07 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most Seductive Spy

Hardcover, 400 pages
Published 2015
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia's Most Seductive Spy
by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield

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.

H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky, and Moura Budberg in 1920
from mourabudberg.com
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 c. 1930
from Bibelots London
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 in 1971
from Wikipedia
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.

Next Week: A detour back into Wells's fiction, as I partake of The Food of the Gods!

* 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.

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