For a good while now, I’ve had a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich sitting on my shelves, waiting for me to get around to finding the time for it, and after finishing my latest book, that time may come around sooner rather than later. You see, Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan (translated by Michael Glenny, PDF review copy courtesy of Melville House Books), a wonderful few hours of reading, is set in a similar setting and time to Solzhenitsyn’s work. The central character, however, couldn’t be more different…
The star of Faithful Ruslan is Ruslan himself, a guard dog in one of the infamous Russian gulags, or labour camps, in Siberia. When the camp is emptied (possibly because of a change in the political wind), the soldier in charge of putting the highly-trained guard dogs down decides instead to turn them loose. As a result, Ruslan finds himself alone, a soldier with an honourable discharge, left to roam the streets of the town near the camp.
While the rest of the dogs soon adapt to living with families, putting up with petting and accepting scraps from passers-by, Ruslan is too attached to ‘the Service’ for that. After being humiliated and rejected by his former master, Ruslan decides to keep up his duties, patrolling the train station where he believes the next batch of prisoners will be brought and temporarily living with a former prisoner – not as a pet, but as a guard, to ensure the man doesn’t try to escape.
Too proud to go against his training and accept food from civilians, Ruslan learns to hunt, enjoying his time stalking animals in the nearby woods. He never forgets his duty though, and this is rewarded when one day the train does come back. Unfortunately for our four-legged friend, times have changed, and people no longer need a guard dog…
Using a dog as the central character of a political satire could backfire, or at least stumble into harmless humour, but Vladimov’s decision to tell the story through Ruslan’s eyes is a justified one. While Ruslan talks our language and understands a lot more than we would expect, he also thinks very differently – and has very strong views on humans:
“Ruslan knew well that humans differed from one another in character as much as dogs did. That was why each person smelled differently; you only had to take one sniff and there was no doubt about their character. His master, for instance, was perhaps not particularly brave, but in compensation, he was totally without pity; he was not, perhaps, overly clever, but on the other hand he never trusted anyone; his friends, perhaps, were not all that fond of him, but he made up for that by being quite prepared to shoot any one of them if the Service should ever require it of him.” p.41 (Melville House, 2011)
He continues his psychological studies when he moves on from his military master. His new relationship with the ex-prisoner (the Shabby Man) is a very unequal one where the dog is very much the superior. He accompanies his charge to his work of scavenging wood to make a cabinet and ponders the unusual rituals which occur each evening:
“Ruslan already knew that the horrible stuff in that bottle was nicknamed “vodka” (it also had a longer name: “Filthy-stuff-damn-the-man-who-invented-it”), and he could never make up his mind whether the Shabby Man really liked it or not. In the evenings he yearned for it with all his heart, but by morning it made him feel terrible and he hated it.” p.89
“He sadly decided, however, that it wouldn’t work. Everyone would wander away where he pleased and the guards could never keep track of them all. It would be impossible to give every person his own guard dog. There were an awful lot of people and not enough dogs…” p.177
After all, every dog has his day…