Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester
New York Review Books, 2005
Baroness Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Benckendorff Budberg hailed from the Russian aristocracy and lived in the lap of luxury—until the Bolshevik Revolution forced her to live by her wits. Thereafter her existence was a story of connivance and stratagem, a succession of unlikely twists and turns. Intimately involved in the mysterious Lockhart affair, a conspiracy which almost brought down the fledgling Soviet state, mistress to Maxim Gorky and then to H.G. Wells, Moura was a woman of enormous energy, intelligence, and charm whose deepest passion was undoubtedly the mythologization of her own life.
Recognized as one of the great masters of Russian twentieth-century fiction, Nina Berberova here proves again that she is the unsurpassed chronicler of the lives of Soviet émigrés. In Moura Budberg, a woman who shrouded the facts of her life in fiction, Berberova finds the ideal material from which to craft a triumph of literary portraiture, a book as engaging and as full of life and incident as any one of her celebrated novels.
Moura is not a spy novel, I confess, but it was written by the Russian novelist and short-story writer Nina Berberova, and the book—subtitled “The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg”—affords all the pleasures of first-rate fiction. The mysterious baroness, known as Moura, was likely a Soviet spy and possibly a double agent, as Berberova shows in this intricate biography, one that is also a meditation on Bolsheviks, penniless Baltic nobility and the attractions of the femme fatale. (Moura’s lovers included Maxim Gorky, H.G. Wells and the British spy Robert Lockhart.) Berberova (1901-93), who knew Moura when they both lived in Gorky’s chaotic household in the 1920s, was an émigré in occupied Paris during World War II, then moved to the U.S., where she taught at Princeton. Though Moura was published in Russian in 1981, it didn’t appear in English until four years ago, with Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester’s translation. As many readers discovered then, Berberova is a splendid writer who deserves to be better known. – Alan Furst, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2009
Berberova’s Tattered Cloak (1991) is a cherished work of Russian émigré literature, as is her scintillating autobiography, The Italics Are Mine (1992). Her own favorite book was this dramatic, richly descriptive, and historically illuminating biography of a fellow Russian refugee and a woman for all seasons, Moura Budberg, a work just now published in English. Berberova (1901-93) met the smart, tough, and resourceful Moura, a slender woman with a "feline smile," when they were both part of the celebrated writer Maxim Gorky’s unconventional household during the turbulent 1920s, and Berberova never forgot the highly influential yet persistently enigmatic baroness. Ultimately, Moura—multilingual, alluring, and invincible—was involved not only with Gorky but also with the daring diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart (his story alone is worth a book) and H.G. Wells. Given the volatile times and Moura’s masterful practice of the art of survival, Berberova takes on a complex and compelling tale of political upheaval, espionage, sexual passion, and all the suffering wrought by war, poverty, oppression, and exile, and tells it brilliantly with empathy and panache. — Donna Seaman, Booklist, 2005
Nina Berberova’s Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg chronicles a riveting moment in modern history through the eyes of Baroness Maria ("Moura") Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Beckendorff Budberg, a Russian aristocrat forced to employ great cunning to survive in the post-Revolution. This is not, however, a straightforward biography. Nina Berberova, an acclaimed writer of fiction who spent the latter part of her life as a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University, has an admittedly complicated relationship to the people and events she details so richly in this book. With her companion, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, Berberova lived in the Gorky household with Moura for three years. While she claims in her Preface to be committed to presenting an unbiased portrait of her subject, her personal reminiscences (which are not always favorable) clearly form and inform the rendering of Moura the reader finds here.
Moura’s viability as a biographical subject rests almost entirely on her role as mistress in the lives of three notable twentieth-century men: Robert Bruce Lockhart (of the Lockhart Affair, a 1918 plot to overthrow the nascent Bolshevik government), H.G. Wells, and Maxim Gorky, with whom she lived for several years. Her independent achievements (as a translator, mostly, though not a very good one, according to Berberova, and as a probable secret agent) receive as little attention in her biography as they seem to have received in her life. Moura’s gifts were more amorphous. She was an individual who was naturally inclined to seek romance, and her tremendous charm was a powerful intoxicant to men: in some ways, her devotion to them became a career of its own.
Moura is thick with wartime intrigue. The account of the dramatic relationship between Moura and Lockhart, the British diplomat who became a secret agent in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power and very nearly toppled the regime, reads like a thriller. Though they later reunite, the love affair culminates with Moura saving Lockhart from probable execution by convincing a Cheka deputy to let him go home to England. The two are separated, but their lives are spared.
The book also sheds light on facets of the frightening and all-consuming transition to Soviet life: the dire post-Revolution economic situation and the culture of newly impoverished intelligentsia it produced, as well as the battle (often literal, with a toll paid in artists’ lives) to maintain some semblance of creative freedom under the new dictatorship. (This struggle is epitomized in the bitter rivalry between Gorky and his literary community and Grigori Zinoviev, who would become head of the Comintern in 1919, and exert fierce government control over creative expression). In fact, much of the book serves as a chilling reminder of just how unremittingly violent the Soviet experiment was at its inception.
Against this backdrop, the irrepressible energy of Moura and her circle of friends in the Gorky household, and their abiding affection for one another, seem all the more courageous. In a climate of terror, they faced hunger, poverty, interrogation, imprisonment, and exile of all kinds, but Moura especially managed throughout her life graceful, even heroic, escapes from the various conditions of misery history sought to impose upon her. Lockhart has written of her: "Where she loved, there was her world, and her philosophy of life had made her mistress of all the consequences."
Whether a product of Berberova’s rendering or the actual events of Moura’s life, or both, the woman we find in these pages, while deeply satisfying in the role of mistress and subject of history, often disappoints. Moura was an impressively resilient individual, and even at her most hungry, harried, and depleted, Gorky’s "iron woman" had an unsinkable spirit, and a fierce will not only to live, but to absorb and be nourished by her experiences in the world. But at times she appears as little more than just the connecting tissue between the important men of action she knew and loved. In detailing its complicated context, the book sometimes feels as though it isn’t about Moura, but about the more dramatic or more interesting lives going on around her. Moura was suspected of being a secret agent (for Britain and for the USSR) for much of her life, but it is, ironically, a greater degree of agency one wishes Berberova has bestowed upon her here, a more primary role in the fascinating historical drama to which she bore witness. — Nina Aron, Words Without Borders
The Golden Age, the Dark Ages. The Age of Chivalry and the Age of Anxiety. The Nuclear Age … All these are familiar enough concepts, and useful shorthand for a historical nexus, a unique cultural brew probably only ever recognizable in retrospect. But what is meant by an "age," exactly? The gods presumably live, love and quarrel eternally. Closer to our own times, according to biblical tradition, the allotted age of man is a comparatively measly three-score years and ten. And while science and nutrition have very recently succeeded in pushing the life-span envelope for the wealthy of this earth, 70 years remains a fortunate outcome for most.
Occasionally, one extraordinary person’s life story appears to capture the essence of his or her place and time. In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War, and during the unstable post-Versailles "peace," an entrancing St. Petersburg native known to friends as "Moura" — political conspirator, emigre, lover and beloved of great men — rose to such iconic significance. But biographer Nina Berberova, herself the celebrated emigre author of stories and novellas about Russians in Paris, hardly turned to writing Moura’s life in order to burnish a legend. As companion to the poet Vladislav Khodasevich in Maxim Gorky’s entourage, the young Berberova spent years in the shadow of the older, powerful woman, whose contradictions and evasions impressed and intrigued her. In Berberova’s "Moura," the only icon is the truth.
Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya, later Countess Benckendorff, still later Baroness Budberg, was born in 1892 and died, in Italy, in 1974. As Berberova notes, "that generation, born between 1890 and 1900, was almost completely destroyed." Moura’s upbringing as the daughter of a government official was dangerously comfortable, featuring a girls’ boarding school followed by "finishing off" in London society. And yet she went on to survive by her wits and grit through chaotic and desperate times, first in the wartime Soviet Union and then, self-exiled, in the West. Berberova offers a partial explanation for Moura’s resilience: "She was clever and tough and fully aware of her uncommon abilities. … She learned to rely on her physical health and energy, and on her own considerable charm as a woman. She knew how to be among people, how to live with them, how to choose them and get along with them."
However, as this meticulous, gracefully translated account shows, the truly spellbinding aspect of Moura’s story lies not so much in the tricks and turns of physical survival as in her refusal, or perhaps innate incapacity, to trade off even a morsel of her spirit to what might be called the Age of Intimidation. Of course, Moura was far from being a starry-eyed idealist. But she loved art and laughter and style; she lived life with both hands full; she chose her men well, and was in turn protected by such Age-dominating figures as Gorky and H.G. Wells. She cloaked her comings and goings in mystery, and with a noble disregard for petty factuality successfully cultivated her image as a high-born aristo-Bolshevik and prolific multilingual translator, though actually her father had no claim to title and her translations for Gorky into English were few, sketchy and for the most part unusable. Given her close relationships with foreigners and political figures, it was easy to suspect her of being a secret agent, working perhaps for the Allies, or the Germans, or the Reds or the Whites — or all simultaneously. Rumors clung to her. After all, she was the cat who always landed on its feet.
Even (or especially) in hard times, a woman who exudes personal allure, intelligence and enigma provides the combustible stuff of romantic drama. In 1934, film director Michael Curtiz, later of "Casablanca" fame, released to acclaim "British Agent," which featured Kay Francis as Moura in the female lead. The screenplay was based more or less on the autobiography of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, himself a man who proved to have at least seven lives. For his first posting in his British diplomatic career the young Lockhart was sent to Russia, a culture he took to immediately. In 1918, an attractive, witty, insouciant young Russian turned up on the doorstep of the British Embassy in Petrograd, seeking connections after the murder of her first husband, an Estonian landowner, by rampaging peasants. Stranded penniless and separated from her two children, Moura made herself useful. Lockhart, who had a wife in England, fell gradually, but hard.
As times worsened, Moura moved in with him, and as other diplomats fled the capital and missions shut down like dominoes, Lockhart stayed on, now charged, as "special agent," with preventing Vladimir Lenin from signing a separate peace with Germany. Passionately committed both to Russia and the Allied cause, he was in the thick of one audacious intrigue after another. He collaborated with the flamboyant, megalomaniac master of disguises Sidney Reilly to turn Latvian troops to the Allied side. He was a close confidante of Leon Trotsky and, until betrayed by someone unknown but very close to him, of Lenin. Finally, after he and Moura and others were arrested, interrogated and released, he left for the West. It would be six years before Lockhart would see Moura again. When she finally found him, in Prague, he wrote in his journal: "Went home in a stupor of uncertainty. … She looked older. Her face was more serious and she had a few gray hairs. … The change was in me. … I admired her above all other women. … But the old feelings were gone."
Without hammering the point too hard, Berberova makes clear her view that Lockhart was the true passionate love of Moura’s life. But hers was a life that could ill-afford romantic regrets. At the time of the Prague reunion she was Gorky’s mistress in Italy, already matriarch of his huge "family," as well as his nurse, secretary and interpreter. After the writer’s return to the Soviet Union in 1933, she took up with Wells, his collaborator in the dream of perfecting mankind through mass education, and remained with him until his final tormented year. A strong theme of idealism, of service to a greater public good, unites Moura’s lovers and friends. Arguably, both Gorky and Wells died haunted by a dawning recognition that they had sacrificed prodigious artistic gifts to a utopian chimera. But for all the pathos of great men disillusioned, it is Moura’s relationship with Lockhart — from whom she never completely broke — that makes Berberova’s biography an intimate and moving experience.
The intimacy stems in part from Berberova’s personal witness. She describes her younger self soaking up Moura’s overwhelming presence with mixed feelings: "In her break with her grandmothers and great-grandmothers, … I saw my own break with my past. … Only one thing bothered me: her enigma, her mystery, and her lies had in them a streak of something dark and devious I could never quite understand. Shouldn’t I try to overcome that? How fine it would be if there were no ambiguity behind the masks."
For all of this, the private Moura feels strangely absent in Berberova’s book, while Lockhart, Gorky and others come through sharply. Is this only due to the author’s principled disdain for the current fashion in biography of attributing made-up emotions and words? The book’s assumption of a readership well-versed in Soviet names and dates also makes for elliptical going here and there. But such flaws are dwarfed by Berberova’s gift for reviving in vivid close-up an entire historical age — an age of impassioned commitment, right or wrong. An age of heroes. — Kai Maristed, Context, August 5, 2005
“She was undoubtedly one of the exceptional women of her time – a time that showed no mercy or pity toward her or her generation. That generation, born between 1890 and 1900, was almost completely destroyed by war, revolution, emigration, the camps, and the terror of the 1930s.”
So Nina Berberova characterizes Moura Budberg, a “mystery woman” if ever there was one. Variously suspected of spying for the Germans during World War I, for the British in the ill-fated Lockhart affair of 1918-19 (a conspiracy that almost brought down the fledgling Soviet Union) and for the Soviets much of the rest of the time, Moura was also immensely alluring to men. Her romance with British agent Robert Bruce Lockhart was recounted by him in his enormously successful memoir “British Agent,” the basis for the colorful 1934 film of that title.
Moura’s vitality, intelligence and charm made her indispensable to Maxim Gorky, who declared: “[S]he knows everything and is interested in everything.” Her long liaison with H.G. Wells seems to have provided the aging, increasingly querulous author with a sense of sympathy and comfort.
Born in 1892 into an upper-class Russian family, Moura spent time in England before the war, hobnobbing with diplomats, aristocrats, writers and celebrities, including two who would later play a larger role in her life: Wells and Lockhart. There she also met Ivan Benckendorff, a diplomat, whom she wed in 1911.
In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Benckendorff was clubbed to death by peasants from a village near his family’s Estonian estate. The couple’s two children managed to escape with their English governess, while Moura had the good fortune to be in Petrograd – as St. Petersburg was known then.
Moura came by the name Budberg and the title of baroness in 1922, when she wed Baron Nikolai Budberg, a down-and-out Estonian aristocrat, in what Berberova describes as a marriage of mutual convenience. Moura, who’d just fled Russia, gained a title and Estonian citizenship; it’s less clear, from this account, exactly what was in it for him. All this time, Moura was Gorky’s mistress and a pivotal member of his household, working as his secretary, translator and literary agent. It was to Moura that he entrusted his papers when he returned from Europe to Russia, fearing what might happen were they to fall into Stalin’s hands, which, alas, they did.
Although Berberova does not state unequivocally that Moura was a Soviet agent, the inference seems clear enough.
Berberova, who fled Russia in 1922, lived for three years under the same roof with Moura in the Gorky household. Although she never became an intimate of the wily enchantress, she was in a good position to observe her: “Her energy, her vitality, her desperate instinct for survival were all things I could feel and understand
Berberova, who died in 1993 at age 92, recounted her life story in a memorable book published in 1992: “The Italics Are Mine.” She began work on Moura’s biography in the late 1970s, and it was first published in Russian in 1981. The book did not find a British or American publisher until now, although Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester embarked on their English translation in 1980. The Russian version, they inform us, is longer, containing more historical background previously unknown to Russian readers but familiar to Westerners.
Like its subject, “Moura” is hard to categorize: It is less a close-up of the secretive Budberg than a kaleidoscopic look at the world in which she lived. Berberova brings to life not only Moura’s lovers, but also a host of other people, many of whom she knew personally, who were caught up in the turmoil and betrayals of those years. In a way, the unsung heroine of “Moura” is Berberova herself, combing through archives and memories and serving as the prism though which history is refracted. — Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2005
"Moura? Moura Budberg? Now where have I heard that name before?" So many serious readers will ask themselves, as they glance at the cover of this book, then pause to study the attractive if somewhat round-cheeked face pictured there. The woman’s smile looks coy, even pixieish, while her eyes stare out aslant, at once lively, tender and shrewd. The man next to her sports a heavy, brush mustache, and was once world-famous: the Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
Over the course of her long life, Moura Zakrevskaya (1892-1974) was to take on many identities. Born the daughter of a former Russian senator and state council member for St. Petersburg, she married twice, becoming initially the Countess Benckendorff and then the Baroness Budberg. During the upheavals before, during and after the Russian Revolution, she fell in love with the celebrated British agent Robert Bruce Lockhart, the man who nearly toppled the Bolshevik government (with the aid of the notorious Sidney Reilly, "ace of spies"). Later, she joined Gorky’s household as his secretary and mistress. Finally, in the 1930s, she lived with H.G. Wells and cared for him through his final illness. For the last 20 years of her own life, she was an enigmatic presence on the London cultural scene — mysterious, hard-drinking, increasingly obese, known as a translator, suspected of being a spy. But for whom?
One thing is certain: Moura was an "iron woman," and did whatever was necessary to survive and protect those she loved. After Dora Kaplan’s attempted assassination of Lenin in 1918, Lockhart was jailed and faced probable execution, but Moura somehow convinced Yakov Peters, the Cheka deputy in charge of the Lubyanka prison, to allow the English agent to go home to England. How? She had no money, no connections, no power.
Maxim Gorky once told a story about a very similar Cheka official who longed to make love to a countess and during the Red Terror finally found his chance. Moura was sensuously beautiful — and the widow of a count beaten to death during the Revolution. What mattered was to save Lockhart. No surprise, then, that the urbane Peters was seen holding Moura by the hand as she was released from her own cell in the Lubyanka. Years later — after Peters had been "purged" by Stalin — Nina Berberova was present (in Sorrento, with Vesuvius in the background) when Moura was asked about the men around her former lover. Reilly, she murmured, was "brave," but the jailer Peters was — and she paused for a long moment — "kind."
Once Lockhart was safely back in England, Moura sold her diamond engagement earrings, the last of her possessions, and bought a ticket to Petrograd, where she resided briefly with a lieutenant general. There, she eventually wangled an invitation to Gorky’s house, where she might have met Pavlov, Dr. Voronov (who developed the monkey-gland treatment that was to reinvigorate the elderly Yeats), Evgeny Zamyatin (author of We , which inspired Orwell’s 1984 ), the singer Chaliapin, and many other leading intellectuals and cultural figures of the time, among them the visiting H.G. Wells. The English novelist shared with Gorky a belief in human progress and social betterment through mass education. Alas, in their later works, both writers fell into polemics and didacticism. As Berberova, herself a distinguished novelist, bluntly says of Gorky:
"He wrote thirty volumes but he never understood that literature offers only an indirect answer to life, that art involves play and mystery, that there is a riddle in art that has nothing to do with flaying an opponent, humorless glorification, righteous living, or radical convictions. That riddle is as impossible to explain to someone who has not experienced it as it would be to explain a rainbow to someone blind from birth or an orgasm to a virgin."
Early in the 1920s, Moura decided to visit her two children (by her dead husband), whom she had not seen in several years, and so traveled — without any papers — to Talinn, the capital of Estonia. As she was about to hail a cab, she was arrested, interrogated and thrown into jail as a Soviet spy. Eventually, she cut a deal with her lawyer. An aristocratic Estonian wastrel was in need of cash and in exchange for it was willing to marry Moura, thus giving her an Estonian passport — and the chance to travel freely around Europe as the new "Baroness Budberg." Moura could get money from the infatuated and generous Gorky, who was going to live in Sicily for a few years because of his poor health. An iron woman does what she has to.
There’s no need to detail the rest of the Baroness Budberg’s remarkable story. And much of its detail cannot be known. Eventually, Moura again met Robert Bruce Lockhart and may have become his roving agent. Gorky left all his papers with her when he returned to Russia, but then she was so harassed by the Soviets that she apparently delivered the archives to Stalin — possibly in exchange for a last visit to her old lover, possibly at the dying writer’s own request, possibly for other, unknown reasons. Most troubling is the likely use of those papers: Many of the letters to the politically influential Gorky spoke critically of Stalin’s policies and may have added fuel to the show trials and purges of the 1930s.
By this time, though, Moura had seriously committed herself to H.G. Wells. Once Somerset Maugham asked what she saw in "the paunchy, played out writer." Moura sweetly answered, "He smells of honey."
Although Moura’s life provides the thread of this biography, Berberova enriches the story with pen portraits of revolutionaries, spies, international financiers and what seem like half the characters from an Eric Ambler thriller. My favorite is Alexander Parvus, who left Russia at 19 for Switzerland, where he met Plekhanov, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin. He actually originated the notion of "permanent revolution," churned out scores of theoretical articles about politics and revolution, traveled on false passports to Russia and was eventually arrested with Trotsky in 1905. Exiled to Siberia, he escaped. Once back in Europe he managed to lay his hands on 130,000 gold German marks from Max Reinhardt’s productions of "The Lower Depths" and other Gorky plays. He was supposed to keep the money safe for their author. Instead, he started a new life in the Ottoman Empire, working first as an arms merchant for Krupp and later as a dealer in grain and coal as well as weapons. By 1915 he was the chief adviser to the German general staff on the revolutionary movement in Russia. In 1917 he was instrumental in helping Lenin make his way from Switzerland to Petrograd, where the Bolshevik leader would alter the history of the world.
After the German defeat in World War I, Parvus bought a castle outside of Zurich, "installed women, old friends whom he wined and dined, and all sorts of riffraff. The Swiss authorities deported him to Germany for having ‘orgies.’ In 1920 he bought another castle, or rather, palace, outside Berlin, on Wannsee Island. There he lived on a grand scale, receiving throngs of friends, among them former ministers, diplomats, German Social Democrats, and members of the government. He was surrounded by liveried butlers, secretaries, a majordomo, and a chef. He prescribed his own etiquette. The riffraff were now gone. The women were high-class coquettes, actresses, beauties." Parvus publicly criticized the Treaty of Versailles, duly predicted World War II and even paid back the money he had stolen from Gorky.
There are many such colorful bit players in Moura , and one of the most fascinating is the author of this biography herself. Nina Berberova, only a little younger than her subject, went into exile with the Russian poet Khodasevich during the 1920s, lived many years in Paris, wrote highly acclaimed works of biography and fiction (The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels), and ended her life as a professor of Russian at Princeton, dying in her nineties. This, she felt, was her best book. Some readers may still prefer her fine autobiography, The Italics Are Mine .
Berberova concludes her preface to Moura with a low-keyed sentence that brings both tears and a chill. More than anything else, she says, Moura appreciated "the joy of a free private life unhampered by a moral code of ‘what the neighbors might say’; the joy of surviving intact; the joy of knowing she had not been destroyed by those she loved." — Michael Dirda, Washington Post, May 22, 2005