The Soviet knight is dying inside his armour - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 17. The Soviet knight is dying inside his armour

I have been to Russia twice only: first in 1987, when thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev the life of the Soviet Union was ebbing away, and everyone except the CIA knew it; the second, six years later in 1993, by which time criminalized capitalism had seized hold of the failed state like a frenzy and turned it into the Wild East. I was keen to take a look at that new, windy Russia too. It therefore happened that my two trips straddled the greatest social upheaval in Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution. And uniquely - if you set aside a coup or two, a few thousand victims of contract killings, gang shootouts, political assassinations, extortion and torture - the transition was, by Russian standards, bloodless.

Over the twenty-five years leading up to my first trip, my relations with Russia had been less than friendly. Ever since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I had been the target of Soviet literary invective, one moment - as my critics put it - for elevating the spy to heroic status, as if they themselves had not made an art form of doing exactly that, and the next for making the right perceptions about the Cold War but drawing erroneous conclusions, a charge to which there is no logical response. But then we were not talking logic, we were talking propaganda. From the trenches of the Soviet Literary Gazette, controlled by the KGB, and Encounter magazine, controlled by the CIA, we dutifully lobbed our bombs at each other, aware that in the sterile ideological war of words, neither side was going to win. Hardly surprising then, when in 1987 I paid my obligatory call on the Soviet Cultural Attaché at his Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens to secure my visa, that he should observe not very nicely that if they’d have me they’d have anyone.

Not surprising either, when a month later I arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as the guest of the Union of Soviet Writers - an invitation apparently brokered by our Ambassador and Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, over the heads of the KGB - that the rock-faced boy in magenta shoulder boards behind his glass cage should dispute the authenticity of my passport; or that my luggage should go mysteriously missing for forty-eight hours, only to reappear unexplained in my hotel room with my suits rolled into a ball; or that my room at the dismal Hotel Minsk was ostentatiously shaken out every time I left it for a couple of hours - wardrobe rummaged, papers strewn in a mishmash across my desk - or that the same pair of overweight middle-aged male KGB watchers - I dubbed them Muttski and Jeffski - was assigned to trail me at a distance of two yards whenever I ventured out alone.

And thank goodness for them. After a rousing evening spent at the house of the dissident journalist Arkadi Vaksberg, who has passed out on the floor of his own living room, I find myself standing utterly alone in an unidentifiable street with nothing but the black night round me, no moon, no sign of dawn, and not a glimmer of light from the city centre to tell me which way to walk. And no spoken Russian with which to ask the advice of a passerby even if there’d been one, which there wasn’t. Then to my relief I identify the silhouettes of my faithful watchers slumped side by side on a park bench, where I guess they have been taking it in turns to nap.

‘You speak English?’

Niet.

‘Français?’

Niet.

‘Deutsch?’

Niet.

‘I-am-very-drunk’ - idiot smile, slow rotation of right hand round right ear - ‘Hotel Minsk - okay? You know Minsk? We go together?’ Extend both elbows, indicating fraternity and passivity.

Three abreast, we process at a slow march down a tree-lined boulevard through deserted streets to the awful Hotel Minsk. As a man who likes his creature comforts, I had tried to stay in one of Moscow’s few dollar-hotels, but my hosts would have none of that. I must stay in the Minsk, in the VIP suite on the top floor, where ageing microphones were permanently in place and a redoubtable female concierge kept guard over the corridor.

But watchers are people too. And with time there was something so resigned, so enduring, I would almost say endearing, about Muttski and Jeffski that, contrary to convention, I would have wished to draw closer to them, rather than further away. One evening I dined with my younger brother Rupert, in those torrid days the Moscow bureau chief of the Independent newspaper, at an early cooperative - privately owned - restaurant. There is a score of years between Rupert and me, but in poor light we do look vaguely alike, particularly if you’re drunk. Rupert had invited other Moscow correspondents. While we chatted and drank together, my two watchers sat inconsolably at their corner table. Moved by their plight, I asked a waiter to take them over a bottle of vodka while keeping my gaze elsewhere. When I turned my head, the bottle was nowhere to be seen, but when we broke up they followed the wrong brother home.

Try to describe Russia without vodka in those days, you might as well describe a horse race without horses. In the same week I pay a visit to my Moscow publisher. It is eleven in the morning. His cramped attic office is littered with dusty Dickensian files, stacks of mysterious cardboard boxes and yellowing typescripts bound in harvest twine. Seeing me enter, he springs from his desk and, with a roar of delight, hugs me to his bosom.

‘We have glasnost!’ he cries. ‘We have perestroika! Censorship is over, my friend! Henceforth I publish all your books for ever: old books, new books, lousy books, I don’t give a shit! You write telephone directory? I publish it! I publish anything except the books those lousy bastards in Party censorship office want me to publish!’

Blissfully indifferent to Gorbachev’s recently enacted laws on the consumption of alcohol, he yanks a bottle of vodka from a drawer, tears off the cap and, to my sinking heart, tosses it joyously into the wastepaper basket.

It appeared entirely logical to me, in the looking-glass world I had entered, that while I was being watched, followed and regarded with the heaviest suspicion, I should also be treated as an honoured guest of the Soviet government. My photograph was featured in Izvestia over a pleasant enough caption, I was royally entertained by my hosts, the Union of Writers, whose literary qualifications were for the most part obscure, and in some cases downright mythical.

There was the great poet whose oeuvre consisted of a volume of poems published thirty years ago, but they were rumoured to be the work of a different poet whom Stalin had shot for insurrection. There was the old, old man with white beard and red eyes flooded with tears, who had spent half a century in the Gulag labour camps before being rehabilitated as part of the glasnost, or openness. Somehow he had kept and published a doorstep-sized diary of his life’s ordeal. It is in my library now, in Russian, which I can’t read. There were the literary acrobats who for years had walked the tightrope of official censorship, with allegories conveying coded messages to those with the insight to interpret them. Whatever will they write, I wondered, when they are let into the wild? Will they be the Tolstoys and Lermontovs of tomorrow? Or have they been thinking round corners for so long that they can’t write in straight lines?

At an outdoor party at the writers’ colony in the leafy suburb of Peredelkino, those who were reckoned to have conformed too zealously with the Party line were - thanks to the advent of the perestroika, Gorbachev’s policy of political and economic reform - already looking a trifle hangdog beside those who had earned themselves a name for indiscipline. One of this latter group, he informed me, was Igor, a drunken playwright who insisted on keeping his arm round my neck while he murmured conspiratorially into my ear.

By now Igor and I had discussed Pushkin, Chekhov and Dostoevsky. That is to say, Igor had discussed them and I had listened. We had admired Jack London. Or Igor had. Now he was telling me that if I really wanted to know what a total fuck-up the real communist Russia was, I should try sending a second-hand refrigerator from my house in Leningrad to my grandmother in Novosibirsk and see how far I got. We agreed that this was a fine measure for the state of the disintegrating Soviet Union, and had a good laugh about it.

Next morning Igor called me at the Hotel Minsk.

‘Don’t say my name. You recognize my voice. Yes?’

Yes.

‘Last night I told you shit joke about my grandmother, okay?’

Okay.

‘You remember?’

I do.

‘I never told you shit joke. Okay?’

Okay again.

‘Swear me.’

I swear him.

The one artist I met who would indubitably survive whatever restraints had been imposed upon him, even relish them, was Ilya Kabakov, who over the decades had flitted in and out of official Soviet favour to the point of being obliged to sign his own illustrations under another name. To reach Kabakov’s studio you had to be trusted, you had to know somebody, and your way had to be lit for you by a boy with a hand torch across a long rickety pathway of loose planks laid on the rafters of several adjoining attics.

When you at last arrived, there was Kabakov, exuberant hermit and painter extraordinary, with an entourage of smiling womenfolk and admirers. And there on canvas was the wonderful world of his self-imprisonment: mocked, forgiven, made beautiful and given universality by the loving eye of its unconquerable creator.

In the St Sergius cathedral in Zagorsk, often called the Russian Vatican, I watched old Russian women in black prostrate themselves on the flagstone floor and kiss the thick, misted glass covers of tombs containing relics of the saints. In a modern office fitted out with slick Scandinavian furniture, the exquisitely robed Archimandrite’s representative explained to me how the Christian God worked his wonders through the agency of the state.

‘Is this only the communist state we’re talking about?’ I ask him when his set-piece has ground to its appointed end. ‘Or does He work them through any state?’

For answer, I get the torturer’s broad, forgiving smile.

To visit the writer Chingiz Aitmatov, of whom to my shame I had never heard, my British interpreter and I take an Aeroflot flight to the military city of Frunze, now Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan. We are accommodated not in Frunze’s answer to the Hotel Minsk, but in the five-star luxury of a Central Committee rest home.

The wire perimeter is patrolled by armed KGB guards with dogs. They are there, we are told, to protect us from rustlers from the mountains. No suggestion then of dissident Muslim tribesmen. We are the rest home’s only guests. In the basement we have an excellently equipped swimming pool and sauna. Lockers, towels and beach robes are embroidered with fluffy animals. I choose moose. The pool is heated to stockbroker temperature. In return for a few American dollars, the manager offers us forbidden vodka of various flavours, and ladies of the town. We take the first, pass on the second.

Back in Moscow, Red Square is mysteriously off-limits. Our pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb has been postponed until another day. It takes us another twelve hours to discover what the rest of the world knows: that a young German aviator named Mathias Rust, defying Soviet ground and air defences, has landed his little aeroplane on the Kremlin’s doorstep, and incidentally provided Gorbachev with the excuse to sack his Defence Minister and a nest of generals opposed to his reforms. I remember no raucous celebration of this feat of aviation, no hoots of laughter as the word was passed around the literati of Peredelkino: rather a stiffening and a quieting, as the familiar fear gathered that some unforeseeable and violent consequence could result. Will it be a political coup, a military putsch, or - even today - a purge of undesirable intellectuals like us?

In the city that is still Leningrad I meet the most distinguished Russian dissident of his generation and one of its greatest men: the physicist and Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov, with his wife Elena Bonner, newly released by Gorbachev in the spirit of glasnost after their six years of internal exile in Gorky, to assist in the perestroika.

It was Sakharov the physicist who through his exertions provided the Kremlin with its first hydrogen bomb; and it was Sakharov the dissident who woke one morning to the realization that he had given his bomb to a bunch of gangsters, and had the courage to tell them as much out loud. As we sit talking at a round table in the city’s only cooperative restaurant, with Elena Bonner at Sakharov’s side, a troupe of young KGB apparatchiks circle our table, incessantly firing 1930s flash-bulb cameras at us. This gesture is all the more surreal because, either in the restaurant or on the streets of Russia, no head turns to stare at Andrei Sakharov, nobody surreptitiously steps forward to shake the great man’s hand, for the good reason that ever since his fall his face has been forbidden. Our un-photographers are photographing an un-face.

Sakharov asks me whether I ever met Klaus Fuchs, the British atom scientist and Soviet spy, by then released from a British jail and living in East Germany.

No, I never did.

Then do I happen to know by any chance how Fuchs was caught?

I knew the man who interrogated him, I reply, but not how he was caught. A spy’s worst enemy is another spy, I suggest, with a nod for our rotating ring of fake photographers. Maybe one of your spies told one of our spies about Klaus Fuchs. He smiles. Unlike Bonner, he smiles a lot. I wonder whether that was always natural to him, or whether smiling was something he taught himself to do as a way of disarming his interrogators. But why does he ask me about Fuchs? I wonder, though not aloud. Maybe because Fuchs, in the relatively open society of the West, chose the path of secret betrayal in preference to standing up and openly proclaiming his beliefs. Whereas Sakharov, in the police state that was now entering its death throes, suffered torture and imprisonment for his right to speak out.

Sakharov describes how the uniformed KGB guard who stood daily outside their quarters in Gorky was forbidden to make eye contact with his prisoners, and accordingly handed them their daily copy of Pravda over his shoulder: take this, but don’t look into my eyes. He describes reading the works of Shakespeare from end to end. Bonner puts in that Andrei has committed swathes of the Bard to memory, but he doesn’t know how to say the words because in exile he has heard no spoken English. He describes a night when, after six years of exile, there came a thunderous knock on the door of their quarters, and Bonner said, ‘Don’t open it,’ but he did.

‘I told Elena there was nothing they could do to us that they hadn’t done already,’ he explains.

So he opened the door nonetheless and saw two men, one in KGB officer’s uniform and one in workman’s overalls.

‘We’ve come to install a telephone,’ said the KGB officer.

Sakharov allows himself one of his mischievous smiles. He’s not a drinking man, he says - in truth he is a teetotaller - but being offered a telephone in a Russian closed city is about as improbable as being offered a glass of iced vodka in the Sahara desert.

‘We don’t want a telephone, take it away,’ Bonner told the KGB officer.

But again Sakharov overrode her: let them install a telephone, what have we to lose? So they installed the telephone, not to Bonner’s pleasure.

‘Expect a call tomorrow at midday,’ the departing KGB officer said, and slammed the door.

Sakharov speaks carefully, as scientists do. The truth is in the detail. Midday came and went, one o’clock, then two o’clock. They decided they were both hungry. They had slept badly and eaten no breakfast. He told the back of the guard’s head that he was going down to the shop to buy bread. As he set off, Bonner called after him.

‘It’s for you.’

He returned to their quarters and picked up the receiver. After being passed through a succession of intermediaries of varying rudeness, he was connected with Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The past is the past, Gorbachev says. The Central Committee has considered your case and you are free to come back to Moscow. Your old apartment is waiting for you, you will be immediately readmitted to the Academy of Sciences, everything is clear for you to take up your rightful place as a responsible citizen in the new Russia of the perestroika.

The words ‘responsible citizen’ got Sakharov’s goat. His idea of a responsible citizen, he informed Gorbachev - I imagine with some heat, although Sakharov as so often is smiling - was somebody who obeyed the law of his country. In this one closed city alone, he said, there were inmates walking around who had never even been near a law court, and some barely knew why they were here at all.

‘I sent you letters to this effect, and received not a murmur of a reply.’

‘We’ve got your letters,’ Gorbachev replied soothingly. ‘The Central Committee is considering them. Come back to Moscow. The past is over. Help with the reconstruction.’

By now the wind seems really to have got into Sakharov’s nostrils, because he is reeling off to Gorbachev a list of the Central Committee’s other derelictions, past and present, that he has written to him about, also to no effect. But somewhere in midstream, he says, he caught Bonner’s eye. And he realized that if he went on like this much longer, Gorbachev was going to tell him: ‘Well, if that’s the way you feel, Comrade, you can stay where you are.’

So Sakharov rang off. Like that. Without even a ‘Goodbye, Mikhail Sergeyevich.’

And then it occurred to him - the mischievous smile broad now, and even Bonner is giving way to an impish twinkle:

‘And then it occurred to me,’ he repeats in bemusement, ‘that in my first telephone conversation for six years, I had managed to hang up on the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.’

It is a couple of days later. I am billed to address an assembly of students at Moscow State University. On the podium we have John Roberts, my intrepid British guide and interpreter; Volodya, my Russian guide, supplied by PEN or the Union of Writers, I was never sure which; and a wan professor who has introduced me to the audience, rather disobligingly in my opinion, as a product of the new glasnost. My impression is that he feels glasnost would be a lot better without me. Now, without enthusiasm, he is inviting questions from the audience.

The first questions come in Russian, but the wan professor filters them so patently that the students, already restive, decide to yell their questions in English instead. We do writers I admire, and writers I don’t. We do the spy as a product of the Cold War. We debate - saucily - the morality or otherwise of reporting on your colleagues. By now the wan professor has heard enough. He will take one last question. A woman student’s arm is up. Yes, you.

Woman student: Sir. Please. Mr le Carré. What do you think of Marx and Lenin, please?

Howls of laughter.

Self: I love them both.

It doesn’t strike me as my best line, but the audience treats it with prolonged applause and shouts of merriment. The wan professor calls it a day and I am quickly commandeered by the students and ushered down a staircase to some kind of common room, where they interrogate me intently about a novel of mine that I know for certain has been banned here for the last twenty-five years. Where on earth have they managed to read it? I ask.

‘In our private book club, of course,’ a woman student retorts proudly in fractured Jane Austen English, pointing to a cumbersome computer screen. ‘Our team has typed out text of your book from illicit copy given us by one of your countrymen. We have read this book together at night-time many times. We have read many forbidden books in this manner.’

‘And if you’re caught?’ I ask.

They laugh.

Paying a farewell visit to Volodya, my ever helpful Russian guide, and his wife Irena in their tiny apartment, I play Santa Claus, although it’s nowhere close to Christmas. They are a couple of gifted university graduates, living on the breadline. They have two smart little girls. For Volodya, I have brought Scotch whisky, ballpoint pens, a silk tie and other unobtainable treasures I picked up at the duty-free in Heathrow; for Irena, bars of English soap, toothpaste, tights, headscarves, whatever my wife advised. And for their two little girls, chocolate and tartan skirts. Their gratitude embarrasses me. I don’t want to be this person. And they don’t want to be those people.

Piecing together now the encounters crammed into those two short weeks in the Russia of 1987, I am moved again by the pity of it, by the striving and endurance of so-called ordinary people who weren’t ordinary at all; and by the humiliations they were forced to share, whether standing in line for life’s essentials, servicing their own bodies and those of their children, or guarding their tongues against a fatal slip. Strolling in Red Square with an elderly lady of letters in the aftermath of Mathias Rust’s unscripted arrival, I took a snapshot of the sentries guarding Lenin’s tomb, only to see her face turn white as she hissed at me to put my camera out of sight.

What the collective Russian psyche most fears is chaos; what it most dreams of is stability; and what it dreads is the unknowable future. And who wouldn’t, in a nation that gave twenty million of its souls to Stalin’s executioners and another thirty million to Hitler’s? Was life after communism really going to be better for them than the one they had now? True, the artists and intellectuals, when they felt sure of you, or bold enough, spoke glowingly of the freedoms that would soon - touch wood - be theirs. But between the lines they had their reservations. What status would they have in whatever new society beckoned? If they had Party privileges, what was going to replace them? If they were Party-approved writers, who was going to approve them in a free market? And if they were currently out of favour, would the next system restore them?

In 1993, I returned to Russia in the hope of finding out.