The Cast:

Ruslan, a watchdog, honorable member of the revolutionary police, and (as his name connotes) brave Russian knight.

The Boss, a secret police agent.

The Top Boss, the commanding officer of the camp.

Trezorka, member of the common people

Auntie Styura, member of the common people

Potyorty,1 a former prisoner, Ruslan’s perpetual companion.

Ingus, an intelligent,2 in some sense the author.

The Instructor, a dog’s God, Ingus’s alter ego.

Dzhulbars, a dog, alter ego to the camp commander.

The labor camps have disappeared, plowed over and hidden under the ground, yet they go on giving birth. Their long since buried, burned, or decaying bones have become, strange to say, almost the only fertile soil for literature today. For a literature that tells what we should live by, and in the name of what we should finally clear out. I don’t know about the German camps, but I do know that the Russian ones have already given birth and will go on giving birth to a superb body of literature you cannot hide from and cannot avoid, in so far as you have been living and we all are living in the twentieth century, behind barbed wire. All attempts to forget them, to put them out of our minds, to blame them on Stalin—that’s enough of it; I’m fed up with hearing about it; there were some mistakes, it’s true, but we all came through; it’s not our fault; the Party’s taken the blame for them—this agonizing, protracted call for silence over the graves of those who have been slain, though admittedly they were innocent, will resound again, and how it will resound!

Vladimov’s tale is written from the point of view of a dog, one specially trained to conduct prisoners in convoys or, at a range of sixty miles or so, to track down anyone crazy enough to attempt escape. A creature which is good, intelligent, which loves man more than man loves his fellow men or even himself, a creature predestined by fate and by the circumstances of its birth and training to bear the responsibility of a police guard and even, if occasion should arise, that of executioner.

Faithful Ruslan is nothing less than another—and totally inclusive—variation on the theme of the “positive hero” in Soviet literature. More than this, Ruslan is that “ideal hero” whom Soviet writers have sought for so long, that knight without fear and without reproach, that knight of communism seeking to serve not from fear but from conscience, dedicating himself without reservation to an idea, ready to sacrifice his life for it at any moment. And the circumstance that we have before us not man but a dog does not change things, but rather informs Ruslan’s positive qualities with such sharp definition, directness, and touching verisimilitude that it allows him to take first place among Soviet positive heroes. In this regard I would venture to call the tale an apotheosis of those didactic efforts with which all communist propaganda is infused as it views art, morality, politics, sometimes even life itself, as nothing more than an appendage of itself.

And at the same time all those positive and heroic principles Ruslan exemplifies arouse terror and anguish, sympathy and laughter in us, the readers; this, it seems, is what a man can be brought to, here is how a dog can be corrupted when you distort all the good, natural qualities life has given him and us to serve a cause opposed to life itself, a cause that installs and maintains—a cage.

The dog Ruslan has other natural qualities of a practical character: zeal, professional skill and experience, as well as selfless courage in battle, all of which compel him to remain the heroic last defender of a regime all others have renounced. True, from the viewpoint of his trainers, Ruslan lacks the necessary inner hostility and severity, the thirst to excel and to lead. He lacks, as they put it, the essential aplomb, the essential brazenness: “He’s got pluck, but he isn’t aggressive enough. Some sort of backwardness,” his instructor would say with regret.

His nature was too good-hearted and at the same time too intelligent, too reflective, too proud in the best sense of the word to become a leader, and the role of lead dog in the camp is taken over by another dog, Dzhulbars, without any pangs of conscience. And so Ruslan is the golden mean, the honorable communist of whom so few are now left, the rank-and-file patriot, the zealous man in the street, the principled guardian—the foundation stone on which the Soviet State rests. He belongs to the people, our Ruslan, but he belongs to the Party as well, and he also possesses an ideology and sense of civic duty.3 But since he is, after all, a dog, that is to say, one of God’s creatures, a being both natural and unaffected, we who read the tale love him and appreciate him. For just look: does he kill anyone of his own will, does he make fun of anyone, is he a sadist or a blood-sucker? Not at all, he does not even wish to bite; he has only a single professional care for the sake of which he, in fact, lives: this is his concern that order, elementary order, be preserved, and that the marching columns of prisoners hold to their predetermined formation.


Who invented that formation, who conceived of such a discipline, one taught to both men and dogs? Where seek the guilty one, the first cause? Some will put the finger on Stalin; others, more far-sighted, will see Lenin lurking in the background behind that field of columns. Still others will discover Karl Marx himself behind that marching for which Ruslan, a mere dog, must in the end himself have to take the full share of responsibility. And if we go on thus we may well reach the ultimate sources of history, the fall of man. And that is correct. Who was the first murderer? Cain! Who the first traitor? Judas! But all the same, if we call Cain and Judas our founding fathers, still Ruslan is, in the final analysis, the guilty one. And here too, on Vladimov’s part, there intrudes on the mind and on the conscience one more mystical concept—Service, that is, speaking the secret jargon—the System.

The world into which Ruslan managed to be born is beautiful. Its predetermined harmony is that of the open strip of land, with its barbed wire, which surrounds the camp. What could be neater, what could be more just in life than those well-ordered columns of prisoners, marching from being to non-being? The glass cap in Zamyatin’s novel We, Orwell’s foreshadowings for the future, Huxley’s and Kafka’s nightmares shine forth for us from Ruslan’s devoted, loving gaze. He is not a theoretician, he is simply, one might say, a “practician,” one who enjoys the good fortune of living under communism. The Service is “the finest thing Ruslan ever had a chance to experience.” “The finest reward for Service was Service itself,” and the worst of evils, more terrible than death itself, was dismissal from that Service.

The prisoners themselves, who seek in one way or another to violate the world harmony, to leave their formation, to escape, to turn their backs on “that bright habitation of virtue and peace,” are from Ruslan’s point of view but weak and unreasoning children who have failed to comprehend something and who therefore must be subjected to positive moral influences, to re-education so that they may understand, at last, “where they really are well off,” that is, in the camp. He feels no hostility or hatred toward them, only mild pity for their childish failure to comprehend and, as befits a fighting dog, an honest, seasoned campaigner who never forgets his duty, “a healthy mistrust.”

In Ruslan’s golden eyes the entire world is a camp. If he could (if only he could!) he would convert the whole world into the ideal condition of a camp. In any case he views the territory assigned to him for guard duty as a potential camp, and he even includes those temporarily free settlements around the camp, the impunity and freedom of which are permitted, if only for a time, through some mistake, for they long for and beg to return to the happy condition of a camp. Hence all the figures in Vladimov’s tale, whether prisoners or trustees, guards or guard dogs, are arranged on coordinates according to their relation to the open strip with its barbed wire. And hence they are all symbolic figures.

The human beings are more impersonal, paler, and more petty than the dogs. And this is not only because they are human beings, that is to say beings crafty, faithless, incomplete, obedient to a reason incapable of giving man the happiness of completeness and unity in logic and behavior, in feeling and duty, that happiness which instinct wins for the beast from its very birth. No, even when there is no Law of the Jungle, dogs are better than men: they have learned the Law of Barbed Wire and, with its science firmly mastered, they have become its strongest and most consistent adherents. Even when he dies, Ruslan remains at his post, guarding the camp, while those marshals and ministers who have trained him to care for that wise Utopia now betray it disgracefully and quickly change their colors.


Still Vladimov’s men and dogs establish contact with one another, a mutual intimacy based not only on a dog’s innate attachment for man, but on a community of ideas, of an attitude toward life that permits us to view a dog’s habits as a variation on human psychology and ideology. Take Ruslan’s Boss, for instance, a professional camp overseer. Far weaker and less colorful than his dog (as well as more cowardly, more severe, and more self-serving), the Boss comes through only partly clearly from under his role and his duties, from under his symbolic, shorthand name of the Boss; he too vacillates within the same parameters of Service, Service viewed as an age-old and righteous occupation. Not to the extent of Ruslan and not so clearly, still he lives by the same creed of Service, a creed that does not lose its efficacy for him even though the camp where he serves is liquidated. Though he is not so handsome, so talented, or so heroic as Ruslan, still the Boss demonstrates almost the same “golden mean” in guard service, the chief virtue of which is assiduousness. And he, like Ruslan, is neither evil nor good (indeed, the dog is actually the better of the two).

Ruslan’s second double (though an antipode) is Potyorty, a former prisoner, one who has mastered the Service as an art, studied it from the obverse, the inner side. A former prisoner, one who has grown attached to the camp, he is no longer capable of living in freedom, except with his bitter, tormenting memories of the camp. He is indeed “threadbare.” How familiar, how close the figure seems to us! Such prisoners would return to serve a second term, and they were often asked, “Didn’t you ever happen to get homesick for the camp out there, when you were at liberty?” And, pierced by an incomprehensible longing for freedom (precisely, for freedom!), they would reply, “Sure I did, you can bet on that!”

So Potyorty belongs to that breed of people who grow devoted to their camps, though out in the world they hate the camps more than anyone else.

Ruslan and Potyorty stand in a necessary relation to each other: the guardian and the guarded, the eternal leader of the convoy and the prisoner in the ranks. They are alike in their inability to take leave of the specter of the camp, the camp which now disappears from the external world but which is internalized, which continues to give content to life, on the crumbs of which the two of them are nourished.

The yard dog Trezorka witnesses Ruslan’s last heroic feat and his death. Along with his mistress Auntie Styura, Trezorka belongs to the “common people” who live around the camp but do not belong to the cruel castes of the guardians or those in the convoys, and who earn a living as best and with whatever they can, in circumstances far from easy but free of the sacramental obligations of the guardians. Trezorka is a peasant and member of the proletariat, a non-Party person, unofficial, not belonging to the military, a civilian in the deepest sense of the word, even a private person, one whom the newspapers frequently dignify with the title “ordinary Soviet man,” and whom in real life people simply call, unceremoniously, as they were wont in time past, muzhik or “peasant.” “Crooked-pawed, low-slung, with a bloated stomach,” Trezorka belongs to the abused mongrel “masses,” motley, variegated in character, who, untrammeled by constant commands, unbedeviled by Marxist philosophy, are guided by their own—if inadequate—mind and experience, and are governed by common sense, as the Russian people have ever been from the beginning of time.

By comparison with Ruslan, the ideal hero, Trezorka is unquestionably an inferior being, inclined to servility, to petty cunning, and to compromise. But in some respects he is superior to the camp warrior, if only in the fact that he belongs to a free and life-loving breed. And if he is incapable of such heroic deeds, still he is capable of greater breadth, of friendship, patience, fine heart, and even true nobility.

But if we comprehend the advantages of the nonideological Trezorka over the disciplined Ruslan, then it becomes more painful and more disturbing to try to answer why, in the eyes of the peasant Trezorka, Ruslan embodies an unachievable ideal, one that arouses admiration and worship that is not at all hypocritical, but evidently is associated with a primordial need for something positive and something just. Can it be that one “cult of personality” was all too little for Trezorka, so now let’s bring on the next one? Or is he dissatisfied with those economic “successes and achievements” with which, to be sure, he is much more closely associated in the story than is the heroic Ruslan? Or does he need firm, authoritarian order in a society where everyone would walk a tightrope and pay the respect due the higher canine authorities? Of course not. Trezorka needs a symbol of an absolute dog, a higher and immutable symbol, and Ruslan is the most suitable candidate for such a role.

Ruslan is not only “faithful.” Trezorka, too, is faithful to his chickencoop, with a fidelity that is even more justified and more useful to society than is Ruslan’s fidelity to his camp. But Ruslan “believes.” And his tragedy is—the reader will forgive me for the comparison—Russia’s tragedy. He is not merely a routine aberration born in the course of history, but the only good soldier and standard-bearer, and there are no other goals for him to seek in his quest for a higher truth and for deeds within the historical compass of a life that has been measured out to him: only the vile camp for the sake of which he is destroyed. He could have saved children drowning in the ocean, he could have guided foreigners across the Alps, crawled under tanks, guarded blind, helpless prophets for the sake of all mankind’s happiness, as his brethren, the animal heroes of Ernest Thompson Seton, once did, but his fate was to pass his whole life guarding prisoners.

But our insights would be left incomplete had the author not introduced one more actor into his imaginary camp-state: the dog Ingus. Ingus is that being who deviates from general rules, who leaps across the boundaries of historical experience and the habits of both human and canine realms—into the land of unaccountable freedom. Ingus, along with Ruslan, not to speak of the rest of the pack, is an aristocrat, the purest type of intelligent. At the same time he is gifted with an artistic, a poetic nature. Belonging through birth and profession to the guard service, he simply ignores that stupid service. He is endowed beyond measure with a comprehension of things, an atypical understanding and talent for carrying out those simple tasks which the bosses have worked so long and so depressingly to elicit from him. He performs these tasks without training and without effort, but also without evident enthusiasm or desire to succeed.

We should not despise his type of intellectualism, dreamy, turned toward art and poetry (“feeble,” Comrade Lenin once called them; “flabby,” Comrade Stalin added). Knocking the intelligentsia has become a custom with us: it won’t give you any backtalk when, in the name of the people, you give it a good lashing—it will only be all the more ashamed of itself, all the more feeble. And yet Ingus is greater, more sensitive, more spiritual than Ruslan. If Ruslan is a hero, Ingus is a poet, one who at times, especially with us in Russia, lays down the road for the hero to travel.

To match Ingus (just as Ruslan has his Boss, and Trezorka his Auntie Styura) there is a single intelligent among the human characters, the Instructor. Just as Ingus performs the most unpredictable actions and, raising a canine rebellion, achieves the highest degree of humanity, so the Instructor, attached to the Service only from a love for dogs, also rebels and, going out of his mind, turns into a dog. Getting down on all fours and barking like a dog he thus testifies, through his unpredictable action, not to the fall of man but rather to man’s spiritual enlightenment.

Is there any need to comment on why these two intellectuals, Ingus and the Instructor, meet a fate that is similar? One—a machine gun bullet in the head; the other—a psychiatric ward.

Moralizing is alien to Vladimov’s story, and there is no reason to try to deduce any precise philosophy or creed or practical guidance from it. But the resonance, the echo of those moral and literary reasons that impelled Dostoevsky to sympathize with murder itself and to shudder at that punishment which he had devised for himself when he crossed the line, even though he did it in the name of the finest and most progressive ideals of humanity and universal happiness—all that is to be felt here. And here is what is especially satisfying: this book shows that contemporary Russian literature, in dealing with so many torture chambers and camps, has been able to extract from the sufferings it describes not merely rhetoric and not merely a political program, but a moral lesson felt deeply within each creature—including those who comply implacably with the Law of Barbed Wire.

The great body of literature to which Vladimov’s tale now belongs is difficult to classify thematically. And hence I have allowed myself some freedom in treating this tale, and have tried to pose certain questions that may lie outside the story itself. Certainly, it has its own form: the open strip of land with its barbed wire through which you cannot go. But what if within that barbed wire, in a ring, there is the whole of life, the whole world—both people and beasts?

translated and abridged by William E. Harkins

This Issue

January 24, 1980