Budberg, Moura (1892–1974)

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Budberg, Moura (1892–1974)

Russian-born translator, motion-picture consultant, literary personality, and lover of Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells. Name variations: Moura von Benckendorff; Baroness Marie Budberg. Born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevsky or Zakrevskaya in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1892; died in Tuscany, Italy, on October 31, 1974; daughter of Count Ignaty Platonovich Zakrevsky and Countess Maria Boreisha Zakrevsky; sister of Alla Zakrevskaya and Assia Zakrevskaya; married Ioann (Djohn) von Benckendorff, 1911 (died, 1919); married Baron Nicolai Budberg; children: Pavel (Paul); Tania Alexander.

Born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevsky in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1892, the woman who would be known throughout the European literary and artistic world as Baroness Moura Budberg grew up in tsarist Russia's gilded and doomed world of aristocratic privilege. As the youngest of three daughters born to Count Ignaty Platonovich Zakrevsky, a wealthy landowner and liberal-minded aristocrat, Budberg enjoyed the customary privileges of the Russian elite, including foreign governesses and innumerable servants. From one of their governesses, Irish-born Margaret Wilson who was known to them as "Micky," Budberg and her sisters learned to speak virtually flawless English as well as French, German and Italian.

Prior to the revolutionary maelstrom that would commence in 1917, the idyllic world of the Zakrevsky family included summers at their Ukrainian estate and winters in the magical world of St. Petersburg, full of glittering balls and nights at the ballet and theater. Budberg's father, a lawyer and high state official whose progressive views often led to conflicts with his fellow aristocrats, died in 1905. There is little doubt that the intellectually independent Count Zakrevsky provided his youngest daughter with a lasting example of personal integrity and moral steadfastness. He also left behind family traditions that in later decades would be recounted, sometimes with considerable embellishment; one was the story of the Zakrevsky family's direct descendance from a rumored-but-unfounded child of Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna , supposedly born in 1742 during Elizabeth's secret and morganatic marriage to Aleksei Razumovsky. Although there was no documentary proof of her link to royalty, in later years Moura Budberg would delight her friends by putting on a false moustache, thus achieving a striking resemblance to Tsar Peter the Great.

In 1911, after completing her conventional upper-class education, Budberg married a promising young diplomat of Baltic German aristocratic ancestry, Ioann von Benckendorff, whose family owned large estates in Estonia. They moved to Berlin, where he had been assigned as a second secretary to the Russian Embassy. In these final years of peace in traditional, aristocratic Russia, Moura was a striking young woman with high cheekbones and a wide face that in later years prompted comparisons with Marlene Dietrich . At one Hohenzollern court reception, Budberg appeared wearing a silver Russian headdress and a dress of plum velvet with a three-yard train embroidered in gold. On her entrance, Kaiser Wilhelm II commented for all to hear, "Who is that? The Queen of Sheba?"

The start of World War I meant that Moura, her husband, and their young son Pavel had to return to Russia. For two more years, life remained largely the same as before while the von Benckendorffs entertained aristocrats and artists in their large rococo house. They enjoyed their dinners and dances, skating on the frozen Neva river, as well as watching Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina dance and Fedor Chaliapin sing. Moura Budberg's world collapsed in 1917, when two revolutions first swept aside the corrupt

Romanov Dynasty and then placed the Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin in power as head of a radical proletarian state dedicated to the ideal of world revolution. A new woman, no longer passive or pampered but fiercely determined to survive and prevail, emerged in 1918, as it became clear to Moura that only those individuals who were supremely adaptive and resourceful would be able to survive. Her language skills enabled her to get a job as a translator with Maxim Gorky's World Literature publishing house.

Of even greater consequence for her survival was the intimate relationship she established with Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat and intelligence agent. After a failed assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, Lockhart and Moura were both arrested and imprisoned for complicity in a plot to topple the Bolshevik regime. In later years, after Moura had successfully created a romantic life story about herself, she claimed to have been incarcerated on this and other occasions for periods of weeks or even months. In reality, according to her daughter Tania Alexander 's 1988 memoirs, Moura spent only a few days in prison. What remains undisputed is the raw courage she displayed on several occasions. When Lockhart was being interrogated in his cell by the deputy head of the dreaded Cheka (Secret Police in charge of the Red Terror), Moura risked her life by passing a message to him in a book. She took many risks during this time, yet somehow survived.

On April 18, 1919, her husband was found shot on the edge of a lake near the family estate in Kallijärv, Estonia. The murderers were never discovered, but it is likely that they were local peasants determined to divide up the land of a family of "aristocratic exploiters." Concentrating on her own survival and that of her children, after her mother's death in 1919 Moura moved in with Maxim Gorky, whose large Moscow flat was shared by a motley group of writers, artists and actors determined to outlive the terrible hardships of life in revolutionary Soviet Russia. Often spending more time vociferously discussing politics and the arts than worrying about subsistence, they all pooled their meager food rations, and Moura's French chef, whom she had brought with her when she moved in with the Gorky circle, performed feats of culinary alchemy to not only keep them alive but generally please their palates.

By this time, Moura had married her second husband, another Baltic German aristocrat. Baron Nicolai Budberg was handsome, charming and, as became obvious in a short time, an utterly irresponsible mate due to his compulsive gambling. Quickly recognizing that he would be unable to keep wolves from the door, Moura became increasingly intimate with Maxim Gorky, while at the same time cultivating what was to be a lifelong friendship with Gorky's wife Ekaterina Peshkov . (In 1903, Gorky had left Peshkov to be with Maria Andreeva , a relationship that would terminate in 1920.) A crucial event in Moura's later life was her 1920 encounter with the British writer H.G. Wells, who came to Soviet Russia to see the new society being created there as well as to personally interview Lenin. During the brief time they were together (because of her excellent knowledge of English, she had been assigned to him as an interpreter), Wells and Moura were strongly attracted to one another both intellectually and physically, setting the stage for their intense and complex relationship of later years.

When Maxim Gorky and his entourage left Soviet Russia in 1921—partly for reasons of his poor health but also because of the great writer's growing ideological differences with the Leninist dictatorship—Moura Budberg accompanied him. By this time, rumors began to circulate that Moura had acted as a Soviet agent starting with her involvement with Lockhart. Largely because it added to her aura of glamour and mystery, she never disavowed these stories. In her memoirs, Moura's daughter made a strong case against the accusations of spying hurled against her mother, noting that her letters to Lockhart and other documentation completely refute these charges. While Moura Budberg did in fact engage in concealment (or gross exaggeration) of the facts of her life, the motives were much less ominous. Raised on great literature, she was determined to not only survive but to turn her life into a creation of her own making, part real and part self-created myth. In a 1970 interview, she acknowledged that with the revolution of 1917 her life had entered into a radical new phase, one that she decided to live "as though there had been no past, and life had begun on that very day." From the early 1920s to the end of her life, she was a superb manipulator, of friends, of lovers, and of images and myths about herself that with each passing day became larger than life. As the facts of her life became ever more elusive, she became ever more fascinating to her contemporaries.

After leaving Russia with the Gorky entourage, Moura lived with this creative but often unstable group of artists for almost the next decade, settling first in Germany and then moving to Czechoslovakia. While in Berlin, she quickly established contacts with major publishing firms, and her knowledge of both German and English played a significant role in the introduction of the works of several noted German writers of the day, including Thomas Mann, to audiences in the English-speaking world. By the mid-1920s, Moura and her children had moved with the Gorky group to Italy. They settled in Sorrento, where the climate proved beneficial to the tubercular Gorky. When Fascist police began harassing them, Moura went to Rome for a spirited encounter with Benito Mussolini. The Fascist dictator was evidently impressed by the complaints of the fearless Russian baroness, for he ordered his police to let the emigré intellectuals live in peace for the duration of their stay in Italy.

Moura Budberg moved to London in 1928, finding work as a literary agent and living at the heart of the city's intellectual life in an apartment near the British Museum. Over the next few years, she rekindled her relationship with the aging H.G. Wells, whose wife Catherine Wells had recently died. Growing tired of his current mistress, Odette Keun , he felt ready for one final passionate love affair in his life. As Wells described their 1920 encounter in his memoirs, "No other woman has ever had that much effectiveness for me." Although smitten with her, Wells was also distressed by the fact that she had lied to him about her continuing intimate relationship with Maxim Gorky. And he was quite clearly amazed by her seemingly indestructible capacity to enjoy herself: "She can drink quite enormous quantities of vodka, brandy or champagne without any apparent disorganization." In addition to remaining attractive, Budberg also had a tendency to corpulence. Wells adored her and very much wanted to marry her, telling his friends, "You see that I have a wife but she won't marry me." Fiercely independent, Budberg refused to marry Wells though their relationship remained passionate. They were close until his death in 1946. She told friends that after Wells died no man mattered in her life.

By the 1940s, Moura Budberg had become one of the institutions of London's artistic and intellectual life. She greeted her many friends with a powerful bear hug, and they entered her "large Victorian apartment, its drawing room rather dim, a crowded reliquary of the past" with a tapestry of Tsar Nicholas II and his family—a gift from Wells—on one wall, and a small painting of Maxim Gorky on the mantelpiece. She had kept busy during the 1930s not only doing translations (in all she would translate over two dozen books) but also by serving as a consultant on films for Sir Alexander Korda. During World War II, her linguistic skills and extensive network of personal contacts served her well when she took a job as jack-of-all-trades for the monthly magazine published by French emigrés, La France Libre. Budberg raised substantial funding for the exile journal and persuaded a large number of distinguished writers, including Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and J.B. Priestly, to write articles for it. Within a short time, La France Libre had achieved a sterling reputation in both French exile and British intellectual circles as a major voice of French literary culture. The adversities of aging did not stop Moura Budberg, and she survived two painful hip surgeries ready to resume translation work and party-giving. Her London apartment had by now become a literary salon of some importance, and her place in the literary history of the city was assured.

In the early 1970s, a physically aging but intellectually strong Budberg presented a lecture in New York on the challenges of translating from Russian, and worked with, among others, Vanessa Redgrave on the film The Sea Gull. As she grew older, thoughts of Russia were never far from her mind and soul. A letter in 1958 from Gorky's widow, generous in spirit as always, invited Moura to stay with her in Moscow. Overcoming her initial misgivings, she flew to Moscow. The visit, immensely successful, would be followed by many more short visits to the Soviet Union. Moura Budberg remained an emigré, but reconciled at least part of herself with the sufferings that began for her in 1917. Still adventurous, less than two months before her death, Budberg moved to Tuscany to live close to her son. It was here, still in exile from Russia, that she died on October 31, 1974.

Despite her fascinating life, Moura Budberg remains an elusive personality who has yet to find a biographer. Among those who have attempted to present the story of her life but given up in the attempt is Rachel Lovat Dickson who noted that Budberg was "a survivor of a revolution who used her brains, her looks and the vitality of her nature, not only to survive but to enjoy the risky process." Her ability to create deep and lasting friendships was legendary. The renowned actor Peter Ustinov, himself of Russian ancestry, noted that Bumberg "represented for me an indomitable side to the Russian character … [W]hen I was in Moura's company, I felt deeply and serenely Russian." She had refused to let the innumerable brutalities of the 20th century destroy her or her children. In the words of her daughter Tania Alexander, she was a woman "determined to be a survivor, and … she would never let anything get in the way of that; above all, she made it clear that she would have to be taken on her own terms, and that she could never be dictated to."


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia