‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.

18 thoughts on “‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

  1. What about Deutschland 83? I loved it! The ridiculous antics of political attitudes seemed comic but proved anything but. D 86 not so gripping so far but I hope…
    Alec Guinness Tv series by far the best!

    • Totally agree with you, Maggie – Deutschland 83 would fit in here perfectly. There was one episode I remember being particularly dark and disturbing.

      I can feel myself being drawn towards the Alec Guinness adaptation already…! First watched it with my dad decades ago!

  2. I recently rewatched Guinness in both TTSS and Smiley’s People, probably the third time for each. There have rarely been such brilliant pieces of work produced for television. Alec Guinness is the perfect George Smiley, and everyone else — Ian Richardson, Sîan Philips, Ian Bannen, I could go on and on — is outstanding. I watched the film with Gary Oldman right after, and, though it’s not bad, it’s nowhere near as good.

    Hot cups of tea, some cheese and biscuits, and settle in. Do it soon! You’ll not regret a moment.

    • Can’t wait to see them again now (plus tea, cheese & biscuits; excellent idea).

      I enjoyed the film (some great acting and I love the styling), but it felt too rushed and compressed overall. You need the time allowed by the TV series to tell the story properly.

  3. Morning Mrs P. Ah! TTSS, and Smiley’s People. Such excellent series which I have watched whenever they’re shown on TV. Alex Guiness is the ultimate Smiley although I did enjoy Gary Oldman in the film, along with other brilliant actors. Ideal to watch if you just want the basics of the story. It’s not until you read or watch films about the 70’s and the Cold War that you realise what a potentially dangerous time it was. It was happening yes, but I think mostly it just went straight over the heads of ordinary folk.

    • Alec Guinness is the biz. I think I’m right in saying that le Carré incorporated some of his characteristics into later Smiley novels. He truly owned that role.

      I agree that most of what was happening back then probably did go over people’s heads (unless you lived in the USSR, where most were hyper-aware of the political implications of what they said or did). I think I’m seeing TTSS more symbolically in terms of our current political mess… The novels have a universality that means you can keep re-reading them and feel new resonances. I love that – the mark of great literature 🙂

  4. Yes I re watched just after Xmas on Netflix decided to watch after reading Ben Macityers “The Spy & the Traitor” rightly described by le Carré as the best spy non fiction book ever. Totally agree recommend it if you’ve not read it . Also recommend a book I’m reading at the moment, again non fiction, “Enimes Within” by Richard Davenport-Hines. Ostensibly about the Cambridge 5, but covers a lot more than that, about half way through just coming to the end of the Second World War. Interesting that the NKVD during the war thought they were actually British double agents, the couldn’t understand how anyone
    With a communist past during their youth could get into the F.O. Etc! Plus all the paranoia around Starlin. An excellent book, over 500 pages, & as I say covers lots of ground. According to the review I read equates what happened then with Brexit now! Not got to that part yet.
    The “Wolves etc” sounds very interesting, will have to give it ago.

    • Thanks, Brian! I’ll seek out the Davenport-Hines asap. It sounds fascinating, and I’d be very interested to see what kind of comparison he makes with the Brexit situation.

  5. There’s an excellent review of the Davenport-Hines book mentioned above in the March 7 edition of the NYRB, that blames the spying on being at public school, but that also draws a link between the activity of the Cambridge spies in undermining authority/ expertise and the social climate that led to Brexit.
    Personally, I’m more in the co**-up than conspiracy camp, and am waiting for Mick Herron to explain Brexit in terms of a Slough House practice run that went badly wrong…

    • Thanks, CountryCrime. That’s one book I must get hold of now.

      And I’m completely with you on Mick Herron – sounds just right for Slough House!

  6. Thanks to countryCrime for reminding me of the review in NYRB, I thought I’d read it in LItreary Review Mag. Good to read it again. Well worth getting hold of if you can. Agree it will be really interesting to hear Mick Heron’s take on Brexit!
    Well just finished ‘the Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt’ very, very good, not your normal spy story. Picked it up yesterday from the library about 12.00 finished it today at16.15! One of the joys of retirement! Thought it fit in nicely with ‘Enemies Within, which I’ll now return to. So thanks again for another excellent recommendation.

  7. Yes, the TV series is well worth revisiting. But I liked Gary Oldman too. I seem to remember reading somewhere that John Le Carré said some good things about him as Smiley. The Sarah Armstrong sound very good!

    • There’s a great moment when Gary Oldman’s Smiley comes out of an optician’s with new ‘Alec Guinness’ specs – a very elegant nod to the maestro!

  8. Another one who much prefers the Smiley TV adaptations to the film – although sadly I really don’t get on with le Carre’s writing and have only ever managed to finish one of his books! Currently reading Star of the North – it’s really good! Had to ration it yesterday so I didn’t end up staying up too late.

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