Thursday, 22 December 2016

Spying in the free world; Moura Budberg (1892-1974) Chiswick New Cemetery

Moura's grave in Chiswick New Cemetery

In her final years Moura Budberg lived in a ‘large rambling flat’ in the Cromwell Road according to Michael Blakemore, who visited her at the request of Sir Laurence Olivier,  ‘attended by a female servant, also Russian…and equally cranky… Moura had on a long dress, by no means new, but appropriate to a countess, and her grey hair, its colour improved by the application of some silvery liquid was swept on top of her head. A tiny metallic trickle ran down the side of her face.’ According to other sources she was swollen and arthritic, kept a half bottle of vodka in her handbag, passed her time making small bets on horse races at Ladbrokes or watching Pinky and Perky on television and, as she was perpetually short of money, shoplifting (for which she was arrested at least once). The former beauty still craved company and in his memoirs Alan Ross recalls that her ‘entertaining, helped along by various Russian acolytes, was now much reduced but invitations were peremptory. Any excuses… were brushed aside as if of no account. “Just come in for a little moment,” she would wheedle in her husky voice, which remained distinctive and seductive long after all other physical charms had fled and she had become heavily square in shape.’ Another acquaintance, William Shier, tells us that two or three years before she died she was beginning to sort ‘through piles of material from cardboard boxes that littered the living and dining rooms of her house in Cromwell Road after she had given in to the pleas of her friends to write her memoirs.’  The much requested memoir was never written, ‘the work seemed sometimes to bore and exhaust her and she would telephone urging me to come over for tea and vodka.’ In 1974 Moura moved to Italy to live in the sun, with her son, but died a few months later. Her body was shipped back to England and after a funeral ceremony at the Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile at Emperors Gate (just off the Cromwell Road, close to Moura’s old flat) she was buried at the uninspiring Chiswick New Cemetery in a small patch of other Orthodox burials.  

The 'heavily square' Moura in old age at her Cromwell Road flat
The unwritten memoirs would have been fascinating, though not necessarily completely accurate; Moura was a great embellisher and an outright liar if it suited her. She lived an extraordinary life (she always said that her life was more interesting than she was) but was not, as the New York Times had it in her obituary, at ‘the center of London's literary and social life for nearly four decades’ she certainly knew a lot of famous or celebrated people.   As her headstone testifies she was born Marie Zakrevskaia in 1892, her father, Ignaty Platonovitch Zakrevsky, was a well heeled upper‐class Russian senator who owned land in the Ukraine. He encouraged his clever daughter to learn English, Italian, German and French, and at 18 married her off to an Estonian Count, Johann von Benckendorff.  A couple of years later her husband was killed in on his estate in Estonia, shot by one of his own peasants, a sign of the times. Moura was not heartbroken; she had been working in the Russian embassy in Berlin where she had met the dashing Englishman who became the love of her life; R H Bruce Lockhart.  The handsome Lockhart was a diplomat, sportsman, and author but less publicly was also deeply involved in espionage. He was in Eastern Europe keeping a close eye on the progress of the Russian Revolution. When Moura’s husband died he followed her to Moscow. The pair were both arrested and Lockhart was accused of spying and plotting to assassinate Lenin and incarcerated in the Lubyanka.  Incredibly Moura managed to engineer both her own and Lockhart’s release, possibly by allowing a senior Cheka official and later chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, to seduce and recruit her as a Bolshevik agent.

A younger, more seductive, Moura photographed with two of her lovers, HG Wells and Maxim Gorky
Once released from prison Lockhart returned to the UK and the 20 year old Moura, whom he had no doubt tried to recruit to be a British agent, went to work for the writer Maxim Gorky as his secretary, probably at the instigation of Yagoda and the Cheka.  It was probably also with the urging of the Cheka that she became Gorky’s mistress. She lived with the writer first in the USSR and then in semi exile in Italy until 1932 when he returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin (who probably had him assassinated 1936). Whilst with Gorky Moura had also started an affair with HG Wells when he visited the USSR in 1920 and the affair continued when she moved to London in 1933. She later told Wells that she had started sleeping with him at the request of the Cheka.
In London Moura managed, courtesy of Wells, to insinuate herself into the heart of the literary and political establishments. Graham Greene dubbed her Moura Bedbug in honour of her free and easy attitude to sexual morality.  She worked as a translator and a production adviser on the stage and screen, was Alexander Korda’s PA, and mixed freely in society but always under the scrutiny of MI5 who were convinced that she was a Russian spy. Many believed that she was a double agent passing information between NKVD and MI6; she was a friend of Guy Burgess. Long before he was outed as a Soviet mole by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 she was telling people that Anthony Blunt was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. When one of her friends, Klop Ustinov (spy and father of Peter Ustinov) said “I only know about him that he looks after the King’s pictures”, Moura retorted “Such things only happen in England”.
The inscription on Moura's grave