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19 November 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

The story of Clegg’s aunt

She had affairs with HG Wells and Maxim Gorky and was a suspected Soviet spy but can Moura Budberg l

By Jonathan Calder

The odd punch up on The Politics Show aside, the Liberal Democrat leadership election has so far failed to enthuse the public. But one of the candidates has a relation who scandalised Europe in her day.

Baroness Moura Budberg, so the legend goes, was a Russian aristocrat who became a Soviet spy. She conducted an affair with the British spy R. H. Bruce Lockhart during the Revolution and later became the lover of both Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells.

What is more, Moura Budberg is Nick Clegg’s great great aunt.

In a battle of “my personable Westminster-educated former MEP is better than your personable Westminster-educated former MEP,” who knows, this scattering of stardust could be decisive.

It certainly puts the candidates’ own youthful delinquencies – Chris Huhne’s druggy student article; Clegg’s spot of teenage cactus arson – into deep shade.

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Today it is hard to untangle fact and fantasy in the Budberg legend, not least because Moura largely wrote that legend herself.

Bruce Lockhart described her as “A Russian of the Russians … She was an aristocrat. She could have been a Communist. She could never have been a bourgeoise.” But the truth is rather different.

Moura was the daughter of a Senate official, and 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: the title never was.

She had met 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.

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.

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 Lockhart and Kay Francis as the enigmatic, passionate ‘Elena Moura’.

Bruce Lockhart’s departure left Moura alone and penniless in Moscow. She found work with Maxim Gorky’s publishing house 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.

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. And the press began to mention her as a friend or companion of H. G. Wells.

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.

And 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 – gin. She can drink an amazing quantity without it showing any apparent slow-up in her mental processes.”

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

Was Moura ever a spy? By 1951 an MI5 officer was complaining of the vast resources employed in keeping her under surveillance when no evidence against her had ever been found. But the old suspicions were reawakened when her friend Guy Burgess defected to the Soviet Union.

Part of Moura’s mystique was that throughout her career it was equally possible to imagine her working for either sides The Allies or the Germans. The Whites or the Reds. The British or the Soviets.

The enigma had not been solved by the time of her death in 1974, but there is a remarkable postscript to her story.

A few years ago a batch of secret service files was released. They revealed that in 1951 Moura had told a British agent – a guest at one of her celebrated dinner parties – that Anthony Blunt was a Communist. But the report was ignored and MI5 did not rumble Blunt until 1964.

It seems there was substance to the Moura Budberg legend. One day soon we may discover whether there is similar substance to her sister’s great-grandson Nick Clegg…

Jonathan Calder blogs at Liberal England