The Russia House
The spy story is a quintessential product of the Cold War, dealing as it does with the attempts by one side or the other, capitalist West or Communist East, to gain the edge in military technology or military intelligence which may prove decisive; or, even more important, to prevent the other side from making the same breakthrough. John le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), indeed envisaged an attempt to escape from the Cold War stalemate, in individual terms; but it ended, significantly, in death and failure.
What, then, of the advent of glasnost (”openness”) and perestroika (”restructuring”), those terms which appear to signify that the Communist world at least has lost its desire to continue the arms race, the drive for world dominance, the Cold War itself? Do these terms mean that the spy story is finished? Le Carre’s The Russia House is his response, still ambiguous and questioning, but nevertheless guardedly optimistic, to these issues.
The story begins with what appears to be the ultimate intelligence breakthrough in favor of the West; yet it happens in characteristically unlikely and even mistaken fashion. At a Moscow book fair, a Western exhibitor is approached by a woman, who insists on handing over to him a package of notebooks, to be passed on to an English publisher who has failed to appear at the fair. The books contain, not an underground novel or some other immediate result of the Russian move to liberalism, but the notes of one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent rocket scientists. What these show—or so it appears, though there is never any clear discussion of their content—is that the Russian missile threat, under which Europe and the United States have lived for so many years, is largely bogus. The missiles’ accuracy trials have been consistently faked, to keep the Soviet leadership content and to save the scientists responsible from demotion or death. Reputations have been made on doctored evidence and inoperative systems The only real Russian success has been to keep the West from finding out But now Yakov Savelyev, alias “Bluebird,” alias “Goethe,” has sickened of the whole deception. As a service to the world and to his own country, he has determined to expose it, hoping (it seems) that the West will see no further need for defensive or offensive nuclear weapons, and that the whole scenario of “mutual assured destruction” will simply fade away.
Or is the whole thing a plant, designed to achieve Western unilateral disarmament, leaving the Soviet threat just as real as ever? This has to be the reaction of any long-service Cold War professional; and the notebooks, by fate or accident, go immediately into the hands of the professionals. The contact at the book fair, Niki Landau, is a naturalized Pole, with an inherited dislike of Russians, and an excessive respect for the government of his adopted country, the United Kingdom. The first makes him check the documents, before trying to pass them on. The second makes him go to the British Secret Service. Once this has happened, the hoped—for scenario of “Bluebird”—immediate publication in the West—becomes totally impossible. The professionals have to distrust; to suppress; and to return.
Yet their agent has to be the man to whom the notebooks were first consigned, an unsuccessful and little-known publisher called Barley Scott Blair; no one else would be trusted by the other side. Blair, however, is a man whom no sane security service would ordinarily have the slightest use for. Unstable and discontented, he is permanently “on the run” from former wives and girlfriends, difficult to find, with few interests other than playing his saxophone in nightclubs. How can the Secret Service find him, recruit him, and keep him loyal to them, and to their professionally paranoid and over-controlled view of the world? This is one side of the story of The Russia House, against which is set Blair’s growing “defection” to the other side:
not to the KGB, but to the people opposed to all forms of secrecy, to Yakov or “Bluebird,” to Katya, the woman who brought the notebooks to Landau, to all the nonprofessionals in East or West who are genuinely dedicated to glasnost. Beneath this continuing Cold War of secret services runs another war: of people against governments. In the end Blair “defects” to that side, betraying his own government; while Yakov, who has already betrayed his government, is quietly liquidated in an “accident.” This novel ends relatively hopefully, though, with Blair still alive and free, if exiled, and with the chance that Katya may one day be allowed to join him....
(The entire section is 1933 words.)