Monday, December 13, 2010

A Dignified Hustle

How much talent did modern Russia have? Even after the best and brightest of the country was decimated by the First World War, the Civil War, the Great Hunger, and the Purges, talent survived, even if much of it was forced to sneak abroad. Take, for instance, the case of Nina Berberova, the brilliant author, translator, and writer of biographies of Aleksander Blok, reviewed previously by Soviet Roulette, and Baroness Budberg, a.k.a., Moura.

Berberova, a genius in her own write (though Nabokov reminds us that the word genius, in Russian anyhow, is solely reserved for Pushkin, Tolstoy, and perhaps one or two other supremely gifted literary artists), was a friend of many Russian luminaries, including Maxim Gorky and Khodasevich. She was also a friend if not social equal of an older and more sophisticated Moura, Baroness of Budburg, a translator, cultural consultant for British films, and so much more.

Berberova's admiration for Moura was predicated on the woman's strength, beauty, self-confidence, discretion, intelligence, bravery, and brand sense of adventure. While so many other high-born ladies crumbled under the volcanic pressures of revolution or exile, Moura did not. After discovering that the husband who had given her an aristocratic title had been murdered by peasants, Moura struggled to survive. Neither hunger nor violent social dislocation could put an end to the strange career of this intrepid woman.

Wondering the streets of a lonely, impoverished, and now-alient St. Peterburg, Moura's pre-war ties to Great Britain eventually brought her into contact with the ever-diminishing British mission in Moscow. This in turn led her into a very real love affair with that spectacularly adventurous and eloquent British diplomat and agent, Bruce Lockhart, who plotted to overthrow the Soviet government while it was still in its infancy. If Moura had done nothing more than help her lover, Lockhart, to escape from his Cheka prison, her life would merit some attention. But Moura's fascinating tale didn't stop there.

When Lockhart was let out of Russia, Moura continued to survive in war-torn Russia, eventually finding solace in the intellectually vibrant circle of Maxim Gorky. Gorky, as will be remembered, launched some of the most ambitious publishing enterprises in the history of communism. Once an ardent supporter of Lenin, Gorky opposed the Bolshevik crackdown on liberal as well as leftist political competitors. Eventually, Gorky oversaw the translation and publication of world literature in Russia on a stunning scale, even in the midst of abject poverty. When Gorky eventually withdrew from Russia in protest, Moura found her way to him in exile. But all the while, she maintained innumerable contacts with family, friends, intellectual peers, and perhaps secret agents.

But Moura's life of danger had not yet ended. In its next iteration, the consummate survivor allowed Gorky to return to Russia without her, and eventually became the life partner of one of Gorky's admirers, H.G. Wells. Berberova is naturally in awe of this woman who earned the love of no less than three first-tier interwar actors, Lockhart, Gorky, and Wells. But her admiration stems less from her knowledge of the devotion each of these man held out to Moura, and more from this aristocrat's irrepressible capacity for survival and self-invention. Moura attracted brilliant men, but this attraction was generated by their recognition of the fact that this woman did not come to them with even a shred of dependency. Moura would survive with or without any of them, though she never spoke about her independence in a melodramatic or spiteful way.

Moura's life will perhaps always be shrouded in some mystery. She made up stories all the time, maintained discrete lives, and may also have had ties to the Soviet Union's espionage services. (Berberova even speculates that Moura may have gone back to the Soviet Union to be at Gorky's deathbed). Certainly, she always believed the best years of communism lay in the future.

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