Gray Men, Still on the Case In the Spook House, Business as Usual--Only More So


Washington. JOHN LECARRE'S "The Russia House" is back. It is a beautifully made film, but the premise of the story is shakier now than when it was a best-selling spy novel in 1989. That premise, as stated by the film's director, Fred Schepisi, is "the folly of spying in this day and age."

Mr. LeCarre started his plot at Peredelkino, the art colony outside Moscow, in 1987, in the early stages of glasnost. There he has a boozy London publisher meet a Soviet scientist who later slips him super-secret material via a beauteous Russian go-between. In the end, the Briton loves love more than he does Britain.

The story was closely timed to glasnost and the seeming end of the Cold War, whose better literature was typified by earlier LeCarre exercises in ambiguity, like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." As Mr. LeCarre himself says, that was "the genre of the world in which we lived." That world is gone, he contends: Good riddance.

Everyone doesn't agree with him, of course. In "Russia House," one of the British agents briefing the boozy publisher ventures that with glasnost, the intelligence game has lost its reason for being. Another, tougher colleague says: "You ninny, that's all the more reason to spy the living daylights out of them. Kick them . . . every time they get to their knees." Mr. LeCarre later has that cold warrior removed from the case. But in the real world, the old-fashioned spy's counterparts are still at it. Mr. LeCarre's characters call them "gray men . . . behind gray screens, telling each other we keep the peace."

Far from being over, the game is, should be, more intensive than ever. In the CIA, in British intelligence, in the KGB too, careerists who succeeded by distrusting all good news understood that in times of flux, the need to know about both friends and enemies becomes more urgent.

Brezhnev and his ilk were committed against the West, but at least they were predictable. Mr. Gorbachev seems, or seemed, committed to democratization, but in trouble he has turned toward the KGB and the Army. How far will he go? Could glasnost and perestroika turn out to be just a record thaw, with another deep freeze ahead?

What both sides need most to know has changed. The CIA cares less today about Soviet tanks leaving Germany, more about whether Mr. Gorbachev's reliance on Kremlin hard-liners will weaken his diplomatic support against Iraq. The KGB should care less about U.S. research on Star Wars and more about the nationalist underground in Vilnius and Kishinev, Riga and Baku. Both agencies have new interests far beyond the old East-West confrontation, but paranoia -- another name for professionalism -- compels them to cover both old targets and new.

On the same day last week, former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky said there were still some 700 Soviet agents in Germany; Sweden expelled three Soviet and three Chinese officials for "activities incompatible with their status," which means espionage, and Venezuela accused a Soviet Aeroflot executive of spying, but said he fled with a safe-conduct pass before he could be arrested.

Back home in the Soviet Union, Interior Ministry troops surrounded Latvia's main printing plant after what is left of the pro-Moscow Communist party there claimed the property as its own. Moscow's deputy interior minister, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, headed to Latvia to explain the new facts of life. And in next-door Lithuania, troops took over a building used by several outspoken political groups.

In London, the British cited national security and threats of violence as they expelled eight Iraqi Embassy staff and 67 civilians. In Cyprus, BBC monitors said a mysterious new radio station calling itself "Voice of Free Iraq" was blocked by jammers when it carried denunciations of President Saddam Hussein.

Business as usual, only more so.

Mr. LeCarre already has disproved his own thesis, about the disappearance of "the world in which we lived," by publishing another book about it, called "The Secret Pilgrim." One critic has called this one "a sort of summing up," but it is not the master's last, or the end of the genre.

As long as there are nations, armies, political parties, corporations or love affairs, there will be spies. If this discourages you, don't let it -- as long as there are spies, there will be new grist for spy novels.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad