Sad story of Russia’s Mata-Hari

Everything is relative: Albert Einstein’s “love of his life” happened to be not only somebody else’s wife, she was also a Soviet intelligence informer.

Russian sculptor Sergei Konenkov with wife Margarita left the Soviet Union in 1923 (returning from the United States 22 years later). Gossip mongers claim Konenkov would be getting commissions to create busts of socially important (or climbing) Americans because of his wife’s beauty and social graces.

Margarita was her husband’s junior by 22 years. Many would be returning to see her husband on the pretext of posing for their sculpted portrayal only to be in her company.

Which is precisely what happened to Einstein: Princeton University wanted to have him sculpted for their ever-growing exhibition of portraits of their famous faculty. They commissioned Konenkov to create it in 1933, and the bust is still there, in Princeton University’s hallways.

She’s innocent!

Einstein not only fell in love. He ended up defending his maitresse when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began suspecting her of activities (as the legalistic jargon puts it) incompatible with U.S. laws.

If you are serving any foreign government in any way, shape or form, you must declare to the U.S. authorities that you’re another government’s agent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to tell them that you’re a spy. If you, say, represent another government’s business interests, officials in Washington, D.C., feel they should know about it. From you, not from the FBI.

According to an involved and somewhat complicated story a Ukrainian-born Canadian friend shared with me, Mrs. Konenkova didn’t tell any American power-that-be that she was a Soviet agent, and Einstein defended her by saying she couldn’t declare anything of the kind because she wasn’t anything of the kind.

That logic would make sense, even for a physicist crazy with love (or was it plain lust?).

Margarita Konenkova would end up dying in Moscow decades later, from starvation.

When this daughter of poverty-stricken Russian aristocrats met the then-56-year-old Einstein, she was in her 39-year-young prime.

She left her birthplace (Sarapul, today’s republic of Udmurtia) and went to Moscow. She would become a university student, taking one arts-related subject or another, and, more importantly, she would become part and parcel of the high society of Russia’s capital.

Lovers galore

Margarita’s list of admirers who ended up sharing her bed would become a real who-is-who list of Russian art. She seduced the famous Russian operatic basso profundo Fedor Shaliapin, went through his family to bed his son, Fedor Shaliapin Jr. who would become an American (and Italian) film actor. The world-known composer Sergei Rachmaninov couldn’t resist her charms, and neither did the famous Russian lyrical poet, writer, publicist, playwright, translator and literary critic Alexander Blok, to name but a few.

Engaged to Russian sculptor Peter Bromirskii, Margarita annulled the nuptials, planned for 1916, and moved in with Konenkov.

The story of her affair with Einstein reads like a second-class Harlequin novel.

As he was posing for Konenkov, Einstein was visibly bored. He kept glancing at his watch and it was obvious he was looking for a reason why to leave.

That’s when “a beautiful stranger” entered the room, and Einstein, instead of glancing at his watch, started glancing at his sockless feet. While he had been known for avoiding to wear socks, he would later admit the situation was frightfully awkward.

A few days later, Einstein, unannounced, appeared at Konenkov’s house again. He knocked on the door at 9 a.m., shocking the sculptor no end. When Konenkov opened, the physicist, without wasting time to say hello, went around him straight into the kitchen, approached Margarita, and kissed her.

He would be later apologising like there’s no tomorrow, while Margarita was happy: she still attracted men, and here was a proof as if she ever needed one.

But the main thing was: Margarita Konenkova at long last could report to the Moscow NKVD centre that she’s succeeded: she became Einstein’s lover.

The physicist was charmed. His lover listened to his lectures, paying more attention than his best colleagues and students ever would. When she didn’t understand, she would ask.

That she would fall in love with the object of her espionage, Margarita couldn’t imagine. But she did.

Gumshoes on the trail

Einstein never realised that he was sharing super-secrets linked to America’s nuclear research with his lover who, in turn, would share them with the Soviet espionage agency.

The FBI did. They figured it out almost by accident: American codebreakers managed to get into Soviet intelligence traffic between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It would take them some time to match codenames to real names, but, eventually, they did.

Many of the names would later appear before Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Commission, investigating what they called un-American activities, while others the U.S. authorities dealt with more discreetly.

When Margarita Konenkova told Einstein she had been interrogated by FBI officials, and that it seems she could expect some harsh punishment, the scientist believed her when she told him that the FBI could end up killing her.

His shock was complete when she told him that yes, she had been a Soviet spy all along. She and her husband had been recruited by the NKVD two decades ago, she said. That’s when Einstein realised that her interest in his work was not feigned, that it wasn’t a sign of a lover’s enthusiasm, either.

Shocked by Konenkova’s betrayal, Einstein still decided to go to FBI’s headquarters, to beg them to leave her alone.

The FBI agreed, provided the couple would leave the U.S. forthwith.

Meanwhile, then-Soviet dictator Iosif Stalin, informed of FBI’s curiosity, personally ordered the Konenkovs to immediately leave America.

Margarita Konenkova and Albert Einstein would never meet again: Stalin hated Einstein for his views that he considered pacifist. So, the physicist would never be allowed to visit the Soviet Union. And Konenkova would be permanently banned from setting foot on American soil (that was America’s revenge at its best), while being forbidden to even come close to Soviet borders with any other country (Stalin’s paranoia at its best).

Blown abroad as spies, the Konenkovs would become useless to the Soviets.

Assigned a cleaning lady, Konenkova spent the rest of her life permanently tortured by a crude secret police informer who did everything in her power to make her mistress’s life hell.

That’s when Margarita Konenkova started a hunger strike that would eventually end her life.

And, as the Moscow municipal funeral home officials were carrying her body to one of Moscow’s cemeteries, nobody noticed a golden watch on her wrist: the last gift she had received from her former lover, Albert Einstein.

2 thoughts on “Sad story of Russia’s Mata-Hari

  1. Mark Leyderman April 10, 2022 at 17:55 Reply

    Thanks. Good story!


  2. Peter Adler April 10, 2022 at 19:02 Reply

    you’re welcome, and thank YOU!


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