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.