The Magazine

Dog Nights

The Gulag nightmare in an animal’s eye.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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Late on a frozen, translucent night in Moscow in 1981, I took my collie out for a walk and let her off the leash on the snow-covered playground near our building in the foreigners’ compound where we lived. She was only a few months old and my half-hearted training techniques had done little to restrain her rambunctious spirit. The policeman on duty (there were always policemen on duty at foreigners’ compounds) watched my futile efforts to grab her and snap the leash back on.

Photo of snowy watchtower set in barren landscape

“It’s always that way,” he declared. “When you give people freedom, they don’t know when to stop—they just run and run. What can you expect from animals?”

The irony is that, in the Soviet Union, a lot was expected of dogs—particularly, the guard dogs that were a mix of German shepherds and long-haired hunting breeds. Unlike my free-spirited collie, they were trained to obey every command and played a major role in guarding the camps of the Gulag, ferociously enforcing the rules and tracking down anyone who was bold enough to attempt an escape.

Now Melville House has reissued one of the most brilliantly crafted dissident books of the Soviet era, Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan, which examines the Soviet system through the eyes of just such a guard dog. It is a slim volume that should be as well known as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but has been largely overlooked until now.

In 1965 Vladimov submitted an earlier version of his story, first titled “The Dogs,” to Novy Mir, the Soviet journal that had published Ivan Denisovich three years earlier. The editors turned it down, which was hardly surprising. Nikita Khrushchev had already been swept out of power and the brief moment of liberalization was over. When the story first circulated in samizdat, some readers assumed that Solzhenitzyn was the author, since it offered a similarly microscopic examination of life in the camps. But by the mid-1970s Vladimov took his defiance of the Soviet system a giant step further, smuggling out his expanded manuscript, now renamed after his main character, the guard dog Ruslan, to Germany, where it was published by an emigré press in 1978. A year later, it appeared in English, expertly translated by Michael Glenny.

By the time I was assigned to Moscow for Newsweek in 1981, Vladimov was one of the last survivors of the 1970s-era dissident movement, which had been nearly obliterated by the imprisonment, commitment to psychiatric hospitals, and exiling of its members. Along with other Western correspondents, I visited his apartment often, at times after the latest search by the KGB. In 1983, he managed to convince the authorities to let him go to Germany to teach; after he left, he was promptly stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and he died in
Germany in 2003.

Ruslan’s story begins on the day that “Master,” the guard in charge of him, takes him out and he discovers that his Siberian camp is suddenly empty and silent: “He had never known silence like this before, and it aroused the most frightening suspicions,” Vladimov writes.

Ruslan becomes convinced that somehow all the prisoners—“the horde of noisy, smelly people” who inhabited the huts of the camp—have escaped. To his amazement, he sees the gate of the camp wide open, and the watchtower abandoned. What Ruslan cannot know or understand is that Khrushchev, in his famous 1956 speech, had denounced the Stalinist system, and this has led to the release of millions of political prisoners, including the ones Ruslan has been guarding or hunting down when they tried to escape.

Although the narrator is clearly human, the reader feels as if he’s observing the events through Ruslan’s eyes, recognizing the dog’s confusion at this unprecedented turn in events and empathizing completely with him. Ruslan isn’t just well-trained; he’s exceptionally smart and loyal. But in a situation where all the rules have changed in a way that makes absolutely no sense to him, his devotion to a master who no longer wants or needs him can only lead to tragedy.

“Ruslan was forever poisoned by his love, his pact with the human race,” Vladimov writes.

After his master banishes him from the camp, he goes into the town and, like the other guard dogs that are in a similar situation, gathers daily at the station, expecting to meet the next train that would bring back the escaped prisoners and escort them back to the camp. The dogs had performed such duties with new arrivals countless times, so it seems like a logical conclusion. But no trains arrive, and slowly most of the dogs abandon their posts and find new homes, taking on the jobs of watchdogs for the local inhabitants. Ruslan sees this as a betrayal of their duties, and refuses to follow suit for a long time until his master appears and offers him to a former prisoner. The only reason why the dog reluctantly accepts his new role is that he is convinced he is still guarding the just-released prisoner.

But Ruslan keeps thinking back to his old life, when all the rules were perfectly clear, as was the purpose of his life, for which he had been bred and trained. Even as Vladimov traces his protagonist’s journey into a perplexing new world, he offers glimpses into the terrifying realities of camp life in the Stalin era. Among the prisoners, as Ruslan and the other dogs learned, there was always a special category of men who were to be treated with respect. They were the informers, who were hated—and sometimes beaten or murdered—by the other prisoners. In one such case, Ruslan easily identified the murderer, who was led out by Master to be shot. As the dog looked on, the condemned man grasped his executioner’s boots and begged for mercy—to no avail.

While Ruslan was taught to believe that his master was “great, all-powerful,” he also comes to recognize the differences between humans and dogs. No animal would beg for mercy like that; instead, it would fight for its life even against hopeless odds. Moreover, man is capable of more wanton evil than the animal kingdom ever allowed: As Ruslan realizes, man’s “greatness extends equally far in the direction of both Good and Evil.” Under the influence of vodka, humans “did things that they didn’t like, and without any compulsion—something that no animal would ever do.” When Ruslan shares a yard with a runt who irritates him, he never attacks him because “he was forbidden by the law of his nature from killing his own kind—the favorite occupation of bipeds, so proud of their conquest of nature.”

For all his perspicacity, Ruslan is still a product of his harsh training by humans, and he cannot imagine how the new world will function. When he sees new buildings arising at the outskirts of what had been the camp, he is troubled by the lack of barbed wire and watchtowers. As he contemplates the predicament of what he views as a camp that is expanding its border, he realizes it may be impractical to have the same security measures: “Perhaps the time had come to live without any barbed wire at all—and the whole world would be one huge, happy prison camp.” While Ruslan recognizes this vision can’t really work, the metaphor couldn’t be more obvious: Even with many of the camps gone, the inhabitants of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union remained mentally imprisoned.

That includes Ruslan and the other guard dogs. In the breathtaking final scene, a train finally arrives at the station and disgorges a group of construction workers who start walking to the camp. The training of the dogs instantly kicks in and they begin escorting the group. The workers are at first amused, then terrified when the dogs attack anyone who tries to break ranks. A pitched battle ensues, and the construction workers corner and beat the dogs who, as Ruslan knew, fight back. Outnumbered by workers with spades and other weapons, the dogs are doomed.

Ruslan has two final thoughts. Thinking back to the brief time before he was taken away from his mother and siblings, “He wanted now to return to an animal’s first joy—to freedom, which he never forgot and to the loss of which he was never reconciled.” And about his experiences with men: “He had learned enough in his waking life about the world of humans, and it stank of cruelty and treachery.”

The incident with the construction workers is based on a true story after Khrushchev started closing the camps, but the real power of Vladimov’s book is its broader message about the psychological toll of the Stalinist system on an entire people. Little wonder that—even today, after all the dramatic changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union—Russia remains a country where there is profound ambivalence about the notion of genuine freedom.

Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, is author of the forthcoming Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.