Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg – “red Mata Hari” from the Poltava region

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
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Maria (Moura) Ignatievna Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg (1892-1974), was born in the Poltava province, an international adventurer, presumably a triple agent of the OGPU, British and German intelligence services, a scriptwriter for films.

What could be more stupid than the quite often sounding question: “Whom do you love more – dad or mom?” Is that a constant rival, which sounds more and more often: “And who, in fact, is better – men or women?” All the more so – find out, do not find out – your gender will not change from it.

But we are really different. The difference, of course, is small, although this small difference is usually encouraged to admire – and rightly so. But there are quite significant things in which men are superior to women (in strength, for example), and there are also, vice versa, no less important.

For example, the difference is that (there is nowhere to go, it has been proven) there are more geniuses among men than among women. But it does not mean that men are smarter – there are also noticeably more idiots among them. A man is a carrier of variability, and a woman is a carrier of stability.

There is another consequence of it: women are more tenacious creatures than men. The average woman lives several years longer than the average man (in different countries it is different, the difference is double-digit for heavy drinkers). In Sweden, for example, it is 79.5 and 83.5 years – quite noticeable!

It is understandable: in order to maintain and even more so to increase the number of women, it is desirable to have more women, and one man for several dozen women will suffice (he probably will not mind…). But seriously, look around for yourself – aren’t women more adaptable, more tenacious?

But even knowing and admitting it, one cannot help but be surprised at this native of the Poltava province, who simply demonstrated miracles of survival in such hard conditions. However, we do not know everything about her life – her dossiers in several intelligence services have not yet been declassified.




The name of the Zakrevskys is familiar to anyone who is more or less interested in history. And even literature – who does not remember Agrafena Zakrevskaya, Pushkin’s muse, who dedicated to her the well-known lines “How lawless comet in the circle to the number of stars”, and a number of other poems?

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Agrafena Zakrevskaya

Our heroine did not mind when she was considered a descendant of this brilliant woman, called herself her great-granddaughter. Everyone who knew her did not doubt it – Vladislav Khodasevich often said to her, “There is no need to look for examples of how to live when there was such a grandmother”.

But it has nothing to do with the truth. If there was some kind of relationship between them, then the сousin seven times removed – its kind is known only since the 18th century and originates from a certain Osip Zakrevsky, it is not quite clear who. So she is not a countess, although she stated otherwise.

Nevertheless, her father was far from a poor nobleman, a Chernigov landowner, the owner of a sugar factory, a well-known lawyer who rose to the high position of chief prosecutor of the First Department of the Governing Senate. Quite an enviable career!

We are also interested in the mother of Ignatius Platonovich, Anna Zakrevskaya, who comes from the old Cossack family of the Zaslavsky. Taras Shevchenko was very familiar with her, who admired her beauty, dedicated his poem “Blind” to her and the poems “G.Z.” and “Shall We Ever Meet Again”.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Anna Zakrevskaya




Ignatius Platonovich wanted and could give a decent upbringing to all four of his children, including the youngest, Maria. He sent her not to a gymnasium, but to an institute – an institution more prestigious, but also more refined, far from the true problems of life around us.

But Maria did not at all resemble the bulk of college graduates. Enthusiastic sighs, a firm knowledge of court curtsies, cross-stitching and impeccable French were by no means her priorities in life. She was straighter and tougher.

So after the institute, she made an unexpected decision – to bring her education of life to the end not in generally recognized France, the language of which was more widespread in high society than Russian, but in England, more expensive and serious. It played a huge role in her life.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Moura in youth

Perhaps this decision was made because her half-brother Platon was then working at the Russian embassy in London. And the ambassador at that time was a descendant of the well-known chief of gendarmes, Count Benckendorff. His distant relative Ivan von Benckendorff, who bore the same surname, but without the title of count, held the post of attaché of the embassy at that time.

She met not only Ivan Benckendorff, but also a young Scottish diplomat who was just starting his career at the recently opened British consulate in Moscow. He bore the patriotic name Robert the Bruce – in honor of the Scottish king, defending the country’s independence. And we also know his surname Lockhart from history.




Who played a big role in Mary’s life, Benckendorff or Lockhart, one can argue. Even despite the fact that Benckendorff proposed to Maria and received consent. Why not – they were equal. He was not a count, and she was not a countess. Although she often stated something completely different…

Soon after the wedding, Benckendorff was appointed secretary of the Russian embassy in Germany. Maria even danced at one of the court balls with Kaiser Wilhelm. She liked the cavalier, she later recalled, “He had humor.” Well, yes: there was nothing left before the war.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
With first husband Ivan Benckendorff

They returned to Petersburg, then to the family estate near Revel (now Tallinn). In 1913, her son was born, in 1915 – a daughter. Why not? Everyone did it… During the war, she went to work as a nurse in a hospital – not a simple one, but a privileged one, but still…

The husband served in the military censorship, and after the February Revolution he went with his wife and children to the estate. Maria later returned to Petersburg, to the capital’s apartment, to decide whether it would be possible to live there with the children. While she hesitated, “October has already come…” and her old life ended.




The revolution is not for lobio. Before Christmas, men from a neighboring village broke into the estate and brutally killed her husband with a cudgel. Simply because it became possible to kill – while many were killed for no particular reason. The governess miraculously saved the children, hiding them with the neighbors.

Maria was left in hungry post-revolutionary Petersburg not only alone, but also without any means of subsistence. Many of those like her simply died of hunger that winter, it happened even worse… Another person, without her vitality, in her place would almost certainly have died.

In search of at least some old connections, she came to the British embassy. Maryel, the ambassador’s daughter, was friends with her in London. She began to go there more and more often, but did not leave her address – she was evicted from the apartment, and the old cook Zakrevsky allowed her to live there. In early January 1918, the embassy staff left. General Knox recalled that only one Russian came to see them off – she?

They were replaced by her longtime acquaintance, Robert Bruce Lockhart – without diplomatic status, just as a “special agent” in these extraordinary circumstances. Later they had a romance – outwardly ardent on both sides. Perhaps it lasted? No data…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Robert Bruce Lockhart




Maria went with Lockhart to Moscow. Rather, Moura – they began to call her that, although she did not look like a cat at all. Lockhart’s affairs were bad – his task was to prevent Russia from making peace with Germany, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had already been practically agreed upon and was about to be signed.

Lockhart was ready for the most decisive action. He was supported in it by Sidney Reilly, who had arrived from England, who was also an extremely curious figure that deserved a separate discussion. He met with two people who called themselves representatives of the Latvian riflemen, the mainstay of the regime. They said they were ready to rebel, and he gave them large sums for that purpose.

Lockhart did not know that these people were sent by Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Peters. And the conspiracy of the ambassadors, as this case was later called because of the participation of foreign representatives, was also a provocation of the Cheka, and absolutely successful. So Lockhart was in the hands of the Chekists.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region

Lockhart was arrested on the night of September 1, 1918. Peters interrogated him and released him – as it turned out, not for long. Lockhart went to him to find out the fate of the arrested Moura, and then he was arrested again. A day later, Izvestia already wrote about the disclosure of the ambassadors’ conspiracy.

Then things went incredibly: Lockhart, who had no diplomatic immunity, and Moura were eventually released. Just because the British arrested Litvinov in response? You could go and figure out what obligations Moura had to take on for it…

Perhaps it was from that time that Moura’s work at the GPU began. Maybe not, but why, then, was she released when executions had already become commonplace? Personal relationships with Peters might not have been enough (few doubt that they were). And he did not forget about work…


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Returning to Petrograd, she exchanged a sable sleeve for counterfeit bread cards, and was immediately arrested. Only three weeks later, the Chekists heeded her demand to call Peters – and they immediately released her. And she went to Chukovsky, who was looking for translators from English for Gorky’s World Literature project. Still, some kind of earnings and a certificate…

Korney Chukovsky wrote about the first editorial meeting at which Moura was: “Oddly enough, although Gorky didn’t say a word to her, he spoke everything for her, spread his peacock’s tail. He was very witty, talkative, brilliant, like a schoolboy at a ball”. And so on…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Feast with Gorky

Gorky invited Moura to be his literary secretary and soon proposed to her (he had broken up with his married wife Ekaterina a long time ago, with Maria Andreeva – just at that time). But she didn’t agree – maybe the authorities didn’t allow it? However, everything was fine with them and so.

At that time, the famous Herbert Wells arrived in Petrograd and stayed at Gorky’s house. On the last night of his visit, he went to the toilet, and for some reason returned to Moura’s room… However, she denied everything and told Gorky that even for her two such writers were too many.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Wells, Gorky and Moura in 1920




She managed to find out that her children were alive, and even received permission to travel to Estonia for them. But there she was immediately arrested – as a Cheka spy. However, she was soon released – a backward country, there you could not be arrested for such a thing without proof. But a non-citizen had no status there. 

A way out was found quite quickly, and a simple and proven one was a fictitious marriage. The candidate was found quite suitable – a real baron. So, thanks to the fictitious marriage, Moura became a real baroness, and not a twice fictitious countess, as it was until now.

Neither love nor family interests stood behind a fictitious marriage – only material ones. Baron Nikolai von Budberg-Boenningshausen, just Lay for his friends, needed money to get to Argentina – no one knew him there, he needed just such a place.

While Gorky was there, there was money. Budberg received them, Moura explained everything to Gorky, after some time her husband left for Argentina, and they never saw each other again. But she already had a triple surname: Zakrevskaya-Benckendorf-Budberg. Neither Gorky, nor later Wells was honored by marriage, although they both asked for it. Maybe she didn’t want to confuse work and personal life?




Moura returned to Gorky in Sorrento. Her help, as a secretary and translator, was very tangible – both Gorky and his household repeatedly said that without her, chaos would reign in the writer’s affairs. He dedicated his largest novel The Life of Klim Samgin to her.

But when Gorky returned to the USSR in 1932, she did not follow him – she returned to England and easily found HG Wells there, who did not forget her. There she also brought her children and her faithful governess Missy. She advised director Alexander Korda on Russian topics, translated and wrote screenplays. But she did not marry Wells, and sometimes she went to see Gorky.

Before the very death of the writer, she came to him in Moscow again. Either to say goodbye, or to bring a part of the archive that he gave her when he left Sorrento in 1931. At his request or by order of his superiors – it was also unclear, there were no documents. You could think what you wanted.

Rumors that it was she who gave him the poisoned candy were not supported by proofs (although where did they come from?). After his death, she left the USSR completely freely (I wonder how exactly?) With the rights to all foreign publications of Gorky – and no longer needed money.




Moura told Wells that she would stay with him, but would not marry him. “This is not my age,” she declared in response to his insistent suggestions. “She spends time with me, eats with me, sleeps with me, but doesn’t want to marry me,” Wells complained. Once, in response to his insistence, she threatened to jump out of the car on the move.

Wells and Moura once invited guests to their wedding banquet, and then, right in the restaurant, announced to them that it was just a joke. You could not be too surprised at her behavior – she perfectly understood that even without an official marriage, Wells would never leave her.

During the war, Moura actively collaborated with her old acquaintance Lockhart, with whom she never lost contacts in the affairs of the French Resistance, worked for the magazine Free France, and even communicated with de Gaulle. But with Wells she was inseparable.

On August 13, 1946, 80-year-old Wells left this world. In his will, he left Moura $ 100,000, so she did not feel material problems until the end of her life. And whether her affairs, about which we do not know, have ended, we do not know. In the early 1950s, she was interrogated about her contacts with the “Cambridge Five” (Soviet spies in England), but she was left alone. Old connections?




She grew old and immersed, clearly addicted to alcohol, which she had done before. But more and more people began to be interested in her as a living history. Nina Berberova talked with her for a long time and wrote about her the bestseller Iron Woman – Gorky called her that.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Nina Berberova

She also visited the USSR – no obstacles, as, indeed, under Stalin. She was there at a discussion of Shatrov’s play The Bolsheviks and noticed that the actors who played the Chekists were completely different from the real Chekists. She knew better – she had seen enough of the Chekists…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Shatrov’s The Bolsheviks

She died in November 1974. Now it was possible to argue about her and her true role in the lives of two great writers and three powerful intelligence agencies – with pleasure, but without any sense. Three months before her death, a trailer with her archive was burned down – perhaps it was there that Gorky’s archive was also, about which it was not clear whether she returned it to Moscow. Hardly not by her will…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Maria Zakrevskaya-Benckendorff-Budberg - "red Mata Hari" from the Poltava region
Moura in a London apartment in old age

What’s left of her? The already mentioned book Iron Woman and a bunch of riddles, the answers to which, if found, are too late. Therefore, I will end with the words of the same Berberova, “Her hobbies were not crippled by either moral considerations, or by feigned chastity, or by everyday taboos… She was free long before the “general female liberation”.


All illustrations are from open sources

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