“It was no doubt easier to believe in the ultimate rightness of the cause when one was no longer likely to be its next victim.”
It is a funny thing that we (the collective ‘we’) tend to like and admire complicated men, men who do amazing things, survive against all odds, stand up to overwhelming forces, but are deeply flawed. The same admiration or conditional respect is rarely given to women. How many hold Thomas Jefferson up as a titan, yet cast Cleopatra down as a harlot? Baroness Moura Budberg was, to say the very least, a complicated woman. With this book, authors Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield shine a light on a woman who has lurked in the shadow of famous 20th Century events, who worked for, against, and alongside important figures who shaped the world we live in. Was she a spy? Was she a traitor? Was she responsible for a whole heap of dead bodies? Did she push people to do greater things? Did she cut a somewhat heroic figure? Perhaps the answer to all these things is yes.
Like Sidney Reilly, whom she knew briefly during the chaotic days after the Russian Revolution, Moura was somewhat self-made. She purposefully obscured the truth of her origin later in life. She seems to have been someone different to almost all who knew her. As with Reilly, she seems to have had quite the effect on many members of the opposite sex. Men fell in love with her, and maybe to a degree, she with them. Yet only one man ever seems to have truly captured her heart…not that she ever stayed in any way true to him, or he to her. Sex is the easy way out, however. While she managed to enrapture spies, revolutionaries, the rich and the famous, it was not on her sex appeal that she built her network of power. As that appeal faded, she only became more powerful…for a time.
Moura emerges as a fascinating mess of a person. Used to the good life, she survived hardships that made many crumble. Desperately in love with British spy and all around screw-up Robert Bruce Lockhart, she maintained affairs with the rich and powerful. Rabidly anti-German and fervently pro-British, she never stopped being an agent for Russia. She romanced H.G. Wells and Maxim Gorky, butted heads with Stalin, was on the MI6 watchlist (among many others), did time in Russian prison, worked with Alexander Korda, essentially ran a publishing house, befriended her watchers, offended many, and kept everyone guessing long after she died.
Baroness Moura Budberg (again like Reilly, not her original name but a crafted identity she worked hard to create) is a key player in the events of post-Revolution Europe and the early days of the Cold War. She is someone we should know and learn about. That said, while I found the information in this book fascinating, I did not love the book itself. Certain style choices were made that I found especially off-putting. Though filled with details and historic facts, backed up by citations and such, there are also a plethora of weird flights of fictional fancy. Sequences written as though the book were a novel, getting into a character’s head and exploring the world through their eyes in a way that I don’t like in a History book, even a Popular History book. I don’t need a cold recitation of dates and numbers. I tip my hat to a finely handled narrative in a History book. In this book, however, the authors go a bit too far with it. Things also kinda drag, especially in the back half. Not that the events are less interesting, but it gets less focused. Sometimes it feels like key bits of information are held back until dramatic points to try to keep tension where I really didn’t need tension. I just needed things to move along.
If you’re reading about the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, espionage in Europe and the U.K., then this book is probably worth checking out. It definitely gives a different angle on some events you’ll no doubt be familiar with. Otherwise, I’m not sure I can recommend it.