Moscow’s weakness and our own moral corruption

John Le Carré: The Russia House. ISBN 978-0-141-19635 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I remember the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist: December 26, 1991. I was dumbstruck by disbelief. The Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war had been part of my cosmos since I had been able to think for myself. The Catholic priest in our little chapel once had remarked we were lucky to live close to a NATO logistics hub. In case of war we would be vaporized instantly by the nuclear blast. No suffering, no radiation sickness. A fellow student of mine had protested against the fielding of nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO countries. The Soviet Union was a fact and I had every reason to perceive it as a threat.

I came to think of that time when I read Le Carré’s spy novel “The Russia House”, his first post-glasnost novel, published in 1989. At the time I wanted to believe in Mikhail Gorbatchev’s new policy: a Soviet Union embracing transparency (glasnost) and setting out to systemic reform (perestroika). My dad called it a lie – the Communists were not to be trusted – and warned me: Don’t come home with one of these t-shirts with “CCCP” written all across it or else…

I greatly enjoyed “The Russia House” for it gives the blurred emotions of hope and misgivings I felt back then precise contours. After Gorbatchev had made public his ideas on glasnost, a Soviet scientist working in the field of nuclear misdiles, wants to pass intelligence about the failing Soviet system to the West, hoping to trigger nuclear disarmement by exposing Moscow’s weaknesses.

Idealism, the hope for peace, the moral responsibility towards the next generation – these factors propel the plot forward. The detailed and cynic narrative of a joint US-UK intelligence operation – running a reluctant agent in Moscow to make contact with the scientist – provides the background for a much more philosophical insight: that the Western societies at the time were no less corrupt and failing than the Soviet Union before its dissolution. The Soviet Union was a convenient scapegoat for many things that went wrong, a wonderful excuse for morally dubious policies. The Soviet Union suited the West fine as a projection of its own dark side.

You may ask of what interest this may be today, some 28 years later. Well, first it is a goid read. Le Carré is a brilliant story-teller and this novel is yet another proof of hos talent. Second, the Soviet Union has been replaced by an autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Russian Federation, the nuclear arsenal remains in place, Moscow pursues an aggressive foreign policy hoping to restore its former Soviet lustre (if it ever had any) and we seem to be again at the threshold of a new confrontation, possibly on European soil. As for our own moral corruption, the examples of the United States and the United Kingdom are not exactly reassuring.

It is certainly no coincidence that Le Carré picked Dmitry Shostakovich’s music to illustrate the only consolation of a secondary character of the plot, a man who had just been released from the Soviet forced labor camps. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor amounts to a look back at the Soviet Union, times of fear and broken dreams.

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside