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A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and…

A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most… (2015)

by Deborah McDonald, Jeremy Dronfield

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5713314,319 (3.77)8
Spy, adventurer, charismatic seductress and mistress of two of the century's greatest writers, the Russian aristocrat Baroness Moura Budberg was born in 1892 to indulgence, pleasure and selfishness. But after she met the British diplomat and secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart, she sacrificed everything for love, only to be betrayed. When Lockhart arrived in Revolutionary Russia in 1918, his official mission was Britain's envoy to the new Bolshevik government, yet his real assignment was to create a network of agents and plot the downfall of Lenin. Lockhart soon got to know Moura and they began a passionate affair, even though Moura was spying on him for the Bolsheviks. But when Lockhart's plot unravelled, she would forsake everything in an attempt to protect him from Lenin's secret police. Fleeing to a life of exile in England and taking a string of new lovers, including Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells, Moura later spied for Stalin and for Britain amidst the web of scandal surrounding the Cambridge spies. Through all this she clung to the hope that Lockhart would finally return to her. Grippingly narrated, this is the first biography of Moura Budberg to use the full range of previously unexamined letters, diaries and documents. An incredible true story of passion, espionage and double crossing that encircled the globe, A Very Dangerous Woman brings her extraordinary world vividly to life with dramatic resonances to rival the most sensational novel.… (more)



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In the Postscript to his autobiography, H. G. Wells discusses when his long-running affair with the Baroness Moura Budberg (1891-1974) should have come on an end. He had met Moura in Russia, while visiting the writer Maxim Gorky. Many years later, she and he were lovers, and he had proposed marriage after the death of his second wife-- which she rejected. She also refused to come back to Russia with him, saying it was impossible but refusing to elaborate. When Wells went to Russia, with his son Gip instead, Wells was chatting with Gorky and his interpreter. Wells said something about how Moura couldn't be there, and the interpreter said it was a shame, because Wells had just missed her-- she'd been by the previous week. And, indeed, had been in Russia multiple times in recent years.

It's a sort of lurching moment: Wells's world drops away from him. The woman he was in love with enough to propose marriage to (and remember, Wells slept with lots of women) had been systematically lying to him for years. Wells can't take it, especially when she can't or won't explain, and he tries to break up with her. Except that every time she comes back into his life, he accepts her again. The end of the Postscript is a sporadically updated diary from the last decade of Wells's life, and Moura keeps on returning, and despite it all, Wells takes her back, and she was with him until the end of his life.

Wells died not knowing the whole truth of Moura Budberg, but I did a little research upon finishing the Postscript and discovered that she was a Russian spy, and that in 2015, there'd been a biography of her published, collating previously unaccessible letters and archives. It's a fascinating read.

Moura wasn't a spy in the James Bond sense-- she didn't go on undercover missions in foreign countries for the Kremlin. Rather, she was a popular social presence, and that was occasionally mined for the advantage of various parties with whom she needed to curry favor. Through her first husband's family, she had ties to the Germanophile Russian community; after the Bolshevik Revolution, she threw tons of parties for them and funneled information she acquired back to the Russian government. This is the kind of spying she did for most of her life.

Her life is pretty fascinating. She was a member of the upper classes, but managed to survive the rise of Communism by being useful to the new government-- not just through spying, as she became the lover of Alexander Kerensky, leader of the provisional Russian revolutionary government. McDonald and Dronfield paint a bleak and terrifying picture of revolutionary Russia, showing just how dangerous and desolate it was, as well as how politically fraught, as various political factions moved to consolidate power. Moura was both spied on by the Cheka (the counter-counterrevolutionary police) and spied for them.

Moura had connections to the U.K. from her youth, and fell in with Bruce Lockhart, the unofficial British ambassador in Russia. (The U.K. recalled its embassy staff because it couldn't be seen to officially endorse Bolshevism, but it dearly needed Russia on its side against Germany, so Lockhart was sent to do what he could unofficially.) The two became lovers (even though both were married), just another of Moura's significant lovers, which would go on to include Wells and Gorky.*

McDonald and Dronfield cover all the extant facts about Moura, weaving them together into a compelling narrative that goes from the Revolutionary days (1916-19 get a whole 280 pages to themselves in a 340-page narrative), to the mysterious death of her husband, from her time spent selling Russian treasures abroad to obtain funds for the Soviet government to her second marriage (one of convenience, to an Estonian baron), from her time working for the BBC's propaganda department during World War II to her postwar career as a screenwriter and script doctor for Alexander Korda. There is a lot of information packed into here, extensively endnoted. I didn't always always read the endnotes, but they show that McDonald and Dronfield worked hard to sift through the many disparate accounts of Moura's life. (Moura being one of the most unreliable sources of all, given her propensity for storytelling.) Many of the endnotes are devoted to criticizing the previous biography of Moura, by Nina Berberova.

Once I adjusted to the density of the book (I always find biographies slow going, but in a sort of good way), I found the book incredibly interesting-- but I don't know that I understand Moura as a person. Perhaps no one can, given how prone she was to exaggeration, and how much she kept secret. What did she think of her time spying? The key moment, it seems to me, is almost completely skipped over, I assume because we just don't know anything about it. Suddenly she is spying on the Germanophiles for the Soviet government. But how was she recruited, and did she feel bad about the deceit this entailed? Moura never said, and neither did anyone else, so we have no way of knowing. There were similar moments like this throughout the book. At one point the authors speculate that she may have had a role in the death of her first husband... but there's no way we can ever really know, just as we will never know what role she played in the death of Gorky and its aftermath.

Moura kept so much of herself hidden-- except from Lockhart, for whom she threw a lavish Russian Orthodox funeral that no one else attended-- that even when we know what she did, it's difficult to know what she thought and felt of it. But that's a problem beyond McDonald and Dronfield's capacity to solve, I suspect, and not a dint on this well-researched tome.

* That isn't it for Moura's relations to famous folk: her niece/adopted daughter was the grandmother of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K. from 2010 to 2015.
  Stevil2001 | Nov 11, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a biography of Maria (Moura) Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Benckendorff Budberg (ABT 1891 - 1974), a Russian aristocrat turned spy, who had affairs with various famous men:  British diplomat Bruce Lockhart, Russian writer Maxim Gorky, and British author H. G. Wells.  I'm not sure I'd describe her as "very dangerous," though, as it seems her "spying" consisted mostly of passing along gossip.

The subject is not a particularly likable woman, and between that and the excessive detail about her life, I had a hard time finishing this book.  It just didn't grab me.  However, the authors certainly did their research, with 43 pages of end notes supported by an eight-page bibliography (most of Budberg's letters to Lockhart, Gorky, and Wells had been preserved), and there is also an eight-page index.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received this paperback through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.] ( )
1 vote riofriotex | May 10, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A densely rich book about a fascinating woman. As noted below, I too found myself wishing for a little bit more story-telling. A story about a female Russian spy should not be dry! Overall, it was an incredible read about a woman with an incredible ability to adapt and survive. ( )
  erin1 | Apr 17, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Picturesque account of a woman whose life will probably never be thoroughly documented. Effective portrait of the peril elites found themselves in during the Russian Revolution. I found myself wishing for story-telling that grabbed me a little more by the lapels.
  stellarexplorer | Apr 17, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As seems to frequently be the case, I think the author/publisher went a bit wild with the subtitle of this book. Maria (Moura) Budberg was born into an aristocratic Ukrainian family around 1891. She was very intelligent, reveled in being the center of attention, and was extremely charismatic, one of those people that others can't seem to help but like.

She certainly did some spying against Germany, set up as a bit of a double agent, during WWI, and did her share of whispering important tidbits down the line to the British throughout the years following the Russian revolution. However, facts about was she/wasn't she spying past the 1920s aren't really available. There was largely just an awful lot of rumor, some of which she created herself. Whatever hints we have, they are simply hints and there really isn't any hard evidence and there will likely never be any.

That being said, it was an interesting book because she was an interesting woman. While she destroyed all of her own papers, many letters she sent were kept and she was associated with many interesting people throughout her life, including Maxim Gorky and HG Wells. The book is well written and scrupulously end-noted. It took about a third of the way in to really grip me, but made for a good read. ( )
  mabith | Apr 7, 2016 |
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McDonald, Deborahprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dronfield, Jeremymain authorall editionsconfirmed

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