Moura von Benckendorff (nee Zakrevskaia) (1892-1974), Ukrainian by birth, was rich, beautiful, and charismatic; also, tough and capable. In 1917, Bolsheviks seized most of her property; in 1919, an Estonian peasant murdered her husband.
Somehow, she found her way into the home and heart of Russia’s greatest living author, Maxim Gorky. She became his lover, muse, translator and agent. In 1921, she briefly married the Estonian Baron Budberg, mainly to gain a passport which permitted her to travel outside Russia. The Baron went to South America and never troubled her.
Rumours surrounding Moura
Rumours swirled around her always: she had been Kerensky’s lover and spy; she had been a German spy; a British spy; a Ukrainian spy; a spy for the Cheka, and later for the NKVD and KGB. She was flattered. There is film of her standing next to Stalin at Gorky’s funeral: that was grist for the mill.
She took, and left, lovers from all walks of life, and everyone talked about that too. In 1933, she moved to London and revived an affair with HG Wells, whom she had first met in 1920 at Gorky’s flat in Moscow. Usually Wells dominated women. Not Moura. He proposed to her again and again. She cared for him, but would not marry a third time.
The Lockhart affair
The apex of this extraordinary woman’s life came early however, and not with a Prime Minister, great author or dictator, but with a little-known Scot who aimed high, but never climbed high enough.
In February 1918, while still married to Djon von Benkendorff, she met and fell in love with charming, dashing, ambitious, talented Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart (also married), and he with her. She would never love so deeply again; nor would he. She would never cease to love him; he did cease to love her.
With World War I undecided, Prime Minister David Lloyd George had sent this man to persuade Lenin and Trotsky to keep fighting Germany, or failing that to make a peace with her that did not damage British, interests.
When the Bolsheviks rejected the overture, Bruce Lockhart did what he thought his government wanted, and led his French and American colleagues in a plot to overthrow them. Had he succeeded all would be different, and Lockhart would be a household name. But the Cheka, Russia’s secret police, smashed the Plot and arrested him, and Moura.
How can a historian write with confidence about a conspiracy that was meant to be secret; that Allied governments disowned; whose participants wrote about only to deny involvement in – or, conversely, to embellish their involvement in it; and about which much primary evidence has been destroyed? The answer is: cautiously.
Moura’s biographers have not approached it that way. They enjoyed thinking her a deceitful femme fatale who reported Lockhart’s every move to the Cheka. It is absurd; she was far too much in love for that, as her letters reveal.
Unravelling a conspiracy
Here is what we can be sure of: the lovers shared an interest in politics, for he brought her to a lecture by Trotsky; she sympathized with his point of view, for on 10 March, just as he was advising Whitehall to keep quiet about intervening in Russia, she wrote to him:
“news of intervention has suddenly burst out [in Petrograd] … It is such a pity”
She also acted as his eyes and ears when he was absent, for in a letter of 16 March:
“Swedes say the Germans have taken new poison gas to the Ukraine stronger than everything used before.”
Here is what we may guess: that she had experience reporting to other authorities. She did not, however, report to Kerensky about expatriate Germans attending her Petrograd salon, as the biographers suggest.
But she may have reported about them to British officials whom she knew from working as a translator at the British Embassy – which is what one British officer recorded.
And, she may have reported to the Cheka, not on Bruce Lockhart as the biographers fondly suppose, but on what she learned when visiting Ukraine, her home. That is what the Ukrainian Hetman (Head of State) Skoropadsky believed.
And, she may have reported what she learned working for the Cheka to Bruce Lockhart. If the Cheka recruited her just before her trip to Ukraine in June, she may have consulted him before accepting. That would explain the letter and wire she sent him then: “I may have to go away for a short time and would like to see you before I go,” and a few days later: “Imperative I see you.”
Probably she knew what Bruce Lockhart was plotting. She did not attend clandestine meetings, but it is likely he told her about them, given how close they were. He wrote later: “We shared our dangers.”
The Cheka discover the plot
After the plot was discovered and broken she may have played a crucial role. The Cheka came for them predawn Sunday, September 1. Eventually they locked him in a small, windowless Kremlin apartment. No one imprisoned there had ever survived. They sent her to Butyrka prison, Moscow’s Bastille, where conditions were unspeakable.
After two weeks of that, Jacov Peters, the Cheka’s second in command, came to her. If ever she would have accepted an offer to work for him, it was now. She once said: “not to do what has to be done in such times is to elect not to survive.” Moura was a survivor, and Peters let her go. Draw your own conclusion.
For two months, the Cheka man chaperoned her visits to her lover in the Kremlin. He let her purchase food and drink and all sorts of luxuries on the black-market for him, a crime for which others were shot.
She took advantage of the visits to pass him notes hidden within the leaves of books. One cautioned: “say nothing and all will be well.” How did she know? Perhaps because she had extracted a quid pro quo from Peters before accepting his proposition.
The second note said that the Cheka had failed to capture one of the most important conspirators, who had succeeded in leaving Russia. That is even more suggestive. How could she have known — unless other conspirators told her? And, if she had such links after the event, likely she had them before as well.
In the end, the Bolsheviks swapped Bruce Lockhart for Maxim Litvinov, whom the British had imprisoned on trumped up charges precisely in order to force an exchange. Yet it is reasonable to think that Moura, by saving her lover’s life in return for working for Peters, made the exchange possible.
So, Wednesday, October 2: they stood on the railway platform. He took her in his arms and whispered: “Each day is one day nearer to the time when we shall meet again.” She understood the words as he then meant them, and she would live on them – until he jilted her.
But what he did makes some sense: for several months they had lived life to the fullest, had nearly wrenched history onto a different course, had loved each other passionately. Neither would scale those heights again. Better not to try.
Jonathan Schneer earned his doctorate from Columbia University and has taught at Yale University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and held research fellowships at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Now an emeritus professor, he divides his time between Atlanta, Georgia and Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. He is the author of The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin’s Russia, published by Oxford University Press.