Karla (fictional character)

Karla (fictional character)

Karla is the alias of a shadowy Russian spymaster in several novels by John Le Carre. He most often appears as a distant antagonist of George Smiley. His real name is never revealed, instead he takes his codename, a woman's, from that of the first network he recruited.

His most prominent appearances are in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", "The Honourable Schoolboy", and "Smiley's People", three novels which were later published as a single omnibus edition entitled "The Quest for Karla".

Character History

Much of Karla's history is unconfirmed rumor, as confessed by Smiley to his protégé Peter Guillam during a dinner when he sketches what little is known of Karla.

Among the rumors are: that his father was a professional intelligence officer first for the Czarist Okhrana and later for the Bolshevist Cheka (a considerable endorsement of his skills, if he was allowed to serve two such radically different regimes); that as a boy Karla worked as a kitchen boy on a train in occupied Siberia during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (putting his birth somewhere in the late 19th century); and that he was trained in espionage by "Berg" (a possible reference to an alias used by Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov), which Smiley compares to "being taught music by... a great composer."

This much is rumor, but the first definite proof of Karla's activities came during the Spanish Civil War, when he entered Franco's fascist Spain posing as a White Russian journalist (i.e., an "anti"-Communist Russian), and recruited a large number of German agents. The network was code-named "Karla," and the agent was later known only by that name. It was an outstanding achievement for such a young man, and would become characteristic of Karla.

He next appeared during the German invasion of Russia, running networks of partisans behind German lines. He discovered that his radio operator was a double agent for the Germans, and so fed him false information that caused the Germans massive confusion. According to one legend, at "Yelnya," Karla caused the Germans to shell their own forward line (presumably a reference to either the Yelnya Offensive during the first Battle of Smolensk, or the second Battle of Smolensk).

During his years as a field agent, Karla traveled in several countries, recruiting agents who would later go on to be very highly placed in their respective national regimes. He traveled to England in 1936 and 1941, and recruited Bill Haydon, code-named "Gerald," who eventually became the number-two man in the "Circus" (the British Secret Intelligence Service); at another time he recruited Nelson Ko, a high-ranking technocrat in the People's Republic of China (according to Connie Sachs, Karla was one of the few Soviets to predict the souring of Sino-Soviet relations).

In 1948, Karla was caught up in one of Stalin's random purges of the Soviet military and intelligence organizations, and sent to prison in Siberia. His wife, a student from Leningrad, killed herself. However, Karla served his time and returned to intelligence work, and the experience did nothing to dull his devotion to the Communist cause.

While setting up a network in California, Karla was unexpectedly caught when his radio codes were broken, and he was arrested on his way back to Moscow in Delhi. Smiley interviewed him there, trying to persuade him to defect. At the time, Karla was known only by his current workname, "Gerstmann," and no one had any idea he was the legendary figure Karla. Smiley felt that his case was ironclad: his superiors at Moscow Centre were clearly looking to make him the scapegoat for the failure in California, and he was certainly facing execution. During his interview with Smiley, Karla never said a word, and when Smiley offered Karla his cigarette lighter, Karla took it away with him. Karla returned to Moscow, and somehow contrived to have his superiors dismissed and executed, and himself appointed in their place.

After being promoted away from active fieldwork, Karla sought to create his own independent apparatus inside Moscow Centre, believing that the servicing of his personal agents was too important a job to leave to others. After several years, he finally became senior enough to create this apparatus (named in "Smiley's People" as the Thirteenth Directorate). He founded a special training camp outside Moscow and trained a selection of handpicked men (usually ex-military officers) to act as handlers of his various moles.

Role in the Novels

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Karla is first mentioned in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" as the spymaster who recruited and controls "Gerald," the mysterious mole inside the Circus. By the time of that novel, Gerald has become the number-two man in the Circus, and Karla is using Gerald's handler, Alexei Polyakov, to feed the Circus fabricated intelligence that appears highly valuable. This allows the Circus (and, by proxy, Karla) to gain access to highly valuable intelligence from the American C.I.A., and also creates a perfect cover for Gerald's activities: Polyakov must pretend that he is a mole for the English in order to meet with the Circus officials, so the Circus itself ignores and suppresses any indications that there is a mole – not realizing that there really is.

Smiley recounts what little he knows of Karla's history, including his interview with Karla in Dehli, and predicts that Karla is a "fanatic," and one day that fanaticism will be the end of him.

After Smiley exposes the mole as Bill Haydon, Haydon reveals that Karla has directed all of his activities, including encouraging Haydon to cuckold Smiley by carrying on an affair his wife, Ann. It seems that Karla took away a favorable impression of Smiley's abilities from their meeting in Delhi and regarded it as paramount that Smiley's feelings toward Haydon become clouded.

As he drives to break the news to Ann, George reflects that Haydon's self-justifying "confession" was an inadequate explanation for his reasons for becoming a traitor in the first place, and only Karla discerned what quality in Bill allowed him to be turned – in Smiley's words, only Karla saw "the last little doll inside Bill Haydon."

The Honourable Schoolboy

In the aftermath of Haydon's exposure, Karla moves ruthlessly to arrest and execute those Circus agents behind the Iron Curtain that Haydon betrayed. Smiley, appointed temporary chief of the Circus, scrambles to contain the disaster and save who can be saved, but with only minimal success. This is the last indication of Karla's direct involvement in the events of the novel.

However, Smiley quickly takes the offensive. On the theory that Haydon's activities for the Circus were entirely directed by Karla, Smiley reasons that Haydon's record can lead them to other possible moles of Karla in other countries, who can yield valuable intelligence to restore the Circus's prestige. He is proven right, as evidence of Haydon's firm refusal to investigate a possible money laundering operation in Laos leads them to unmask and capture Nelson Ko, Karla's mole inside the People's Republic of China. Karla does not appear to have a direct hand in protecting his mole; instead, the Circus's main opponent is Nelson's brother Drake, a powerful crime lord in Hong Kong.

During his tenure as Chief, Smiley keeps a photograph of Karla on the wall in his office, seemingly as an object of obsession. It is an uncharacteristically symbolic and personal gesture for Smiley that unsettles his subordinates.

miley's People

In "Smiley's People", it is revealed that Karla has a young daughter, Tatiana, by a mistress of his during the Great Patriotic War. His mistress was German, and in his daughter's incoherent memory, Karla had her killed after he overheard her "praying" (contrary to Communism's atheist views). He hid his daughter for a while, and then decided to try to create a new identity for her to distance her from him. This caused Tatiana to suffer a mental breakdown, and to become schizophrenic.

Unable to get her proper treatment under the Soviet system, Karla used a set of amateur agents to find or create a false identity for Tatiana that would allow him to send her to Western Europe (as Alexandra Ostrakova, the daughter of an émigré family), to an adequate mental health clinic (ironically, as new Circus Chief Saul Enderby comments, Karla had trained his own handpicked agents to be both too smart and too fanatically devoted to his ideals to be trusted with carrying out his private scheme).

Because these agents are amateurs, they make several mistakes that allow Smiley to pick up on Karla's scheme. In desperation, Karla orders the assassination of several men, which only has the effect of galvanizing Smiley's investigation further. Finally, Smiley is able to gather damning proof of Karla's activities that will ensure his destruction by his rivals at Moscow Centre, and offers Karla a choice: defect to the West, or be destroyed. Knowing full well that his fall will be Tatiana's, Karla obeys.

In what is his only personal appearance in the novels (as opposed to being described by someone else), Karla crosses into West Berlin and is taken into custody by Circus officers. As he leaves, he drops Ann's cigarette lighter on the ground, but Smiley feels no urge to pick it up.

Smiley has won at last, but by a cruel irony, he and Karla have switched roles: Smiley has become the ruthless exploiter of Karla's vulnerability, while Karla has been defeated not through his fanaticism, but his love for his daughter.


Karla does not appear again in Le Carre's novels, except a brief mention in "The Secret Pilgrim", when Smiley mentions that he was the one who debriefed Karla in captivity. Speaking in general about the nature of interrogations, Smiley says that sometime they are "communions between damaged souls."

Appearance and Identity

Karla is described as a small, spare man in middle age with an extraordinary composure and ascetic habits. Both Smiley and one of his hapless subjects say that in person he reminds one of a priest.

His most identifiable characteristic is his habit of chain smoking American Camel cigarettes.

Real-life Influences

Several real-life intelligence figures have been postulated as models for Karla, including General Markus Wolf, the legendary former head of the East German foreign intelligence bureau; or KGB General Rem Krassilnikov, whose obituary "New York Times" stated that his CIA opponents viewed him as a real-life Karla). However, le Carre has consistently denied any such influence.

It is more accurate to say that le Carre created a paradigm for an exceedingly clever spymaster, especially one who acts as a nemesis to his counterparts in the West, thus leading to such comparisons with real-life figures (as witness the above obituary for Krassilnikov).

On television

Karla appears briefly in the BBC adaptations of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People", though he does not speak in either. In both adaptations he is played by Patrick Stewart.

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