Monday, October 22, 2007

Moura Budberg: Nick Clegg's great great aunt

Just when you thought the Lib Dem leadership campaign was going to be dull, the press has discovered Moura Budberg. Nick Clegg's great great aunt, she makes even Elspeth Campbell look mundane.

As the Mail on Sunday tells it:
Of all the many colourful names in the Clegg family tree it is his greatgreat- aunt (sic.) Moura Budberg who stands out above the rest.
The Russian-born noblewoman was widely suspected of spying for both the Soviet Union and British intelligence. Sensuously beautiful – and with a distinctly liberal attitude to sex – her life was full of shadowy entanglements and glamorous liaisons.
MI5 was warned by the British Embassy in Moscow in the early Twenties that she was 'a very dangerous woman'.
She was mistress to science fiction writer H.G. Wells and the Russian literary giant Maxim Gorky, as well as Robert Bruce Lockhart, probably the most famous diplomat and spy Britain ever sent to Moscow.
According to one account she offered sexual favours to a Lubyanka prison commandant after the 1917 revolution to secure her own release.
She then took food parcels and books to her lover Lockhart, jailed in a Kremlin dungeon under suspicion of masterminding an attempt to assassinate revolutionary leader Lenin in 1918 and topple the Bolsheviks, before brokering his release.
Later she came to know both Lenin and Stalin, once giving an accordion to the great dictator.
And there's more.

The Mail says Budberg was born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya in St Petersburg in 1891 (though Wikipedia claims she was born in the Ukraine). She married the Tsarist diplomat Count Djon Benckendorff and they lived at Jäneda in Northen Estonia. The Count was later shot by an Estonian peasant. (We phoned Lembit Opik for a comment, but he was out.)

Back in 2002 The Times got very excited by the release of Budberg's MI5 file, claiming that she had revealed that Anthony Blunt was a Communist at a dinner party in August 1951. Another guest, himself a former intelligence officer, had reported the conversation to MI5:
“The most startling thing Moura told me was that Anthony Blunt, to whom Guy Burgess was ‘most devoted’, is a member of the Communist Party. When I said, ‘I only know about him that he looked after the King’s pictures’, Moura retorted, ‘such things only happen in England’.” Having read the report, an MI5 officer sent a typed note to B Branch on September 3 1951: “Do you think we should extract the last paragraph for the file of Anthony Blunt? Is it sufficiently reliable?” Hand-written on the note, and in capitals, is the word “NO”.
Budberg wrote - or at least translated and adapted - two film scripts. The Sea Gull (1968) was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Three Sisters was directed by Laurence Olivier. She even appeared as an actress in the film of Peter Ustinov's film of his play Romanoff and Juliet.

And according to Godfrey Smith, she fell hopelessly for H.G. Wells because his skin smelt of honey.

We do not often talk about great great aunts, but the Mail explains the relationship:
Budberg's sister, Alexandra, was the mother of Clegg's grandmother, Baroness Kira von Engelhardt, who was born in Russia in 1909.
Those interested in the family should also read the Times obituary of Budberg's daughter Tania Alexander.

If, as everyone seems to be agreeing, the Lib Dem leadership contest is about personality rather than policy, Chris Huhne may be in trouble.

See also my article on Moura Budberg for the New Statesman website.


Anonymous said...

"She even appeared as an actress in the film of Peter Ustinov's film of his play Romanoff and Juliet."

And MI5 had sent Jona 'Klop' Ustinov (father of Peter) to interrogate her.

Anonymous said...

Now that's more like it - someone who wants to be Lib Dem leader having a sordid past. Excellent news.

Anonymous said...

Did Lord Bonkers know her? In any sense of the word?