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.
“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.