A note to my regular readers: Today’s post is weightier than my usual offerings, as the book being reviewed is serious and rather sad. If you usually come here for adorable pictures of my handsome face and lighthearted shopping reviews and don’t want to wade into more somber subjects, you may prefer to skip today’s post and come back tomorrow.
I lead a pampered life. Not that anyone is carrying me around in an Hermès handbag, but I have a warm apartment to live in, a comfy bed of my own, plenty of high-quality food (not that I wouldn’t be happy to get more), and a lot of walks and play time. My duties are confined to lap-warming, walking, greeting, and performing occasional tricks. Sure, I keep an ear cocked for intruders, but in our very safe building, most suspicious activity in the hallway can be chalked up to visiting guests, or at worst, that weird guy downstairs who comes up to our floor to throw out his paper towels.
So I have little in common with Ruslan, the eponymous hero of Georgi Vladimov’s short novel. Ruslan is a guard dog at a Soviet prison somewhere in the remote reaches of Siberia during the Khrushchev years. But he is not just any guard dog, he is the model guard dog, the one most loyal to his master and the rules of the camp, most fervent and strict in carrying out his duties, the truest of true believers. Thus, it is he who has the greatest struggle adapting to a changed world after the prison is abruptly closed, the prisoners freed, and the dogs released and left to fend for themselves in a world in which they no longer serve any purpose.
Some reviews of the book identify Ruslan as a German or Alsatian Shepherd, but in his foreword, the translator Michael Glenny writes that Ruslan would be a Kavkaskaya ovcharka, or Caucasian Shepherd, the only breed that was used in Soviet prison camps post-World War II.  You can see from the photo at the top of the page that this is an imposing and impressive animal: powerful, strong, and with a coat well-suited to harsh Siberian winters. He is beautiful, but intimidating. Imagine yourself the prisoner being watched by such a sentry.
Georgi Vladimov was born in Ukraine in 1931. His mother was imprisoned in a gulag as part of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies. His father had been killed in the Second World War. I do not know if Mr. Vladimov ever had a dog, but his masterful narrative suggests at the very least a keen eye for canine behavior and a sympathetic imagination. His descriptions capture the delight we dogs discover in the natural world, as in this passage in the first few pages when Ruslan steps out into fresh-fallen snow:
Next moment the whiteness struck his nostrils, and he was overcome with nervous excitement; he dipped his muzzle into it up to the eyebrows, plowed a furrow and crammed his mouth full with it. Snorting, he even gave a silly, cheerful sort of bark, which meant roughly: “You fraud, I know you!”
Or later, when Ruslan is running through the woods at night:
Stopping to relieve himself, he looked up at the sky and saw the stars. It was they who had decided to shine for him tonight—good, let them shine. He ran on, and the stars ran with him. When he stopped, the stars stopped too, patiently waiting for him. He knew this trick of theirs already, but it always thrilled him.
Even I, a little city mutt, know the joy of diving face-first into the snow or plunging into a pile of autumn leaves. But it is the book’s depiction of Ruslan’s relationship with Master that conveys the emotional complexity of a dog’s consciousness. Ruslan’s love of Master is absolute; thus, his confusion upon being cruelly spurned by the man with the “godlike face” after the prison camp closes is all the more painful.
For a time, Ruslan takes up with a human identified only as the Shabby Man, a former prisoner with whom he enters not the dog-master relationship the Shabby Man may think it is but rather a prisoner-guard relationship. Ruslan believes he must watch the man until his eventual return to camp. The two remain wary of each other, but the Shabby Man seems to recognize in Ruslan a fellow struggler, trying to adapt unaided by any rehabilitative measures to society outside the prison camp fence.
Unlike some of the other guard dogs from the camp, Ruslan is too honorable and too faithful to his learned duties to consent to being a civilian’s pet guard dog or to scavenge for scraps in the garbage heaps, though he does discover the thrill of hunting his own food. Mr. Vladimov depicts a range of personality types among the liberated guard dogs, as well as the mongrels, strays, and small pet dogs Ruslan encounters (and dismisses with disdain) in town.
I will not give away too much about the end, only to say that it is a testament to the author’s deft handling of perspective that readers are apt to simultaneously understand the inevitable, terrible logic of the dogs’ actions and recoil in horror at the scene.
Faithful Ruslan is the story of a dog. As numerous reviews point out, it also functions as an allegory, as The Guardian put it, “of the unquestioning subordinate – the myrmidon – and their part in such atrocities,” the atrocities in question being Stalin’s forced labor camps. Many of the prisoners Ruslan was guarding would have been guilty of no more than trumped-up “political offenses,” having been released from German POW camps, or, like Mr. Vladimov’s mother, would have been swept up in one of Stalin’s purges.
Ruslan’s loyalty, that most typically lauded of dog qualities (“Fido,” after all, comes from fidus, or faithful) is used to uphold a morally corrupt, totalitarian system. Humans love stories of the fidelity of dogs—like the Brazilian mutt who desperately followed the ambulance carrying his homeless owner until the driver stopped and let him in, or the famous Akita Hachiko, who continued to wait every day at the train station for his deceased owner to return from work. Such stories reaffirm humans’ notion of the dog as the most loyal of animals. Faithful Ruslan shows the other side of that extraordinary fidelity, and the price paid by all when such loyalty and obedience are used towards unjust ends.
We dogs have our own code of conduct, our system of play and communication, but beyond that whatever rules we have are those our humans have taught us. Teach Ruslan that the man in the gray striped uniform is the Enemy, and he will attack when trained to do so. A dog so trained can be a valuable instrument in the hands of power, and one certainly not limited to totalitarian regimes. In this essay published last year, Imraan Coovadia notes that in apartheid South Africa, “Day-to-day repression relied on the threat of dog violence.”  And this dog going after a civil rights protester in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, was doing what it was trained to do:
Dogs don’t deliberate over moral questions in such situations; we just do as trained. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of moral reasoning. But a soldier or a police officer cannot in dangerous situations dither over questions of right or wrong, but often must simply act. Often, they do things that less brave or fearless humans might find unimaginable. But Faithful Ruslan is a reminder of the folly of lauding virtues (fidelity, courage, respect) in and of themselves without examining the value system they serve.
Faithful Ruslan had a difficult path to publication. According to Mr. Glenny’s introduction, Vladimov first wrote a story called “The Dogs” in the mid-1960s; it circulated uncredited to its author for a decade, passed secretly from reader to reader. Reworked and expanded to novel length and re-titled Faithful Ruslan, it was smuggled to West Germany in 1974 and published the following year under its author’s name. In 1979, Simon & Schuster published Mr. Glenny’s English translation, though as editor Michael Korda recalled, it received little fanfare:
I did many years later pick up a novel called Faithful Ruslan, a very sad story about a guard dog in a Soviet prison camp … It was clever, touching, and very convincingly told from Ruslan’s point of view—much more effective, I think, than Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs—but for all my enthusiasm, it sank into oblivion, despite the cold war theme. 
It fell out of print for twenty years before being re-issued in 2011 by the humans at Melville House. Kudos to them for bringing this moving and valuable book back into circulation.
E-book preview of Faithful Ruslan:
Faithful Ruslan (paperback, $12) by Georgi Vladimov, translation and foreword by Michael Glenny, is available from Melville House as part of The Neversink Library. Click the book title for other formats.
This review is part of the Around the World Reading Challenge, 2015.
1. Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan, trans. Michael Glenny. (New York: Melville House, 2011), 9.
2. Imraan Coovadia, “Best Friends and Worst Enemies: Years of the Dog in South Africa,” Los Angeles Review of Books, August 29, 2014, accessed February 26, 2015, http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/best-friends-worst-enemies-years-dog-south-africa/.
3. Michael Korda, Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. (New York: Dell, 2000), PDF e-book.
Feature photo credit: Caucasian Shepherd Dog by Dan Zacky, filter applied
This post was revised on February 28, 2015.