Moura Budberg

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Moura Budberg, by Allan Warren

Maria Ignatievna Budberg (Russian: Мария (Мура) Игнатьевна Закревская-Бенкендорф-Будберг, Maria (Moura) Ignatievna Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg), also known variously as Countess Benckendorff, Baroness Budberg (c. 1891 – November 1974), born in Poltava, was the daughter of a Ukrainian tsarist nobleman and diplomat. As a glamorous beauty she was the mistress to prominent men on both sides of the east-west divide. As an adventuress and double agent she worked for the British Intelligence Service during a plot to assassinate Lenin in 1918.[1] and the OGPU (working directly for the Genrikh Yagoda, who was the chief of the Soviet secret service in the 1930s, at the beginning of the "Great Purge").[2]

Early life[edit]

Manor house Jendel in Jäneda

Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya was born into a Ukrainian czarist family family in 1892. Her father, Ignaty Platonovitch Zakrevsky (1841–1905), was a high-ranking lawyer for the Tsar and a Russian Senate official. She grew up politically liberal, culturally sophisticated and a devoted Anglophile. Moura, as she was affectionately known, enjoyed a privileged youth, dancing in the presence of Nicholas II at Potsdam and going on to contract a marriage at 18 with count Djon von Benckendorff, a Baltic German aristocrat. He ran an estate in Estonia on the Russian borderlands, where they owned the manor house called Jendel in Jäneda. During the October Revolution, Benckendorff fled to his estate in German-controlled Estonia and there he was to be shot dead in 1918 in murky circumstances, while she was away in St Petersburg. Moura worked as a translator in the propaganda office of the British embassy, which was packed with agents of the Secret Intelligence Service. Through these contacts she met Bruce Lockhart. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George had send him to Russia in a semi-official capacity to see if a deal could be done with the Bolsheviks, with the ultimate goal of thwarting German interests. Like everyone else, Lockhart fell for Moura. Unlike everyone else, his affection was fully reciprocated. They spent their evenings riding in sleighs along the banks of the Neva and their relationship became more serious as the political situation deteriorated. Lockhart began to realise that Trotsky and Lenin were stringing him along and he resolved to take matters into his own hand, fomenting coups and funding plots.

In 1921, Moura gained the title of ‘Baroness’ 1922 through her second husband, another Baltic German aristocrat, baron Nikolai von Budberg-Bönningshausen. By time both M15 and the Bolsheviks’ secret intelligence service – the Cheka – had opened files on her. Baron Budberg was soon discarded: the title never was. She left him in 1923 and took a post as secretary in the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Germany.

Arrest after Lockhart Plot[edit]

In the late summer of 1918, an attempt was made in Moscow to assassinate Vladimir Lenin. He was shot twice from close range by a Russian woman, the 28-year-old revolutionary Fanny Kaplan. Lockhart was suspected to have been the brains behind the attack. When Red Guards burst in to arrest him, countess Moura was sharing his bed in the British consular flat. Following their arrests, Lockhart was questioned in the Kremlin while Moura Benckendorff was locked on suspicion of spying for the United Kingdom and transferred to the notorious Lubyanka headquarters of the Russian secret services.

Lockhart, who mentions her, under her given name, in his book Memoirs of a Secret Agent[3] tried to vouch for her, however he was detained as well for couple of weeks. Moura regarded Lockhart as the love of her life and there is evidence she became pregnant by him but lost the baby.[4][5] Budberg was freed days later by Yakov Peters, deputy head of Lenin's secret police, amid suspicions that she had a sexual relationship with him under the condition that she would cooperate with the intelligence service if the need should arise in the future.[6]

Lockhart was released and expelled from Russia soon after, in connection with the "Ambassadorial Conspiracy" affair (also known as the "Lockhart Plot").

In 2011 the retired Russian spy Igor Prelin, who has researched the KGB archives, revealed that Moura was close to Genrikh Yagoda, director of the NKVD, the Soviet secret service that operated under Lenin's successor Joseph Stalin.[7]

Maxim Gorky[edit]

Moura Budberg got a job publishing "World Literature", where she met the writer Maxim Gorky with the help of Korney Chukovsky. She became a secretary and common law wife of Gorky, living in Gorky's house with a few interruptions from 1920 to 1933 (when the writer lived in Italy before returning to the USSR). He bitterly dedicated to her his last major work, the novel "The Life of Klim Samgin". Through Gorky, Moura Budberg came to know both Lenin and Stalin, and she remained part of his entourage until his death in 1934. Towards the end of this period she was spending increasing time in London, a star of the Russian émigré community, establishing herself as a fashionable salonist entertaing Laurence Olivier, Graham Greene, Martha Gellhorn and the Cambridge-educated double agent Guy Burgess.

H. G. Wells[edit]

In 1920 she met historian and science fiction writer H. G. Wells[8] and became his mistress. A close relationship with Wells continued until his death; Wells asked her to marry him, but Budberg firmly rejected this proposal.

She visited the Soviet Union twice, in 1936 for the funeral of Gorky (which made people call her an agent of the NKVD) and at the end of 1950, with a daughter of Alexander Guchkov. She died in Italy in 1974 and was buried in Chiswick, west London.

Double agent[edit]

She was widely suspected of being a double agent for both the Soviet Union and British intelligence and has been called the "Mata Hari of Russia", after the famous Dutch exotic dancer and accused spy.

An MI5 informant said of her, "she can drink an amazing quantity, mostly gin".[9]

In 1934 the relationship between British diplomat and secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart and her was further mythologised by the Hollywood filmBritish Agent″. The film was directed by Casablanca-film director Michael Curtiz and starred Kay Francis as the enigmatic, passionate Elena Moura.[10]


Among her many activities, she wrote books and was the script writer for at least two films: Three Sisters directed by Laurence Olivier and John Sichel (1970), and The Sea Gull directed by Sidney Lumet (1968).[11][12]


Moura Budberg's older half-sister, Alexandra 'Alla' Ignatievna Zakrevskaya (1884–1960), who married Baron Arthur von Engelhardt before 1909, was the great-grandmother of Nick Clegg, leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party between December 2007 and May 2015, and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 2010-2015 parliament.

Moura and Djon von Benckendorff had a son and a daughter. The daughter, Tania, settled in the UK and was a writer and theatrical adviser.[13]


In May 2008 a television film "My Secret Agent Auntie" directed by Dimitri Collingridge was released in England.[14]


  1. ^ Template:Cite bews
  2. ^ "Последняя страсть Максима Горького Мария Будберг". Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart Memoirs of a British Agent. First published 1932, 384 pages Publisher: Macmillan, 1975
  4. ^ "The sexy Russian spy in Lib Dem leader hopeful Nick Clegg's past". Mail Online. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  5. ^ "Abel Danger: Nick Clegg's 'Mata Hari' Aunt - Plot To Kill Lenin - Shedding Light On Role In Plot - Red Ties - Man-In-The-Middle Fraud". Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  6. ^ "Mystery of Nick Clegg's 'Mata Hari' aunt and a plot to kill Lenin". Mail Online. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  7. ^ "Mystery of Nick Clegg's 'Mata Hari' aunt and a plot to kill Lenin". Mail Online. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  8. ^ Burris, Charles (2007-08-01) Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal: An Annotated Bibliographic Guide,
  9. ^ "Mosley was tracked by MI5". BBC News. 2002-11-28. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  10. ^ "The story of Clegg's aunt". Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  11. ^ "Moura Budberg". IMDb. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  12. ^ Filmography - Retrieved on 2006-10-23
  13. ^ "Tania Alexander". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 Oct 2015. 
  14. ^ My Secret Agent Auntie (2008). IMDB

Further reading[edit]

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