Nina Berberova's Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg chronicles a riveting moment in modern history through the eyes of Baroness Maria (“Moura”) Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Beckendorff Budberg, a Russian aristocrat forced to employ great cunning to survive in the post-Revolution. This is not, however, a straightforward biography. Nina Berberova, an acclaimed writer of
fiction who spent the latter part of her life as a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University, has an admittedly complicated relationship to the people and events she details so richly in this book. With her companion, the poet Vladislav
Khodasevich, Berberova lived in the Gorky household with Moura for three years. While she claims in her Preface to be committed to presenting an unbiased portrait of her subject, her personal reminiscences (which are not always favorable) clearly form and inform the rendering of Moura the reader finds here.
Moura's viability as a biographical subject rests almost entirely on
her role as mistress in the lives of three notable twentieth-century men:
Robert Bruce Lockhart (of the Lockhart Affair, a 1918 plot to overthrow the nascent Bolshevik government), H.G. Wells, and Maxim Gorky, with whom she lived for several years. Her independent achievements (as a translator, mostly, though not a very good one, according to Berberova, and as a probable secret agent) receive as
little attention in her biography as they seem to have received in her
life. Moura's gifts were more amorphous. She was an individual who was naturally inclined to seek romance, and her tremendous charm was a
powerful intoxicant to men: in some ways, her devotion to them became
a career of its own.
Moura is thick with wartime intrigue. The account of the dramatic
relationship between Moura and Lockhart, the British diplomat who
became a secret agent in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power and very nearly toppled the regime, reads like a thriller. Though they later reunite, the love affair culminates with Moura saving Lockhart from probable execution by convincing a Cheka deputy to let him go home to England. The two are separated, but their lives are spared.
The book also sheds light on facets of the frightening and all-consuming transition to Soviet life: the dire post-Revolution economic situation and the culture of newly impoverished
intelligentsia it produced, as well as the battle (often literal, with a toll paid in artists' lives) to maintain some semblance of creative freedom under the new dictatorship. (This struggle is epitomized in the bitter rivalry between Gorky and his literary community and Grigori Zinoviev, who would become head of the Comintern in 1919, and exert fierce government control over creative expression). In fact, much of the book serves as a chilling reminder of just how
unremittingly violent the Soviet experiment was at its inception.
Against this backdrop, the irrepressible energy of Moura and her
circle of friends in the Gorky household, and their abiding affection
for one another, seem all the more courageous. In a climate of terror,
they faced hunger, poverty, interrogation, imprisonment, and exile of all kinds, but Moura especially managed throughout her life graceful,
even heroic, escapes from the various conditions of misery history
sought to impose upon her. Lockhart has written of her: “Where she
loved, there was her world, and her philosophy of life had made her
mistress of all the consequences.”
Whether a product of Berberova's rendering or the actual events of
Moura's life, or both, the woman we find in these pages, while deeply
satisfying in the role of mistress and subject of history, often disappoints. Moura was an impressively resilient
individual, and even at her most hungry, harried, and depleted,
Gorky's “iron woman” had an unsinkable spirit, and a fierce will not only to live, but to absorb and be nourished by her experiences in the world. But at times she appears as little more than just the connecting tissue between the important men of action she knew and loved. In detailing its complicated context, the book sometimes feels as though it isn't about Moura, but about the more dramatic or more interesting lives going on around her. Moura was suspected of being a secret agent (for Britain and for the USSR) for much of her life, but it is, ironically, a greater degree of agency one wishes Berberova has bestowed upon her here, a more primary role in the fascinating
historical drama to which she bore witness.