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15 November 2018

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Book Review

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A Dangerous Woman

The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia’s Most Seductive Spy, by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield (Oneworld, $27.99)

Moura Ignatievna Budberg (born Zakrevskaya) was, above all things, a survivor. Born to nobility, she survived the Revolution, dispossession, Lubyanka imprisonment, accessory involvement in a plot to bring down the Bolsheviks, and a long period of exile.

She survived largely thanks to her astoundingly magnetic, charismatic character, apparently working as a double agent for the Soviets and the British, falling in love with the flamboyant spy Bruce Lockhart, living as Maxim Gorky’s common law wife for over a decade, and then as mistress to H.G. Wells. She finally died in 1974, in England. He great-great grandnephew, Nick Clegg, is currently deputy prime minister of England.

It is an astoundingly unbelievable life well retold in this gripping new biography. Well-written too. The book’s account of the Lockhart Affair is particularly fascinating, recreating the paranoid, anti-Western world that was Soviet Russia in the late 19-teens and early 1920s.

While at times the authors wander into the realms of speculative fiction, somehow fathoming what this or that individual might have been thinking at the time, or offer far more detail of a scene than archives could have coughed up, the end result is convincing. As Moura herself said of Gorky’s work at one point: “artistic truth is more convincing than the empiric brand, the truth of a dry fact.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2015