many other instances, this book cannot give a definitive answer, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying for us, even if we cannot really blame the authors, given what they are dealing with.

In addition to everything else that she was, Moura was a world-class fantasist and liar. When she met Wells in Petrograd in 1920, as the authors write with characteristic bite, “she began their acquaintance as she meant to go on — by dealing him a hand from the ready pack of lies she was beginning to accumulate . Each of these untruths was tethered to reality, but by a severely overstretched length of elastic. When Wells published his account of his visit to Russia, he faithfully and innocently repeated Moura’s falsehoods .”

Captivated by her as he was — and would remain for the quarter-century remaining before his death — it is no wonder Wells was so credulous. And he was not alone in being captivated and credulous where Moura was concerned. As the authors detail instance after instance of fantastic untruths and double-dealing, the book becomes a bit dizzying. But this maelstrom perhaps explains why when she did occasionally hit the pot of gold in serving MI5, they did not believe her, as in her correct fingering of Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent.

The authors succeed in demonstrating that Moura could on occasion indeed be dangerous, to herself and others, also alluring and delightful. Where they ultimately fail is in putting their finger on just what made her able to charm so many so successfully. In the end, Moura Budberg remains, encapsulating a kind of national DNA, what Winston Churchill said about her native land: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

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

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