Book Review: Faithful Ruslan

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.

Albert the Dog with BookSo 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. [1] 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.

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Albert the dog


I miss my People when they are gone—not only because I can’t reach the treat jar by myself, but maybe because I’ve already been given up once. I will always harbor a fear of abandonment, though it has diminished a little over time. Still, when they leave me alone, I am less likely to go to my Cozy Cave than I am to curl up on an article of clothing they’ve left lying around.

The Lady tells me the Cozy Cave cost a lot, while the sweatshirt was a free gift that came with her checking account. But the sweatshirt smells of Her  (as the Guy’s gym shirts smell of Him), and that makes me feel safer when I’m here alone and the fear of being left forever threatens to overcome me. At such times, these ordinary things comfort me a lot more than my expensive dog bed.

Albert at entrance

Earlier, I posted this picture and asked if you could identify the memorial in New York where it was taken.

Reader katrinatennis wins a copy of Good Dog for correctly identifying it  Continue reading


On Dogs and Space

When the Soviet scientists rounded up strays, they sought small, feisty dogs who could withstand the punishing preparation and, they hoped, the rigors of spaceflight. Many dogs died, and even those who lived paid a price.

—Dana Jennings, “Strays Leading the Soviets into Space,” The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2014

LaikaThe Lady says she tends to get choked up when she thinks about Laika, the most famous of the Soviet space dogs and one of the first animals launched into orbit. Mainly because she thinks about her lonely, painful death in the confines of Sputnik 2. And also she remembers hearing John Haskell‘s fictionalized version of Laika’s journey on a podcast years ago and being transfixed by its ending.

I am small, and could well be described as feisty, and though I don’t think I was ever a stray, I was a shelter dog. I am always up for adventure, but I don’t like to be confined (I’m still not very happy in a crate). So I probably wouldn’t have made a very good cosmonaut. On the other hand, I am a quick learner and like most of my canine brethren, eager to please. So who knows? Maybe I would have been a likely candidate had I been living on the streets of Moscow in the 1950s. I probably would have learned my duties well (as long as those scientists compensated me with enough treats), and I may very well have been one of those chosen for a lonely mission into the cold, dark unknown. That’s the thing about being eager to please: You will end up working to fulfill someone else’s ambitions. You just have to trust they will do what’s best for both of you.

Laika is in the news again because of a new book by Olesya Turkina called Soviet Space Dogs, which is mentioned in the review quoted above. My People and I haven’t looked at the book yet, so this isn’t a review, but it has me pondering these things. Although these cosmonaut dogs became famous for their contributions to science, for now I’m happy being just a regular old small, feisty dog doing nothing more traumatic than riding in a shopping cart now and then.


Dana Jennings’s review: “Strays Leading the Soviets into Space: Soviet Space Dogs Tells the Story of Canine Cosmonauts” 

Studio 360 podcast episode of John Haskell’s “Laika’s Dream”

Becky Ferreira, “Why We Still Want Laika the Space Dog to Come Home” 

 Soviet Space Dogs, published by FUEL Publishing. Text by Olesya Turkina

It is believed that the image of Laika in this post qualifies as fair use.