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Karla is a fictional character in several novels by John le Carré. A Soviet Intelligence officer, he most often appears as a distant antagonist of George Smiley. His real name is never revealed; instead he takes his codename 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 Smiley Versus Karla or The Quest for Karla in the US.
In the BBC's television adaptations of both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People, Karla is played by British actor Patrick Stewart. Karla is only seen briefly in one scene in each production and does not speak.
Much of Karla's history is unconfirmed rumour, as passed by Smiley to his protégé Peter Guillam. Among the rumours are: that his father was a professional intelligence officer, first for the Czarist Okhrana and later for the Bolshevist Cheka, 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.".
The first recorded Karla 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 in the series.
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 confused the Germans. 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 travelled in several countries, recruiting agents who would later become highly placed in their respective national regimes. He travelled 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 snagged in one of Stalin's random purges of the Soviet military and intelligence organisations and sent to prison in Siberia. His wife, a student from Leningrad, killed herself. However, Karla served his time and returned to intelligence work; 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. He was arrested in Delhi on his way back to Moscow. 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 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, with 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 his personal agents were too important 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 camp outside Moscow (towards Kiev) and trained a selection of handpicked men (usually ex-military officers) to act as handlers of his various moles.
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 Circus' number-two-man and Karla is using Gerald's handler, Alexei Polyakov, to deliver fabricated intelligence that appears highly valuable. This allows the Circus (and, thus Karla) to gain access to highly valuable intelligence from the American CIA and also creates a perfect cover for Gerald's activities: Polyakov must pretend to his superiors that he is running a mole inside the Circus to meet with the Circus officials, so the Circus itself ignores and suppresses any indications that there is a mole, not realising that there really is.
Smiley recounts what little he knows of Karla's history, including his interview with Karla in Delhi, and opines that Karla is a "fanatic", which he hopes will one day cause his downfall. After Smiley exposes the mole as Bill Haydon, Haydon reveals that Karla has directed all of his activities, including encouraging Haydon to cuckold Smiley. He tells him that Karla regarded Smiley as the person most likely to uncover Haydon and that the affair was calculated to cloud Smiley's judgement and cast any accusations he may make as the vengeance of a wronged husband.
As he drives to break the news to his cheating spouse, Smiley reflects that Haydon's self-justifying "confession" was an inadequate explanation for becoming a traitor in the first place, and only Karla discerned the quality in Haydon that allowed him to be turned. In Smiley's words, only Karla saw "the last little doll inside Bill Haydon."
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 Hong Kong crime lord.
During his tenure as Chief, Smiley keeps a photograph of Karla on his wall, seemingly as an object of obsession. It is an uncharacteristically symbolic and personal gesture for Smiley that unsettles his subordinates.
In Smiley's People, it is revealed that Karla has a young daughter, Tatiana, by a mistress 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 protect her. This caused Tatiana to suffer a mental breakdown.
Unable to get her proper treatment, Karla uses a set of amateur agents to find or create a false identity 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 to use amateurs because he had trained his own agents to be both too smart and too fanatically devoted to his ideals to be trusted with 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 several assassinations, which only galvanises Smiley's investigation. Finally, Smiley gathers damning proof of Karla's activities that will ensure his destruction by his rivals at Moscow Centre, and offers Karla a choice: defect or be destroyed. Knowing that his fall will also be Tatiana's, Karla obeys.
In 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 Carré's novels, except a brief mention in The Secret Pilgrim, when Smiley tells a group of probationary intelligence officers that he was the one who debriefed Karla in captivity. Speaking in general about the nature of interrogations, Smiley says that sometimes they are "communions between damaged souls." The date of Smiley's first encounter with Karla, in the jail in New Delhi, is unclear. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, we are told that the interrogation took place in the fifties. But in Smiley's People, Smiley recalls the meeting as having occurred in the sixties.
Karla is described as a small, spare man in middle age with an extraordinary composure and ascetic habits, not unlike Beria himself. His most identifiable characteristic is his habit of chain smoking Camels.
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 in the New York Times stated that his CIA opponents viewed him as a real-life Karla.