The Gulag nightmare in an animal’s eye.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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.