Amidst all the hullaballoo about the Edward Snowden leaks and Chinese hackers’ regular breaches of supposedly-secure US government sites, it is worth reminding ourselves that the best information tends to come from human intelligence sources – good old spies.
The best of them can juggle deception and commitment, securing access not only to files and figures but other people: to overhear conversations, act with initiative, ask questions, report on manner and nuance, and in general help us understand people, not just data points. They tend to give us the best stories, too, and the tale of Baroness Moura Budberg is a splendid one, not least as she herself was such an assiduous mythmaker.
What emerges from this entertaining and well-researched book is a picture of a woman at once a big-game hunter of larger-than-life men (her bag included Robin Bruce Lockhart the spy, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells the writers, and not one but two Baltic aristocrats) and also a devotee of a high life and a fast reputation. Born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya in 1892, daughter of a senior Ukrainian lawyer who worked for the tsarist state, her upbringing was privileged, liberal and cosmopolitan. At a young age Maria – who was known as Moura – married a stuffy Estonian nobleman, Djon von Benckendorff. He fled Russia in the 1917 revolutions, she stayed, and ended up working as a translator at the British embassy, where she fell in with its sizeable contingent of spies, including Lockhart.
A swashbuckling agent-adventurer of the old school, Lockhart was there to try and ensure the Bolsheviks did not conclude a peace with Germany, and when it became clear that they were keen to extricate themselves from the war, he began instead to engineer challenges to the new regime. Moura was by this time both working for the Cheka – the Bolshevik political police – and falling for Lockhart. His plots came to nothing and he was arrested by the Bolsheviks, but Moura may have leveraged continuing working for the Kremlin in return for his release.
Despite her later move to England, their relationship was never to flower, but her career as an agent, double agent and maybe even triple agent flourished. This entertaining book does a sterling job of collating what is known about her life, not least from her letters and the copious MI5 files on her, but even so it is defined as often by the gaps as the revelations. Did she follow Gorky into exile out of devotion, wanderlust or to keep tabs on him for Moscow. (And did she have a cache of compromising manuscripts of his, rumoured eventually to have been burnt in Italy, where she died?) When she told MI5 that Anthony Blunt, art historian and Soviet spy, was a Communist, was she trying to establish her bona fides, making mischief or genuinely turning her back on her past?
What is clear is that until descending into a louche old age of booze and snobbery, she was a captivating personality, seductive and compelling, and used this to the fullest to attract, suborn, bamboozle and exploit susceptible men of every kind and nationality. How effective as an agent was she, though? Now that’s the real question. Of course it is always difficult to answer such a question with precision, but there seems little evidence that she gathered more than random tittle-tattle. However, one might wonder how far the very characteristics which defined her also meant that successive controllers – men, of course – also tended to give her greater indulgence than they might other sources. Moura Budberg appears to have been more effective at, in intelligence terms, acquiring assets than in exploiting them (for intelligence purposes, at least).
The bottom line appears to be that the best agents are often the least conspicuous; SubLieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, Melita Norwood and Vasili Mitrokhin were hardly the stuff of Bond movies, for example, while if Anna Chapman got most of the attention in the illegals ring broken in 2010, she was hardly the most effective and professional, even of that rather unimpressive team. So as Budberg’s story shows, the true HUMINT asset is that paradoxical creature, able to connect with and, ultimately, exploit other human beings to the fullest, but also able to use those talents for the mission: an amiable but also disciplined sociopath…
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.