Georgi Vladimov: Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan)
A novel written from the point of view of a dog is not something that would normally appeal to me but this novel is a Soviet-era classic and a gulag novel that is not Solzhenitsyn. Vladimov started writing a short story called The Dogs in 1963, the year after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was first published in the Soviet Union. It took him two years to finish and, by that time, the brief window of opportunity for publishing gulag stories and novels had long since closed. Indeed, only one more story of his was published in the Soviet Union. This novel was published in Frankfurt, after Vladimov had expanded the original short story. Prior to that it had circulated as a samizdat in the Soviet Union. Vladimov continued his disputes with the Soviet authorities and finally was allowed to leave for Germany in 1983.
Ruslan is a Caucasian sheep dog, a dog specially bred for guard duties in prisons and on frontiers, where the ability to withstand extreme cold is important. Though the story is told from his point of view, it is not a first-person narrative. The novel opens with him being taken outside, at a remote gulag, by his master. Ruslan, who seems a very intelligent animal, is very surprised to smell that the prisoners no longer seem to be in their huts. Moreover, both the prison gates are wide open, something that is unheard of. Have the prisoners escaped? Ruslan wonders and, if so, why are the guards not reacting. We know (or, rather, we know if we are Russian readers) that we are in the period in 1956-57 when Khrushchev closed many of the camps and sent the prisoners home. This has clearly just happened. Ruslan’s master is taking him outside and Ruslan wonders why. Ruslan recalls what happens to dogs who have passed their usefulness. They are taken outside and shot, with the carrion crows feasting on their bodies. He wonders if this is to happen to him and, if it is, he plans to take it stoically.
As they are passing through the prison gates, a large lorry carrying what looks like an old railway carriage pulls up. There is an exchange of words between the driver and Ruslan’s master. Indeed, Ruslan is surprised at the tone of the driver, as he shows a lack of respect which ordinary people would never normally show. The driver teases the guard about the fact that he is clearly going to have to shoot Ruslan. This has an effect on the guard and, when the driver has gone, he merely shoos Ruslan away. Ruslan obeys but is unsure of what is going to happen to him. Ruslan hurries off to the nearest town, where there are other dogs in a similar position. Some wait at the station, supposing that another trainload of prisoners will arrive and then they will be needed. Others scavenge or steal while others, to Ruslan’s disgust, suck up to people in the town to get food. Ruslan goes back to the camp every day, looking for his master without success. Meanwhile he is hungry. A bit of hunting for mice helps somewhat but not much. Then, one day, he catches the smell of his master.
But Ruslan does not go back to his master, who does not want him. But, through his master, he meets an ex-prisoner, called only The Shabby Man and, at his master’s command, he – sort of – moves in with The Shabby Man, The Shabby Man’s landlady/lover, Stiura, and Stiura’s dog, Treasure. However, Ruslan maintains his independence, by refusing all food offered and hunting for what he needs to eat and continuing what he sees as his duties, such as monitoring the station for new arrivals. But he has been trained to be what he and his master call a Service dog, one that supervises prisoners and makes sure that they conform to the rules of the Prison Service. But life has changed and he has not.
Though told from a dog’s point of view, this book is a sharp attack on the Stalinist prison system. All three groups – the guards, the prisoners and the dogs – have been conditioned to behave in a certain way and, if they do not, the cost is high, often fatal. When the prison system ceases to exist, they cannot readily adapt and become normal again. Showing the situation immediately after the end of the Stalinist system and through a dog’s eyes, cleverly enables Vladimov to show how all three categories fail to adapt to post-prison life. While the attention may be on Ruslan, presumably with the idea (which failed) of distracting the censors, there is no doubt that Vladimov is knocking the entire Stalinist prison system. The Shabby Man, for example, like many other Stalinist prisoners, was imprisoned merely because he had been made a prisoner of war by the Germans. His family had no idea what had happened and doubtless assumed that he was dead. Unlike some others, he at least survived to be released. This book is now a classic of Russian gulag literature. Don’t be put off because it is written from a dog’s point of view.
First published in 1975 by Possev, Frankfurt
First English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1979
Translated by Michael Glenny