The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg
By Nina Berberova. Translated from the Russian by
Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester
New York Review. 360 pp. $24.95"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's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.