Cruising Moscow on Four Paws

A Dog's Life

There is a certain absurdity about taking a snow dog raised in Africa to live in wintery Russia.

But having brought our Alaskan malamute to Moscow, my husband and I have gained access to corners of this grand grimy city that we would not otherwise have discovered in our mere two weeks here.

Walking a dog like Khaya takes one down streets less traveled - and lends unexpected insight into the Russian soul. Anyone who insists on the stereotype of Russians as surly, unsmiling people should stroll through the capital with an Arctic sled dog that resembles a wolf. Russians, we have learned, love such dogs - and by extension warm to the people who walk them.

"Laika ili volk? (Siberian husky or wolf?)" total strangers call out, coming over to find out.

Even the meanest-looking, leather-jacketed toughs admiringly croon krasivaya - "beautiful" - over our canine, who obligingly has learned to offer his paw and sit at Russian commands.

His first diplomatic success was to get us out of the airport's cargo section, where stern-looking officials held us virtual hostage for hours until we obtained the requisite 13 stamps to import Khaya into Russia.

Once they learned the howling creature in the wood crate resembled a laika, he was freed and given the finest mineral water to sip.

Even leather-jacketed toughs admiringly croon krasivaya - 'beautiful' - over our Alaskan malamute.

I was then offered a chair and regaled with the staff's life stories while they competed to trot Khaya around the hangar.

The dog has proved useful not just in making contacts but in understanding this city, which one jaded wit referred to as "Kinshasa with ice."

Implicit in those words were: "Expect chaos and danger." So far we've seen a lot of ice. But not many hints of Congo's capital, which is a synonym for anarchy.

The contrast between the two cities is as great as that between Africa's 110-degree F. summer and Moscow's minus-10-degree January.

Sure, there are superficial similarities, such as severe corruption and the social flux that follows the collapse of any political system.

But our dog seems to have insulated us from the legendary perils of Moscow's streets, which we walk at all hours.

Armed Mafia men guarding Mercedeses are more interested in petting Khaya than menacing us. On foot, we safely watch the notorious GAI traffic police, who flag down drivers with fictitious offenses to get bribes.

The dog steers us past Moscow's sordid side - the myriad kiosks open 24 hours where strangers share bottles of vodka outside, oblivious to the cold.

Khaya also shows us the positives. Tempted by the aroma of beet soup, the dog last week led us to a hidden courtyard off an unlit alley, where a theater with a cozy cafe improbably beckoned. There are at least eight other theaters near our home and several bookshops - proof of a 99-percent literacy rate and voracious intellectualism.

From what we can see, Moscow still carries a trace of Soviet order. Laws work, sort of. The poverty, while severe, is not as bad as in Kinshasa, where some family members eat on alternate days for lack of food. Moscow has misery, but also much urban rejuvenation thanks to its dynamic mayor and the nouveaux riches.

The two words we see on signs literally every few yards are BANK and REMONT (repairs) - the signs of new wealth. There are some 1,200 different banks in Moscow, and about 30 are within walking distance of the office.

On our block alone, I counted 12 REMONT signs. In our first week here, two new restaurants opened. The streets are filled with bulldozers, scaffolding, and brand-new food shops.

Some of the buildings reflect the favorite television shows and vacation spots of the New Russians - pink and blue hues of the Mediterranean and sundecks modeled on those in American soap operas.

We also have had time to admire Moscow's imposing older architecture. In many parts of Africa, the only monuments were rusty tanks mounted on slabs of concrete. Here they are properly massive - Red Square, the Kremlin, statues of Soviet heroes, and the onion-shaped domes of Orthodox churches.

Seeing that daylight only lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., we usually walk the dog in darkness. Moscow is most magic at night, unlike the day, when the relentless gray sky matches the ground's dirty slush.

After nightfall - one can't call it sunset because we haven't seen any sun yet - the city lights up with the neon of restaurants and yellow Christmas lights.

They illuminate ice sculptures of dancers and dragons and the outline of a man in a church belfry ringing the bell for Christmas prayer.

One night, the dog introduced us to what has become our favorite park, where the circus animals exercise. Two white stallions cantered past followed by a horse-drawn sleigh and a pair of camels draped in heavy capes. We were entranced by the sight.

But the other passersby seemed to think it no more surreal than a couple walking a wolf.

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