By the end of the 1930s, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, in his ever blackening state of paranoia, had imprisoned over twelve million people in his notorious “corrective-labour camps”. A vast majority of these people were, of course, completely innocent. When the war ended, these numbers were swollen further when he imprisoned all returning Soviet POWs. Their crime? Coming into contact with foreigners.
In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Kruschev, began the process that would see eight million of these prisoners released. A consequence of this was that a vast number of prison guards suddenly found themselves unemployed, and so did their guard dogs.
The Ruslan of the title of this book is one such guard dog. Instead of being shot by his master, which was the fate that befell most of the retiring dogs, he is left to fend for himself, convinced that it is only a matter of time before normality is resumed and he is called back into service.
Georgi Vladimov completed this book, considered to be his masterpiece, in 1974. When this particular edition was published in 1981 it was still banned in his homeland. However, a manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in West Germany in 1975. It is told from the point of view of the hound in question, with the human characters rarely even named. Instead they are labelled; The Master, The Shabby Man, The Instructor. But Disney this ain’t, as this is a brutal, uncompromising and tragic story.
Ruslan’s years of training and service have left him incapable of adjusting to life beyond the prison fences and watchtowers. Taught never to accept food from anyone but his master, he is forced to hunt in the nearby forests, despite being lucky enough to stumble upon a new home. But even here he finds no peace as he views the owner of said home as a prisoner who requires guarding.
Also, every day he makes a pilgrimage to the local train station to await the arrival of a trainload of new prisoners. This train, of course, never comes.
Days after finishing Faithful Ruslan, it is still on my mind. Vladimov’s writing is impeccable, and he succeeds in communicating the pain and heartache of our lost hero without ever resorting to sentimentality. Ruslan never suffers, he simply endures. It’s a deeply affecting work and is probably one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a dog the same way again.