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
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
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.