accordions and gin

Moura Zakrevskaya, variously Countess Benckendorff and Baroness Budberg (1891 – 1974) was the daughter of an eccentric tsarist nobleman. He was so obsessed with the pyramids that he built a replica – which still stands today – on his Ukrainian estate.

Moura found here

“Her first husband (murdered while she was away in Russia) was a minor Estonian noble. She gained the title of ‘Baroness’ through her second husband. He was soon discarded but the title never was

She met British diplomat and spy, Bruce Lockhart, in Petrograd after travelling there alone to try to secure family property amid the turmoil. She later followed him to Moscow, where both were arrested by the authorities.

Bruce Lockhart found here

The legend maintains that Moura secured her own release from the Lubyanka by offering the commandant sexual favours. Whatever the truth of this, she brought food and books to Bruce Lockhart until he was exchanged for a Soviet agent held by the British. 

Lubyanka prison courtyard found here

In 1934 their relationship was further mythologised by a Hollywood film. “British Agent” was directed by Michael Curtiz, of Casablanca fame, and starred Leslie Howard as Bruce and Kay Francis as the enigmatic Moura.

Kay Francis found here

Bruce Lockhart’s departure left her alone and penniless in Moscow. She found work with Maxim Gorky and soon became his secretary and lover. Through Gorky, Moura came to know both Lenin and Stalin, and she remained part of his entourage until his death in 1934. 

image found here

Towards the end of this period she was spending increasing time in London, establishing herself as a fashionable hostess and a star of the Russian émigré community. The press began to mention her as a friend or “companion” of H. G. Wells.

H G Wells found here

This relationship worried the British authorities. In its early days espionage was closely connected with literature. W. Somerset Maugham had been sent to Russia in 1917 with the ambitious mission of keeping Russia in the war and preventing the Bolsheviks coming to power.

W Somerset Maugham found here

The Moscow Embassy had already warned that Moura was “a very dangerous woman“. Worse, she had once presented Stalin with an accordion. Her file recorded: “She drinks like a fish. She can drink an amazing quantity of gin without it showing any apparent slow-up in her mental processes.”

image found here

The ageing Wells offered in London what Gorky had offered in Moscow: security and an entrée to society. Moura’s own explanation was that the attraction was sexual – Wells’s skin, she said, smelled of honey – though she refused to marry him or even remain faithful.

watch a great honey badger video here

She was under surveillance by MI5 as a possible spy for over thirty years yet they never managed to find her guilty of anything.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 7:53 am  Comments (47)  
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47 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i never could stand the accordian – until i heard a regional band do some techno and Biz Markie songs on the accordian. i still can’t stand it, but it sure made me laugh like hell!

    • I love the accordion in Nirvana’s Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam

  2. My friends might question this but I would claim a reasonable ability to hold my beer and wine. Spirits though… I treat them with reverence and never drink more than an inch. What a woman to hold so much gin.

    And just while I’m babbling… many years ago a company I worked for had a rather hairbrained idea to start exporting to South Korea. We contacted the British Export Board or whatever it’s called for some guidance about etiquette and how business is done over there, and they sent us a little booklet, which contained the sentence “Never try to drink a Korean under the table.” Ha ha!

    • I’m a one-drink-wonder

  3. Accordian….reminds me of the Who’s Squeezebox. Mamas got a squeezebox she wears on her chest and when daddy comes home he never gets no rest.

  4. My goodness – my nephew’s wife looks very much like Moura – and she’s Russian. Perhaps of noble lineage??
    I’d like to assume Moura WAS a spy – successfully eluding all efforts to catch her in the act (the act of espionage…).

    • she was quite a gal

  5. Never expected HG Wells to have had such an interesting ‘companion’

    • She wasn’t the only one…

      With his wife’s agreement, Wells had affairs with a number of women, including the American birth-control activist Margaret Sanger and novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. In 1909 he had a daughter, Anna-Jane, with the writer Amber Reeves and in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by the novelist and feminist Rebecca West, twenty-six years his junior.

  6. She seems fabulous, and harmless, and I’m going to build a pyramid in my garden right now

  7. A very interesting person, thank you for bringing her to my attention! Maugham looks in this picture like something they chopped off in the woods … Not too many people came out of the Ljubyanka alive and on their own feet, but maybe it was different in the early years. The image I have may be formed too much by the situation of the thirties.
    I would very much like to see the Ukrainian pyramid!

    • Berezova Rudka, Piryatinsk district, Poltava region, 150 km East of Kiew; the pyramid is 9 m high; tours available here.

      • A seven hour tour!

  8. I have a sudden urge to hear the James Bond Theme played on an accordion…

    • I kind of wish she’d given him a xylophone instead.

  9. Lovely women who are also spies? Doesn’t get much better than that, especially when the random and slightly surreal elements of H.G. Wells and a Ukranian pyramid are thrown in the mix. Just got done with a book on the young Stalin and she was mentioned a bit, so it’s neat to actually see her.

    • Was it an interesting book?

      • Absolutely- he was, not surprisingly, a right bastard. ‘Young Stalin’ by Simon Sebag-Montefiore, who’s a good writer with a great name. Onto a good WW2 espionage history now, a true story with a communist mouse fancier playing a part. Reality is quite wonderful at times.

  10. I’ve always wanted to see the legendary pyramids of The Ukraine…well, ever since I heard of them about 3 minutes ago.

    • you can take the seven hour tour that 63mago discovered (above)

  11. Honey? yes, badger?… err NO!

    • Did you watch the video? It’s great

  12. Europe has been full of spies for centuries. Except for the chance discovery of military objectives during wartime or of tech advances I don’t know why they needed spies . Everyone know what the other was doing because they were all up to self preservation, and colonialism so what would be the mystery?

    • But spying is so much fun

  13. You know what they say, follow the honey.

  14. Literature has had deep connections with espionage. Ian Fleming and Graham Greene were both involved in intelligence before becoming authors. Then there are the rumours about part-time Eleizabethan spy Richard De Vere and the works of Shakespeare

  15. Now, that is a woman who knows her way around man.

  16. In Yorkshire, the best women smell of pork pies and Timothy Taylor’s bitter.

    • i thought men liked women who smelled like pumpkin pie and bacon

      • Perhaps that’s why men never fancied me.

  17. Where do you get this stuff?
    I’m amazed and fascinated that such an eclectic range of posts exists.

    I’m actually amazed that I’ve got the guts to use the word eclectic without a MA in Eng. Lit.

    Perhaps catholic range would be better, but eclectic sounds so much like electric that I’m all amped up.

    Seriously, I enjoyed the post. It was both educational and entertaining, not an easy combination to get right.

    I’ve got to ask the question however, what made you pick Moura as the subject for your post. I’m not objecting (heaven forfend [my favourite Daffy Duck quote]), just curious.

    I wonder if she was related to Moria of the famous mines?

    • I think I read about her in The Book of the Dead by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. It’s worth chasing down a copy…..

  18. quite a life she’s had.
    i envy her.

  19. I want to marry a minor Estonia noble. Are there any left?

  20. I’m trying to figure out where all these people got all this money to do this stuff.

    Personally, I love accordions (and bagpipes, for that matter). I’m not sure where they got such a bad rap.

  21. I still don’t get why it was so significant that she gave him an accordion. Is this some kind of Russian euphemism that I’m unaware of?

    • No, it’s just an odd present

  22. I would say MI5 had her under surveillance for something other than a suspicion of spying…

  23. Now I feel totally inadequate. Jenny has never told me my skin smells of honey. I’ll have to change my diet pronto. But does the honey-smell come from eating honey or is it just a natural smell I have no control over?

    • Try rolling in it and see how that goes….

  24. Interesting woman, to be sure.

    Korman certainly photographed some lovely ladies.

  25. He knew all the right people

  26. I find her sexy and I would bet that she was a spy indeed.

    I grew up with that damn accordion blaring throughout my Irish house!!


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