A Very Dangerous Woman

Title:                      A Very Dangerous Woman

Author:                 Deborah McDonald

McDonald, Deborah(2015) and Jeremy Dronfield. A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia’s Most Seductive Spy. London, England : Oneworld Publications

OCLC:                    890181362

CT1218.B784 M33 2015

Contents: Flouting all conventions : 1916-1918 —
Love and survival : 1918-1919 —
In exile : 1919-1924 —
England : 1924-1946 —
Moura’s salon : 1946-1974.

Date Posted:      October 4, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

In the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution, before Britain had recognized Lenin’s government, the Foreign Office dispatched Russian-speaking Robert Bruce Lockhart to head what was called the British Mission in St. Petersburg. Within a year, Lockhart had joined with Sidney Reilly in a failed plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks, only to be arrested and sent to Lubyanka by the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police. Initially threatened with death, he was unexpectedly transferred to the Kremlin, where conditions improved, thanks to the efforts of Madam Maria von Benckendorff—known to her friends as Moura, with whom he had been having an passionate affair. Moura had secured his transfer after a private meeting with the deputy head of the Cheka, Yakov Peters; for whom she had been spying on Lockhart. What Peters didn’t know was that Lockhart had sent her to Peters in the first place, to offer to spy on Lockhart and thus penetrate the Cheka. When Lockhart was, exchanged for the Bolshevik Minister to Britain, Moura, now pregnant by Lockhart, had to remain in Moscow and began to plan a reunion in London. A Very Dangerous Woman tells the story of her long, crooked path to London and what she found when she arrived.

During Moura’s decade-long journey, her husband was mysteriously murdered, she began affairs with Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells, she continued cooperation with the Cheka, she married Baron Nikolai Budberg, and she had occasional rendezvous with Lockhart. She reached Britain in September 1929, aged 37, with the help of an old MI6 friend, where the Security Service (MI5) suspected her of being a Soviet agent and monitored her phone calls and mail.

The authors deal with each of her adventures at great length, especially her years in London where her children joined her. She soon became famous for her weekly celebrity salons attended by the elite of society. Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess were frequent guests, as were publishers, actors, writers, British politicians, and Soviet diplomats who enjoyed her hospitality. At the same time, she made frequent trips to see Gorky until his death in the Soviet Union, where she met Stalin, and thus came under closer MI5 scrutiny. When WWII began, MI5 assigned their Russian-speaking agent, Klop Ustinov—Peter Ustinov’s father—to monitor her. Klop would eventually recruit her as an MI5 source. Throughout this period she also continued her affair with Wells—often appearing with him as a hostess at book publishing events—and her meetings with Lockhart, until both died.

Whether Baroness Budberg was the dangerous woman MI5 made out is never fully resolved by the authors. In their well-written biography, based on recently released MI5 records, family letters, and unpublished memoirs, they present a convincing portrait of a talented survivor. Reduced to poverty in her final years, she struggled to maintain her way of life until her death in 1974.

A Very Dangerous Woman reads like a Russian novel, centered on a life whose truth is stranger than fiction.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p. 135). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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