Estonia: Lost and Found (Time 1/05)

Moura Budberg, H.G. Wells, and the Lost World of Yendel

She met me at the airport in Tallinn, candid seeming, self-possessed and affectionate. She kissed me. You look tired, my dear. Your eyes are tired–We dropped my bags in the Balts’ Club in town and drove to a restaurant on the outskirts to get some lunch, for the train to Kallijarv did not go until the afternoon.

Thus, H.G. Wells, the famed 20th century writer and fantasist, and futurist, perhaps best known for War of the Worlds, described his fateful 1934 reunion in Estonia with his elusive “shadow lover,” the celebrated Moura Budberg, before they entrained for her murdered husband’s storied estate, Yendel, now the site of the Jäneda museum and conference centre.

To be sure, to judge from the various written accounts of Yendel from 1914–when the former Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskiaa, the Ukrainian-born wife of Djon (Johann) Benckendorff, a high-ranking Czarist diplomat, was mistress of the great fortress-like manor house which her aristocrat husband had inherited–through the first short-lived period of Estonian independence–the star-crossed estate seems like something straight out of Gone With The Wind, with a dash of Dr. Zhivago thrown in.

Meriel Buchanan, the daughter of the British ambassador to the Russian court from 1914 to 1917, would rhapsodise about the idyllic, bubble-like world of Yendel during the last days of the Russian empire, while Djon Benckendorff, now in uniform, was off on the Northern Front fighting the Germans. “How often I think of the days we spent at Yendel,” she recalled in her memoir, Petrograd:

The unhurried movable hours, the disregard of time–the sudden impulsive plans, a visit to Reval, a fancy-dress dance, a picnic in the snow, the gypsy songs Moura sang to us, sitting on the floor with her golden eyes gazing into the fire.

The lust life at Yendel inspired Buchanan’s countryman, Captain Dennis Garstin, a British intelligence officer in Petrograd–soon to become Leningrad–to verse “Oh God, and I must take the train and go to Petrograd again,” he sighed, shortly before the Russian Revolution put an end to the cosseted, sable-lined world of the Czars, and the microcosm of it at Yendel.

And while I deal out propaganda
My nicer thoughts will all meander
Back, back to Yendel, oh to be
In Yendel for eternity
For there beneath the summer skies
It’s easy to be awfully wise
And even singing such as mine
Heard from a distance. Sounds divine.

“At Yendel begins the day,” happily recalled Garstin, who would soon fall before Bolshevik machine guns at Archangel, “in optimistic negligee/Followed hot-footed/After ten by pyjama radiant men.”

Once one of those Salomes cavorting on the lawn at Yendel–probably the most seductive of all, to judge from the reputation as a man-eater she would eventually rack up–was the statuesque Moura herself, her young husband one of those “pyjama radiant men.” It was at Yendel that Djon and Moura’s first child, Paul, was born in 1914. The hot-blooded Ukrainian was, evidently, faithful to her husband while he was away.

But soon all that was to change, as Yendel and the Benckendorffs were swept up in the turbulence that poured over the Russian border, and the local populace took their revenge on the hated Baltic-German overlords. For safety Paul, his sister Tania, and their nurse, took refuge in Kallijarv, the smaller, adjoining; easier-to-protect lake house on the property, while rampaging and pillaging went on close by.

Their formidable mother, meanwhile, had returned to Petrograd, where she took up with Bruce Lockhart, a British agent sent by London to establish relations with the Bolsheviks, whose story would eventually become the basis for his best-selling memoir, British Agent, as well as the 1934 film of the same name. After Lockhart left her to return to London, Moura took up with Maxim Gorky, the prominent Soviet writer whose colony of artists and writers she eagerly joined, where she put her formidable intelligence and language skills to use as a translator.

Now that Moura had forsaken her family, or Yendel. In 1918 she tried to return to Estonia by foot, only to be caught, imprisoned, and sentenced to be shot, before Gorky intervened.

Moura was still in Petrograd in the spring of 1919 when she received word that an enraged Estonian peasant for whom he represented the ancient regime had murdered Djon, at Yendel, reportedly. Still involved with Gorky, as she would continue to be until the Russian writer’s death in 1936, neither her grief for Djon nor her feelings for Gorky prevented her from bedding Wells, who she met in 1920 while the famed Briton was on his first visit to the new U.S.S.R.

Later that year, to further complicate matters, the former Madame Benckendorff wed her second husband, Baron Budberg. The suave Baron Budberg, a Baltic German, was hopeless gambler, who shortly departed for South America. Moura got what she wanted: an Estonian passport, allowing her to finally return to Yendel and her family in 1921.

From then on, through the 1930s, Estonia and Yendel continued to be fixtures in Baroness Budberg’s life. “She went off to Estonia for Christmas,” writes Wells, who took up with Moura on a regular basis in 1929. “She explained that that was imperative, and I could not see the pre-eminence of that claim. ‘But I have always spent my Christmas in Estonia!’”

Though distracted by Moura’s continued involvement with Gorky and–perhaps the Soviet secret police.*–Wells got a better understanding of the claim that Yendel and Estonia still had on his maddeningly elusive lover when he flew to Tallinn in 1934 for what was supposed to have been a romantic reunion, but now turned into the great crisis of their relationship, which would last up until Wells’ death in 1946.

“We sat over a great dish of crayfish and a bottle of wine,” Wells recalled, sourly in his autobiography. “Moura, why do you keep lying?” Wells asked. “You have been to Russia three times in the past twelve months.”

“No,” Moura stubbornly replied. And so it went on for days against the silvery backdrop of the lake at Kallijarv. Before Wells departed was the reluctant guest of honor at a banquet of the Estonian Writers’ Congress. He left on the hydroplane to Stockholm. Impetuously, Moura decided at the minute to join him. But he never loved her in quite the same way again.

Four years later Soviet tanks rolled into Tallinn and curtain set on the great stage that once was Yendel forever.

*It has been alleged, though never proven, that Moura was a Soviet spy. Wells certainly thought so. Whether or not she was, she certainly was familiar with other Soviet spies. In 2002 The Daily Telegraph reported that the British intelligence service, M16, first learned of Anthony Blunt’s espionage activities from an interview with Moura.

Gordon F. Sander is a New York based journalist and historian who frequently visits Estonia. Random House UK recently published his historical memoir The Frank Family That Survived.

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