I’m trying to tie all loose reviews ends before leaving my computer at home for some (hard-earned ?) holidays. How to sum up this book… or better, this incredible life? When you think how much Russia changed from 1890 to 1970, which is Moura Budberg’s (and Nina Berberova’s) lifetime, it’s dizzying. I can’t start to imagine what it’s been like to live through all these brutal events one after the other –wars, revolutions, misery, exile, starvation, political terror. But I can understand that few have survived, and even fewer have retained their dignity and sanity. But Moura Budberg did everything in her power to retain both, to remain independent and to surround herself with mystery, as if only mystery would save her.
Moura Budberg is born Zakrevskaya in the Russian aristocracy of the 1890s (although not a princess as she sometimes pretended) and very early on gets into the international upper class as she studied in London. She marries a Count Beckendorff, whose estate is in Estonia and who gets killed in the early 1917s unrest. Suddenly destitute, without money, family or connections in the new Bolshevik Moscow, she befriends British agent Bruce Lockhart (who tried no less than to overthrow the Lenin government!) and falls passionately in love. When her lover and she are jailed in 1918 she get them both out, having “somehow” convinced the secret police officer to release them.
But after Lockart get back to England, their ways part and she finds her way into Gorki’s household: the writer become the second love of her life. Living under his roof means meeting countless intellectuals, and she But even at that time she remains fiercely independent and make frequent travels to Estonia, officially to visit her children. When the political circumstances in the Soviet Union toughen, she flees the country and, in order to get a passport, contracts a paper marriage with a gambler and philanderer of the Estonian aristocracy, Baron Budberg. She joins Gorki again, as his secretary and mistress (or was it to keep an eye on him or to influence him?), during the years he spends in Europe in the mid-1920s, in increasingly difficult circumstances (his fame and money dissipating as the political pressure from Stalin increases- and with it direct threats to isolate him from the exiled community). After Gorki yielded to the pressure and got back to Russia, she takes up with another writer, H.G. Wells, with whom she lived during the 1930s, refusing to be his wife. Later on she faded into the background, an obese alcoholic who remained close to the Russian intelligentsia both on the emigrant and Soviet sides, and the intelligence milieus (British and Soviet alike) all her life.
While being a very compelling character, Budberg’s story as told by Berberova remains strangely elusive and distant. Of course, there are crude details that women of her generation would not have got into. And when Berberova compiled these pieces of information (the first edition is 1981), the threat of the Soviet intelligence and police ramifications overseas were still very real. But I got the impression that Berberova didn’t tell as much as she could have in this book. There are many hints she failed to state plainly to non-initiated readers: whether Berberova thought Budberg was a Soviet agent (like she says of many beautiful wives and mistresses of European artists and intellectuals – whether she gave to Stalin Gorki’s archives, thus helping to incriminate several people during the Moscow trials. She tried to stick to facts and erase her presence in the background (she still mentions in the preface that she spent 3 years living under the same roof as Budberg, but in the book itself she’s hardly ever mentioned).
Berberova has a strong admiration for Moura’s survival skills. She was determined not only to survive, but to thrive in an increasingly complex and dangerous world. Moura loved “the joy of a free private life unhampered by a moral code of ‘what the neighbors might say’; the joy of surviving intact; the joy of knowing she had not been destroyed by those she loved.” Berberova says that she was ready for anything for that purpose, but she doesn’t get into the details of these compromises. How much did it really cost Moura to go from one brilliant lover to the next? Did she really love them? How much did she betray and to whom? We don’t know. I got the feeling that Berberova didn’t really approve of Moura, but we don’t know that extent either. She lied all the time, in a very intelligent way, so that her image would remain mysterious and intact. Even after a complete biography, I think her endeavour proves quite successful indeed.