There has been a lot reported recently about the dogs riding the Moscow Metro in search of food. But some can’t afford that. I have one of those stories.
In the shadow of the Ministry of Foreign affairs, one of those seven giant Stalin buildings that punctuate the Moscow skyline, is a shell of a building that was once an Orthodox church. Under the sagging wooden gate with a sign from that Russian church that someday hopes to return, came the dogs, all mutts. First, a dog sired by a German Shepherd, then a cross between a sheep dog and a cocker spaniel, next a black and white short hair with a limp, and others, all nondescript, eight in all. They hung around the hole under the gate, like gang members waiting for the boss. And then he appeared, slipping under the gate and shaking himself with his authoritative nose in the air. He was the smallest of them all.
He had a square face and a cocky air that reminded me of James Cagney as a Chicago gangster. They all fell in behind Jimmy and wrestled for the favored spot downwind just behind his tail. Within a block they were in the right order, and spreading out on their scavenger hunt. It was not a game, it was survival.
They lived in my neighborhood and were not unfriendly. Like any group of unruly Russians, they made lots of noise, but give them something to eat and drink and they will love you forever. I had nothing to give them, but they didn’t shy from asking. Neither did they take offense, but headed on for more likely targets.
Resourcefulness is a valued Russian trait. Nearby was a building under confused reconstruction, the mess of timbers looking like a pile of pick-up sticks, Mud was everywhere. The workmen, sloshing around in the mud and spilled cement from the hand-cranked mixer, wore knee-length rubber boots. One day, on my way to work, I noticed one of the dogs from Jimmy’s gang, furtively running away from the building site with a leather boot in his mouth, looking side to side over his shoulder like a boy with a stolen candy bar. The thief squiggled under the chain-link fence with his catch and into a neighboring yard of guarded BMWs and Lincolns where his buddies were applauding and laughing the way dogs do. I could only imagine the boot owner, at the end of the day, wearily doffing his rubber boots, but finding only one of his leather ones, and exclaiming to his exhausted buddies, “Which one of you bastards hid my boot?” Surely he had only one pair of boots. Meanwhile the dogs were smiling sickly across the street at having devoured the delicious morsel.
These dogs are the underworld, the bumsh, the homeless, those on their own, having been turned out of warm homes for lack of enough food even for their masters. They are victims of the wrenching change affecting Russian society, like many in this country of promise. But, also like amongst the people, there are others who live in another world of limitless luxury, the Novo Russki dogs.
Even back when there were bread lines, these pampered pets led a life of noble luxury. Every morning and evening, rain, snow or sun, their owners take the pedigreed pooches for a walk in the parks that abound in Moscow. There are not only the common breeds like Cockers and Labradors, but silky Afghans, Great Danes, Dalmatians, Malamutes, Beagles, Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, and rare Borzois, the hunting dogs of the Czars.
The dogs sniff each other like celebrities at a party and proudly prance around while the owners stand with folded arms or wearily drag on a cigarette and discuss the sorry state of things or maybe how, in their individual case, things have improved for now. The dogs have the park to themselves. But through the bushes they are watched by the “peasants.”
One dog, I called him just “Dog” for I assumed no one gave him a proper name, was one of the peasant dogs watching the nobility from a distance. He lived somewhere within a decrepit building of flats next to the park, but always stood in the doorway that hung ajar twelve months a year. He looked like a cross between a terrier and hedgehog. His head was too big and the hair on his chin dripped water in the rain or turned to ice in the winter. His eyes spoke of eternal disappointment. “Dog” looked with drooping eyes through the broken bushes from the edge of his building.
Sometimes he would inch toward the barricade, there are always barricades in Russia, of scrubby trees that he accepted as the line between those who owned masters and those who did not. When I tried to talk to him, he would cross to the other side of the dead-end street and look at me strangely and surely thought, “What does he want from me?” A typical Russian question.
Almost all of the noble dogs were from the New Russia age; many never knew the great leveling of classes under Socialism in earlier times. But, I am sure this caste system of canine society did not start yesterday. The truth in this land of great equality of the masses is that some were always more equal than others.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”