The Russia House


The Russia House

infobox Book |
name = The Russia House
title_orig =
translator =


image_caption = First edition cover
author = John le Carré
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Spy novel
publisher = Hodder & Stoughton
release_date = 1 June 1989
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 384 pp (hardback edition)
isbn = ISBN 0-340-50573-7 (hardback edition)
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Russia House" is a 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.

Plot summary

Bartholomew "Barley" Scott Blair, a middle-aged and heavy-drinking head of a modest family-owned British publishing company, regularly attends book sales fairs in Moscow. On one such occasion, business friends cajole him into joining them on a drunken retreat to a dacha in the Moscow woods near Peredelkino. Discussion turns to politics, and Barley finds himself talking boldly of patriotism and courage, of a New World Order (this prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union), and an end to Cold-War tensions. One attentive listener ("Goethe" in the book, "Dante" in the film) asks him privately whether he truly believes in the possibility of such a world. Barley convincingly says that he does.

Months later, a beautiful Russian woman named Katya seeks Barley out at a book sales fair to get him to publish a manuscript for her friend Yakov, which is in truth a complete rundown on all the Soviet nuclear capabilities and atomic secrets. The manuscript has a cover letter to Barley, saying this is Yakov's way of serving his country, by hastening the day when democracy will come to the Soviet Union. However, Barley is not available (he is off getting drunk at his home in Lisbon, Portugal), and she gives the package to a sales agent with instructions to forward it to Barley. The agent reads the manuscript and recognizes the potential value of such a document, if it is in fact authentic; alternatively, it could be a Soviet ruse to ferret out Western concerns and weaknesses. When the sales agent is unable to locate Barley, he ultimately turns the package over to British authorities, who eventually become very interested. The British Secret Intelligence Service, specifically the "Russia House", then wants Barley to contact Yakov with a list of verifying questions to determine if the document is as valuable as they hope it is. Barley is content to stay out of the matter, but is manipulated into undertaking the mission. He grows fond of Katya and schemes of a way to get her out of the Soviet Union.

Over several meetings with Katya and/or Yakov, Barley realizes his informant is growing nervous and very likely under KGB scrutiny. The U.S. and British intelligence services decide one more meeting is needed to verify the authenticity of the data, but Yakov is suddenly "hospitalized"; supposedly he is physically exhausted from working so hard. Barley and Katya suspect he may already be dead and it’s a KGB scheme to draw them out into the open. A message says Barley must bring "a final and exhaustive" list of questions on Soviet research that they want information on. Barley makes contact with one of his Soviet publishing associates who he knows has connections in the KGB and arranges a meeting with the KGB handlers of Yakov. Although the CIA / SIS set up a major surveillance operation of the meeting site, Barley goes missing along with the last set of questions, presumably taken prisoner and held as a spy in Lubyanka Prison.

Weeks later, Barley shows up in Portugal with no explanation of his absence. The CIA / SIS are not inclined to subject him to interrogation, reasoning that the KGB has already worn him down, gotten the information they needed, and taken the money. They are resigned to the fact that the "manuscript" was KGB bait and they fell for it. The truth is that Barley traded the questions for freedom for Katya and her family. The philosophical Barley Blair 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
*Katya Borisovna Orlova – young Russian woman who works for a Soviet publishing house that specializes in English language books
*Yakov Yefremovich Savelyev – 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, and 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).

The BBC have also done a radio play of the novel with Tom Baker as Barley Blair.

External links


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