This captivationg reading chronicles a riveting moment in modern history through the eyes of Baroness Maria ("Moura") Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Beckendorff Budberg, a Russian aristocrat forced to employ great cunning to survive in the post-Revolution. This is not, however, a straightforward biography.
Nina Berberova, an acclaimed writer of fiction who spent the latter part of her life as a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University, has an admittedly complicated relationship to the people and events she details so richly in this book. With her companion, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, Berberova lived in the Gorky household with Moura for three years. While she claims in her Preface to be committed to presenting an unbiased portrait of her subject, her personal reminiscences (which are not always favorable) clearly form and inform the rendering of Moura the reader finds here. Moura's viability as a biographical subject rests almost entirely on her role as mistress in the lives of three notable twentieth-century men: Robert Bruce Lockhart (of the Lockhart Affair, a 1918 plot to overthrow the nascent Bolshevik government), H.G. Wells, and Maxim Gorky, with whom she lived for several years. Her independent achievements (as a translator, mostly, though not a very good one, according to Berberova, and as a probable secret agent) receive as little attention in her biography as they seem to have received in her life. Moura's gifts were more amorphous. She was an individual who was naturally inclined to seek romance, and her tremendous charm was a powerful intoxicant to men: in some ways, her devotion to them became a career of its own.
The book also sheds light on facets of the frightening and all-consuming transition to Soviet life: the dire post-Revolution economic situation and the culture of newly impoverished intelligentsia it produced, as well as the battle (often literal, with a toll paid in artists' lives) to maintain some semblance of creative freedom under the new dictatorship. (This struggle is epitomized in the bitter rivalry between Gorky and his literary community and Grigori Zinoviev, who would become head of the Comintern in 1919, and exert fierce government control over creative expression). In fact, much of the book serves as a chilling reminder of just how unremittingly violent the Soviet experiment was at its inception.