The Russia House
|Author||John le Carré|
|Publisher||Hodder & Stoughton|
|1 June 1989|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||384 pp (hardback edition)|
|ISBN||0-340-50573-7 (hardback edition)|
|LC Class||PR6062.E33 R87 1989b|
|Preceded by||A Perfect Spy|
|Followed by||The Secret Pilgrim|
The Russia House is a spy novel by John le Carré published in 1989. The title refers to the nickname given to the portion of the British Secret Intelligence Service that was devoted to spying on the Soviet Union. A film based on the novel was released in 1990, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, and directed by Fred Schepisi. The BBC also produced a radio play which starred Tom Baker.
In 1987, Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair, a heavy-drinking British publisher, attends a book fair in Moscow. Business friends cajole him into joining them on a drunken retreat to a secluded dacha in the forest near Peredelkino. When discussion turns to politics, Barley finds himself talking boldly of patriotism and courage, of a new world order, and an end to Cold War tensions. One attentive listener, Goethe, asks him privately whether he truly believes in the possibility of such a world. Barley convincingly says that he does.
Several months later, a beautiful woman named Katya seeks Barley out at another book fair, hoping to convince him to publish a manuscript for her friend Yakov, which in fact details Soviet nuclear capabilities and atomic secrets. The manuscript has a cover letter to Barley, saying that Yakov is trying to serve his country by hastening the day when democracy will come to the Soviet Union. However, with Barley at home in Lisbon, Portugal, Katya gives the package to a sales agent with instructions to forward it to Barley. The agent reads the manuscript and recognizes its potential value. The document has information that the Soviet nuclear missile program is in complete disarray, and therefore there's no real reason for an arms race to continue.
When the sales agent is unable to locate Barley, he ultimately turns the manuscript over to British authorities. MI6, specifically a section called the "Russia House", become interested in the manuscript and ask Barley to contact Yakov with a list of verifying questions in order to determine the document's authenticity. Barley is content to stay out of the matter, but the Russia House manipulates him into undertaking the mission. He grows fond of Katya, and begins thinking of a way to get her out of the Soviet Union.
Over the course of several meetings with Katya and Yakov, Barley realizes his nervous informant is very likely under KGB scrutiny. The CIA and MI6 decide one final meeting is needed to verify the authenticity of the data, but Yakov is suddenly "hospitalized" due to purported exhaustion. In a secure phone call, Yakov tells Katya through code that he has been taken and that she is in danger. Barley and Katya realize that any further meeting is merely a KGB scheme to draw them out into the open.
Barley receives a message that he must bring "a final and exhaustive" list of questions on Soviet research. He makes contact with one of his Soviet publishing associates and uses his connections in the KGB to arrange a meeting with Yakov's handlers. Although the CIA and MI6 set up a major surveillance operation at the meeting site, Barley goes missing along with the last set of questions, presumably arrested.
More than a year later, after several unconfirmed sightings in Moscow, Barley shows up in Portugal, offering no explanation for his absence. Neither the CIA nor MI6 are inclined to interrogate him, reasoning that the KGB has already worn him down to get the information they needed. They are resigned to the fact that the "manuscript" had been KGB bait all along. The truth, however, is that Barley traded the questions for the freedom of Katya and her family. The philosophical Barley reasons that governments are not the only ones who can manipulate and betray, and some things are more important than the games that spies play with others' lives.
Characters in "The Russia House"
- Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair – protagonist, head of a modest, family owned British publishing company
- Yekaterina "Katya" Borisovna Orlova – a beautiful young Soviet woman who works for a Moscow publishing house that specializes in English language books
- Yakov Yefremovich Savelyev a.k.a. "Goethe" – a Soviet nuclear physicist who approaches "Barley" via Katya
- Horatio Benedict dePalfrey a.k.a. "Harry Palfrey" - a functionary of the Russia House and the narrator of the novel
Film and audio adaptations
A film based on the novel was released in 1990, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Fred Schepisi. It had the distinction of being one of the first western films to be shot on location in the Soviet Union. Principal photography included scenes in and around Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg).