Beasts and Men

Abram Tertz, translated and abridged by William E. Harkins

Faithful Ruslan: The Story of a Guard Dog

by Georgi Vladimov, translated by Michael Glenny
Simon & Schuster, 220 pp., $9.95

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…

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