The star of Faithful Ruslan is Ruslan himself, a guard dog in one of the infamous Russian gulags, or labour camps, in Siberia. When the camp is emptied (possibly because of a change in the political wind), the soldier in charge of putting the highly-trained guard dogs down decides instead to turn them loose. As a result, Ruslan finds himself alone, a soldier with an honourable discharge, left to roam the streets of the town near the camp.
While the rest of the dogs soon adapt to living with families, putting up with petting and accepting scraps from passers-by, Ruslan is too attached to 'the Service' for that. After being humiliated and rejected by his former master, Ruslan decides to keep up his duties, patrolling the train station where he believes the next batch of prisoners will be brought and temporarily living with a former prisoner - not as a pet, but as a guard, to ensure the man doesn't try to escape.
Too proud to go against his training and accept food from civilians, Ruslan learns to hunt, enjoying his time stalking animals in the nearby woods. He never forgets his duty though, and this is rewarded when one day the train does come back. Unfortunately for our four-legged friend, times have changed, and people no longer need a guard dog...
Using a dog as the central character of a political satire could backfire, or at least stumble into harmless humour, but Vladimov's decision to tell the story through Ruslan's eyes is a justified one. While Ruslan talks our language and understands a lot more than we would expect, he also thinks very differently - and has very strong views on humans:
"Ruslan knew well that humans differed from one another in character as much as dogs did. That was why each person smelled differently; you only had to take one sniff and there was no doubt about their character. His master, for instance, was perhaps not particularly brave, but in compensation, he was totally without pity; he was not, perhaps, overly clever, but on the other hand he never trusted anyone; his friends, perhaps, were not all that fond of him, but he made up for that by being quite prepared to shoot any one of them if the Service should ever require it of him." p.41 (Melville House, 2011)
He continues his psychological studies when he moves on from his military master. His new relationship with the ex-prisoner (the Shabby Man) is a very unequal one where the dog is very much the superior. He accompanies his charge to his work of scavenging wood to make a cabinet and ponders the unusual rituals which occur each evening:
"Ruslan already knew that the horrible stuff in that bottle was nicknamed "vodka" (it also had a longer name: "Filthy-stuff-damn-the-man-who-invented-it"), and he could never make up his mind whether the Shabby Man really liked it or not. In the evenings he yearned for it with all his heart, but by morning it made him feel terrible and he hated it." p.89
Beyond the humour though, Ruslan's tale is a very sad one. Unlike the other dogs, he is unable to adapt to life outside the camp, clinging to his beliefs too tightly to enable him to come to terms with the new world order. He firmly believes that the prisoners were better off where they were, behind barbed wire, and never gives up hope that they will one day see the error of their ways and come back to the camp of their own free will.
At one point, as he inspects the old site of the camp, where new buildings are rising from the ground (he believes that a new, better camp is being built...), Ruslan notices the lack of barbed wire and, for a brief moment, considers the possibility of a camp without wires, the whole world as one big, happy prison camp...
"He sadly decided, however, that it wouldn't work. Everyone would wander away where he pleased and the guards could never keep track of them all. It would be impossible to give every person his own guard dog. There were an awful lot of people and not enough dogs..." p.177
Of course, there is a lot more to Faithful Ruslan than simply the tale of an unemployed dog. Ruslan is the symbol of a regime, a representation of blind belief and trust in what Moscow deemed right. In a daring move, Vladimov put the mindset of a political generation (or, at least, some of its military representatives) into the sleek, furry body of a dog, using his story to show how blind faith in outmoded ideologies will lead to self-destruction. It's unsurprising that only underground copies of the novel were available in the Soviet Union...
Faithful Ruslan is a wonderful book, one I couldn't wait to get back to each time I had to leave it (or when my Kindle battery started to die...). Despite Ruslan's deluded nature and his inability to bend with the wind, you can't help feeling for him. He's a soldier, a faithful friend, a bad enemy - and a bit of a philosopher on the side :)
Sadly for dog lovers, Ruslan is always doomed to an unhappy ending. A supreme patriot, one who truly believes in the regime which has been left behind, in some ways he is less a dog than a dinosaur. Eventually, he comes to realise that while a few guards can often contain large numbers of prisoners, one day they will realise that their strength lies in numbers, and that is the day when they will finally take their freedom.