28 December 2015

Russian spy? British spy? International seductress?

Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya (1892–1974) was born in the Poltava pro­vince of Ukraine, daughter of an aristocratic Tsarist official. While still an adolescent she married the diplomat Count Ioann von Benck­en­dorff in 1911, and together they had three children. Moura had become the Countess Ben­ckendorff, until her husband was assass­in­ated in 1918 on his estate.

She began work as a secretary/translator at the British embassy in St Petersburg during WW1 and in due course started having affairs with well-connected men. The first of them was Robert Bruce Lockhart, the British agent who had been sent in January 1918 on a doomed mission to keep post-revolutionary Russia in the war against Germany. Before long, both Moura and Lockhart were arrested and he faced a death sentence after an attempt to assassinate Lenin. Released in exchange for a Soviet diplomat, he somehow returned to Britain alive.

When in 1922 Moura married her second husband, the Estonian Baron Nik­olai von Budberg-Bönningshausen, she had acquired another title and became Baroness Moura Budberg. But that didn’t last. She sent the Baron to Brasil, planning to move to Britain to re-heat her relation­ship with Bruce Lockhart but the visa did not arrive until 1929.

Moura with her husband Count Benckendorff
Berlin Races, 1913

Moura was the chief protagonist in the new book A Very Dangerous Wom­an: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most Seductive Spy, written by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield. The authors asked how much of her fascinating life was based on fact and how much of it was largely fantasy. So the task of the authors was to discover informat­ion that could be proven from the written records. For example was she was truly a femme fatale in the lives of two of the 20th century’s most famous writers, Maxim Gorky and HG Wells? Did she never really commit to either man, despite great engagement and devotion, because she was in love with the British spy Robert Bruce Lockhart? It would seem so.

McDonald and Dronfield's book

Was Moura Budberg a Russian spy? Was she simply an elegant, sexy and selfish woman who used her charms to succeed with men? The book seemed to think it was her seductiveness that dominated accounts of her life, so that spying was a peripheral role that she occasionally got involved with. In any case it seemed that both the British and Russian intelligence services were themselves confused as to her real political (and sexual) loyalties. No wonder the reader is, as well!

When she met HG Wells in Petrograd in 1920 or 1921, he was both mes­merised by her and uncertain about her loyalty to him. From Moura’s perspective as his literary translator, the book suggested she had fun with him but it was not a serious affair.

HG Wells, Maxim Gorky and Moura, 1920

For Maxim Gorky, who was trying to redesign Russian literary culture for the new post-revolution world, Budberg was a bastion of support in Russia where they moved in together. After Gorky was sent away in 1922, Budberg managed to follow him. She remained in his employ as foreign-business consultant, first near Berlin, then in Italy. If there was a malevolent aspect of Moura’s character, it was shown in the role she may have played in Gorky’s return to 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 secret documents by deleting dangerous material. Certainly her ab­il­ity to travel in and out of the USSR, as needed in the 1930s, suggested some sort of secret and high-level responsibilities. And these trips raised serious questions as to where her loyalties real­ly lay. But once again the book could not be decisive.

She settled in London in the early 1930s, moving mainly in London's exciting film and theatre world. In particular Moura enjoyed her work with Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born British film producer and director. It must have been a comfortable life; she had staff in her London home, enjoyed organising arty parties and sent her children were private schools. Not exactly socialist!

The authors asked if Moura really accepted MI5’s offer in 1951, the year that saw the shocking defection of the Cambridge spies, her very close friends Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean? How was it that when Moura correctly nom­inated Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent, MI5 did not believe her? Did MI5 und­er­stand that for Moura the real incentive was not financial; rather it was safety, security, survival and thrills.

What Budberg’s spying might have produced, for any of the sides she was supposed to have worked for, remained uncertain. But The Guardian wisely concluded that set beside such ideology-driven professional operatives as Kim Philby, Budberg was always going to be a mere sideshow. The only thing she had in common with Philby, for example, was her remarkable capacity for alcohol. For Budberg, it was all body and few ideas. She was seductive, certainly, but not serious as a spy.


Andrew said...

It has always struck me that a person does not have to be terribly good looking, and I don't think she was, to have immense sex appeal by their charms or personality. To clinically observe someone like that working on someone is quite fascinating.

Joseph said...

Shape of Things to Come was written by HG Wells and soon created in film form by Alexander Korda. How awkward that would have been for Moura. Or not.

Hels said...


agreed. Her presentation of body, her behaviour, speech and clothing seem to have been more important than her face.

There are only 8 pages of photos in the entire book, so I will try and insert one or two of the early photos into the blog post. As Count and Countess von Benckendorff in 1913, I think you will find the day-at-the-races photo to be uber cool.

Hels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...


When Moura Budberg became too old to be a mistress (aged 54), she re-created herself as the hostess of a cultural salon in her Kensington flat. Actors, writers, film directors and politicians all came, for her unbeatable contacts. Thus she could make matches between men who would then work together publishing a book, or creating a film.