Baroness Moura Budberg, Russian Spy and Fantasist

Like most people involved in espionage, Moura Budberg was largely a creature of her own invention. She spent most of her life shrouded in lies, but she knew the trick to getting people to believe them. It wasn’t just “a kernel of truth”, as the cliches have it. It was also that she cast herself as often in a poor light as a good one. Everyone was convinced that she’d genuinely let them in on a secret, and that they alone knew the truth under the lies. But the truth was, Moura never really let anyone in.

Moura Budberg -
The young Moura Budberg. Source

She was born as Maria Zakrevsky in Ukraine in 1892, when it was part of the Russian Empire. Her father Ignatiy wasn’t noble, but rather a member of the “landed classes”, which in Russia had the priceless advantage of raising him above the peasants, though not into the ranks of the nobility. Baby Maria was named after her mother and was son given the nickname Moura, which stuck permanently. She also kept the broken nose she acquired in childhood, which would remain defiantly crooked throughout her life. Ignatiy was a lawyer, and was also involved in politics – though his radical views led to him being forced to resign in 1899. He was one of those who tried to warn the Tsar that oppression would lead inevitably to revolution, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. Sadly he died of a heart attack before he won his way back into favour, leaving Moura and the rest of his family impoverished and forced to leave St Petersburg and live on their country estate.

In 1909 the seventeen year old Moura went to stay with her elder sister Assia in Berlin. There she met Johann von Benckendorff, an Estonian nobleman who was there as a diplomat from the Russian Empire. They were married in 1911, and for the next few years Moura lived in Berlin. She loved it – the social whirl, the parties, the excitement. But it all came to an end in 1914, when the First World War began. Germany was one one side, Russia on the other, and so Russian diplomats like Johann left Berlin, and returned home to join the army and fight against their former hosts. Moura herself lived in the capital of St Petersburg with their children, though her time in Berlin and her middle-class origins led many to whisper behind their hands that she might be a German spy. Of course, she almost certainly wasn’t – but it wasn’t the last time that rumour would haunt her. In the meantime, she threw herself back into a world of parties, and perhaps to quash the rumours of her having German sympathies became a particular favourite at the British embassy.

Alexander Kerensky -
Alexander Kerensky.

1917 was the year that Moura’s world as it was ended. The February Revolution led to the unthinkable – the Tsar’s abdication. A short-lived attempt at a provisional government to calm the fires of revolution failed miserably, and the deadly struggle for the soul of the new Russia began. At the forefront of the moderates was Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of War. He was a charismatic leader, and Moura reputedly became his mistress. Not only that, but with her German contacts she became a mole for him within the faction seeking to see an end to the war and a private peace between Russia and Germany. Kerensky was convinced that Russia had to remain in the war and with the allies, or they would become a pariah from the world nations. By July he was the Prime Minister, by September he had declared a republic, and by the end of October he had been overthrown by the second revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Bolsheviks ended the war on the Eastern Front, and Moura’s husband Johann returned home. It was not a celebratory return – they both knew that they were at great risk in the new order. The estate in Estonia had been looted by a mob of peasants, and so now they were in St Petersburg not for society but for sanctuary. It was a changed city. Moura’s friends at the British embassy were forced to depart at the end of 1917, though that was not the end of Moura’s involvement with the British presence in the city. A reduced embassy was permitted to remain, including a good friend of Moura’s named Captain Francis Cromie. With his help Moura (forced to work to make ends meet) got a job there as a translator while Johann returned to Estonia to try to salvage some of the family possessions.

Bruce Lockhart -
Bruce Lockhart. Source

It was through her work in the embassy that Moura met Bruce Lockhart. He was a Scottish diplomat who had formerly been posted to Moscow, where he became well-known for playing in a local football team and helping them win the league championship. He had been sent back to Britain after the Ambassador had found out he was having an affair with a local married woman, but now he had been sent back to Russia – this time overtly as consul but in actuality to try and create an intelligence network that could help bring Russia back into the war. In both he faced a difficult task – the Bolsheviks had every reason to dislike the British, who had treated them as a criminal element for decades. He and Moura had already begun their affair by March of 1918, when the Bolsheviks officially signed their peace treaty with Germany. As part of it, they ceded Estonia (with Moura’s children and her husband Johann in it) to Germany.

In July of 1918, Moura made a perilous journey across the border to Estonia. The two countries were not at war, but the border was still closed to most traffic. Moura had to cash in many of her connections to make the journey, and when she did she found little but disappointment. Her husband had not only made his peace with German occupation, he had embraced it as a way to give Estonia greater independence than she had ever enjoyed under Russian rule. Moura was disgusted with him, and the two parted on bad terms. The pair were beginning preparations to divorce the following year when Johann was murdered under mysterious circumstances – possibly by Estonian anti-German partisans who saw him as a traitor.

Sidney Reilly -
Sidney Reilly.

Exactly when Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies”, hatched their plot to overthrow Lenin is impossible to pin down. It’s possible that this had been Bruce’s plot right from the start, but it’s also possible that he was barely aware of what Reilly’s real plans were before he turned up in Moscow. Some scholars even think that the whole plot was entirely a creation of the Cheka, Russia’s secret police, who used undercover agents to entrap Lockhart and Reilly and provide a justification for a purge. It’s also entirely unclear exactly how involved Moura was. She may have been recruited by Bruce to help, but it seems equally (if not more) likely that she was recruited by the Cheka to spy on him. What is certain is that through Reilly the British legation began to reach out to disaffected officers among the Bolshevik-controlled army and set things up for a coup. [1] The event was planned for September of 1918 – but unfortunately for them, a couple of random acts by anti-Bolshevik terrorists triggered the regime’s paranoia, and the British legation’s offices were raided. Moura’s friend, Captain Francis Cromie, was killed in the raid. The plans for the coup were discovered, and this kicked off a full-scale purge by the Cheka. Thousands of people were arrested – Bruce and Moura among them.

Moura and Bruce were among the lucky few who survived being arrested for their involvement in the coup. Thousands were executed without trial, but Moura was released after a week – stoking later rumours that she had been in the pay of the Cheka. She and Bruce exchanged impassioned letters, and she used the last of her money to bribe his guards into letting her visit. One later story is that Moura was at the time pregnant with Bruce’s child, but that she miscarried it – possibly due to the stress or the trauma. It was up in the air whether the Russians would execute Bruce out of hand, but eventually they reached a different solution. The British had arrested the Bolshevik ambassador after news of Cromie’s death had reached them, as they had never recognised the new Russian state and thus he had no immunity. So a prisoner exchange was agreed, and Bruce was handed over to the British in exchange for the ambassador.

Moura originally entertained plans of getting out of Russia herself and reuniting with Bruce, but the deteriorating international situation and the ongoing Russian civil war made that impossible. World War I had ended, but British troops were still fighting in the north of Russia and the White Army still dreamed of returning to power. Instead she once again found work as a translator, this time for a Russian publishing house in Petrograd looking to release Russian translations of English classics. The house was headed by Maxim Gorky, possibly the greatest living Russian writer at the time. Moura (naturally) became Gorky’s mistress, as well as a kind of housekeeper for him. [2] While working at the publishing house in 1920 she met a visiting British writer, Herbert George Wells. HG (as he is usually known) had been invited to tour the “new Russia” in the hopes that he would turn into a cultural ambassador for the new regime. In truth he wasn’t impressed by what he found – except for the woman who was his guide and translator. That was Moura, of course. [3]

HG Wells, Gorky and Moura Budberg -
From left to right: HG Wells, Gorky, Moura. Source

Moura lied to HG, as she lied to everyone these days – claiming that her father had been an ambassador to England rather than to Germany, and speaking fondly of her ties to the country she had never visited. The pair had a brief but intense affair (the passion being mostly on HG’s side) during the two weeks HG and his son stayed in the country. Moura may have valued him more for his ability to leave the country, and to bring messages to her children in Estonia and to Bruce in England. However the following year an unexpected turn of events resulted in her finally being able to leave as well. Gorky was becoming more and more mistrusted by the new regime, yet they had no wish to arrest the man who some thought of as the greatest living Russian. So it was agreed that he would go into exile in Berlin, and Moura received official papers to allow her to cross the border as part of his household. Yet her infamy preceded her, and when she crossed the border into Estonia she was immediately arrested as a spy.

The prime movers against her, it turned out, were her dead husband’s relatives who had no intention of allowing her to reclaim her children. Moura was released on lack of evidence, and after protracted discussion Johann’s family eventually agreed to allow her to reunite with her children. She spent several months in Estonia with them, though she also took the opportunity to replenish her coffers. It was later confirmed that during this time she acted as an agent of the Bolsheviks in their gold-smuggling business, where they bypassed the sanctions against them through trafficking in the precious metal. Perhaps that was the debt she owed them for having allowed her to finally leave the country. It was her activity here that first brought her to the attention of MI5.

Nikolai and Moura Budberg -
Moura and Baron Nikolai Budberg. [4] Source
Moura’s visa to Estonia was due to expire after three months, and at the end of that she would be forced to leave Estonia. Her window to enter Germany had ended, and so she would be forced to return to Russia once again – an unwelcome prospect. In order to avoid this Moura entered into a marriage of convenience with an impoverished Estonian nobleman named Baron Nikolai Budberg. Moura paid off his gambling debts, and in return he gave her Estonian citizenship through marriage. She also received the title of Baroness from the marriage, which she would use (along with her married name of Moura Budberg) for the rest of her life. Though it was a pragmatic arrangement, the two did become fond of each other. Following the wedding, though, they parted company and Moura resumed her interrupted journey to Berlin.

Once in Berlin, Moura didn’t let her newly married status put her off setting up house with Gorky again. Her husband went off to his own amusements, while her children were packed off to a boarding school. Moura tried to get them to England, but her chequered past led the authorities to suspect that she wanted a British visa as part of some scheme and they rejected her application. Instead they were put into a school in Dresden. Still, Moura had decided that she would like to move to England eventually so she made an effort at this time to stay in touch with her influential friend HG Wells. She also got back in touch with Bruce Lockhart, which turned out to be a wise move. Though he had quit the diplomatic service and become a banker, he was still well-connected.

Moura Budberg -
Moura Budberg. Source

In 1924 Gorky’s household moved to Italy, which at the time was ruled by the Fascist dictator Mussolini. Moura would later tell a story of having met Il Duce in order to complain about the spies who were watching Gorky – only to be told that they were actually watching her. Though the meeting allegedly ended on friendly terms, it’s not surprising that it put Moura on edge. In fact both the Italians and the British were now convinced she was a Soviet spy. She might have been, in an informal quid pro quo fashion. She was definitely acquainted with more than a few. In 1926 she divorced Baron Budberg, though she kept the title and the name of Moura Budberg. HG Wells visited often, and the two resumed a long distance relationship – though she was only one among the many mistresses the writer cultivated. In 1929, when Gorky was finally persuaded to return to Russia for a visit, Moura went to stay in Berlin.

It was in Berlin that the chance to go to England she had hoped for finally came. Both HG and Bruce visited the city, and Moura convinced them both to support her application. Ernest Boyce, one of her old friends from the British Embassy in Russia also gave a surety on her behalf. This made him a suspected Russian agent, of course, but it also did the trick. [5] She got her visa, and in September of 1929 she finally visited England for the first time. It was a flying visit, as they were only prepared to let her into the country for a week, but she was able to lodge her younger daughter in an English school and to visit the country home HG had described to her. She made a few more return visits the following year, building up contacts in Britain’s publishing world. That was her business now, after all.

Kay Francis as Moura in “British Agent” -
Kay Francis as Moura in “British Agent”.

In 1933 Gorky finally returned to Russia to live. It closed off one home for Moura in Europe, just as the Nazis in Germany were defiling her precious Berlin. The same year Moura Budberg made an appearance on the silver screen – or rather, her character did. Bruce Lockhart had published his memoirs the previous year (he’d allowed Moura to read them in advance and to make suggestions for what to leave out), and they’d been adapted into a movie. The film was called British Agent, though the characters had their names changed for legal reasons. Moura became “Elena Moura”, and was played by Kay Francis. She was portrayed as a Cheka agent, sent to spy on the hero (”Stephen Locke”) but who falls in love with him instead. It wasn’t a very good movie, but it did make Moura a bit more well known.

Moura’s visits to England continued, and by 1934 both of her children and her niece Kira had moved there. [6] Her relationship with HG Wells, however, deteriorated. It had been on rocky ground for a while, with him constantly trying to persuade her to marry him and her refusing, but it was a lie on her part that poisoned the relationship. She told him that she was going to visit family in Estonia, then instead went to Russia to visit Gorky. (How she got a Russian visa is unknown, though Gorky might have used his influence. Or perhaps she actually was the Russian agent many suspected her of being.) Unfortunately HG visited the country a few weeks later, having been invited by Stalin. While there he paid Gorky a visit and offered to pass on his regards to the Baroness. He was deeply embarrassed when he was told that she had been there only weeks earlier. It didn’t end their involvement, but it did bear heavily upon it.

Stalin at Gorky’s funeral -
Stalin acting as one of the pallbearers at Gorky’s funeral. Source

In June of 1936 Gorky died, and Moura was alerted in time to be at his deathbed. His funeral marked the end of her ties to Russia, though ironically it was this visit that convinced the British authorities that she was a Russian agent. She was placed under close observation, and with war on the horizon every move she made was scrutinized carefully. Her contacts in and work with the German publishing agency also counted against her. In the meantime, Moura herself was more concerned for her old friends in Russia – Stalin had begun his infamous purges, and virtually everyone she knew from the old days would lose their lives in them. It may have been discovering Moura’s name on those listed for purging that exonerated her in the eyes of the British. When war broke out in 1939 she was granted asylum, and even applied to become a British citizen – though such applications were suspended for the duration of the war.

During the war Moura was a translator for British propaganda units, and as a result she was investigated a bit more closely by the British secret services. In the end they decided that she was profoundly anti-Nazi, and that any loyalty she had possessed to Russia had been destroyed by the purges and the non-aggression pact with Hitler. However she was also probably too dangerous to allow into such a sensitive area, so she was banned from working at the BBC – though she wound up becoming friends with a great number of people involved with it. Her children may have protected her as well – they had all married into respectable British society, and so the Baroness was to an extent also part of that society. Moura did still become involved in propaganda, when she became an editor at the Free French magazine “La France Libre”.

Moura Budberg -
Moura Budberg. Source

In 1945 the war ended, and in 1946 Moura’s long-running affair with HG Wells ended when he died, at the age of eighty. Moura’s application for British citizenship finally went through, and her influence and connections meant that despite the security issues on her record it was approved. Those same connections helped Moura become a society hostess, and the rumours that she had been a Russian spy only added to the cachet of her parties. Through this social whirl she was able to restart her publishing business, but they also helped her to fuel her endless desire for socialization. She came back onto the intelligence radar in 1951, when the diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were exposed as Russian spies. Both had been acquaintances of hers, and an MI5 agent was sent to investigate her. The agent described her as:

an unusually intelligent and amusing woman…a quite outstanding personality who can drink an amazing quantity, mostly gin, without it showing any apparent slow-up in her mental processes.

The most notable feature of the interview was when Moura informed the agent that she was convinced that Sir Anthony Blunt, a member of the royal household, was a Russian spy. The allegation was noted but never followed up on, and it wasn’t until 1964 that it was finally discovered that Blunt actually was a Russian spy. The conversation ended with Moura pledging to inform MI5 of any more information she received, and it was that which finally led to them closing their long running file on her.

Moura spent the following twenty years as a London institution – the infamous Baroness Budberg. She became well-known for her habit of “confiding” in people about her mysterious past. She did revisit Russia a few times in the 1960s, though she was unhappy with the changes there. Also in the 1960s she developed kleptomania – possibly a new manifestation of a desire to feel the same danger she had felt in her youth. It may just have been poverty that drew her to it though, as her financial situation became more precarious. She was approached to write an autobiography, but it never materialised. She did however land a rewarding job translating Russian novels and rewriting them as screenplays, penning Three Sisters which starred Laurence Olivier and The Sea Gull, which starred James Mason. In 1970 Bruce Lockhart died, and though Moura didn’t attend his funeral she did have a Russian Orthodox church hold a memorial service for him. Her announcement of this in The Times caused a minor scandal, since he had been married when they had their affair, but Moura didn’t care. In fact, she probably enjoyed it.

Moura Budberg -
Moura in 1972.

In 1974, while visiting her son Paul who had retired to Tuscany, Moura died. She was 82 years old. She left behind instructions for her children to destroy her papers, which they carried out – doubtless destroying a great deal of literary history but also ensuring she preserved her air of mystery to the grave. Her body was transported back to England, and after a funeral in the same Russian Orthodox church she had held her memorial for Bruce, she was buried in Chiswick. The funeral was attended by many great names, but after her death people slowly began to forget about the infamous Baroness Budberg. That is, until her niece Kira’s grandson went into politics. His name was Nick Clegg, and he became leader of the Liberal Democrats, and then Deputy Prime Minister of England. A 2015 biography of Moura thus received a great deal of attention, and rescued from obscurity a woman whose career had spanned much of the secret history of the 20th century. Was Moura Budberg really as active a spy as rumours painted her? We’ll probably never know – and in that, the Baroness has her final victory.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] Around this time Moura also took advantage of Lockhart’s contacts to smuggle her old friend Kerensky out of the country.

[2] Moura attempted to escape across the border to Finland in 1920, but was captured. It was only through the influence of Gorky and his friends that she was released.

[3] It’s rumoured that she was acting as a spy for the Cheka on Gorky at the time and was thus tasked too keep an eye on the foreign visitor.

[4] Or possibly her first husband Johann – captions vary.

[5] Boyce is often considered to be the one who betrayed Sidney Reilly, leading to his capture and execution by the Russians. Though Moura herself was convinced that Reilly had orchestrated that and faked his death.

[6] Kira was probably the illegitimate daughter of Moura’s sister, though she might have been Moura’s. She had been raised along with Moura’s two children and was treated as one of them. Kira married an Englishman, which will be important later.