Courage and Hope in a New Russia

When we first saw the dog he was sitting at the door of a Buddhist temple. Once it would have been surprising to find such a building on Yelaghin Island in St. Petersburg, but by now nothing in Russia surprises you. The dog came slowly down the temple steps toward us, a black and white mongrel with pointed, foxy ears, not growling, but crouched low; man's best friend mistrusted man.

The summer drizzle had turned to a steady downpour, and we sheltered under the archway of an elegant building with an inner courtyard. The dog had been chasing red squirrels and barking at the white marble lions guarding Yelaghin Palace, but now, as if entering familiar territory, he trotted on ahead of us across the courtyard and past a welcome sign board: Kafe. We followed him in.

Behind the counter stood a stout, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked woman with something downright and honest about her. She took us and the dog instantly under her wing. ''You're half-frozen,'' she said, pouring hot drinks and spreading out toasted sandwiches. ''That dog knows he'll get tidbits from me when the boss isn't around. The poor beast is more used to kicks than kindness,'' she went on, ''though he sometimes wanders around Yelaghin Park as if he owned the place, just like the tsar!''

The dog's tail went thump-thump on the floor. She pulled up a chair beside us, introducing herself as Olga Sergeevna. We were her only customers this rainy June day, and she was eager for talk, especially with travelers from overseas. This was our 10th visit to St. Petersburg, we told her.

''So you'll know something of our history and literature. You'll have heard about the Great Siege, the Nine Hundred Days.''

Then she turned to the dog: ''My poor parents could have lived for a week on what you're gobbling up now,'' she said.

''We were all, or nearly all, heroes then, holding out against the Nazis.'' She looked as if she would have been capable of confronting all the armies of the Third Reich in her solid, resolute person.

Outside the rain pelted down, beating against the windowpanes, drenching the meadows, and flattening buttercups and daisies. ''In weather like this,'' Olga Sergeevna said, ''I imagine I'm in a lighthouse, out of the storm, in some sort of sanctuary. Nowadays we're free to talk as we wish, no furtive glances over our shoulder, wondering who's listening. Are those two strangers with me perhaps foreign agents?''

We liked her image of the lighthouse. It was good to be sitting there out of the wind and the rain, talking of books, politics, and the breaking up of empires, the dog lying at her feet, twitching.

''Well, Sharik, you've had a meal fit for the tsar!'' Olga said.

''Sharik! Wasn't he the dog in Bulgakov's story 'Heart of a Dog,' the one they changed into a man?'' we asked.

''Bulgakov!'' Olga Sergeevna grew almost crimson with anger. ''One of our greatest writers, and Stalin muzzled him like a dog! We were all treated like children, told what to read, what to think, stuffed with lies. Hardly a family without someone in the Gulag.'' She was silent for a moment. ''For years we had this dread on us, fear of footsteps on the stairs, the sharp dawn knocking at the door. They came one morning for my brother when it was still dark; he was too outspoken for his own good. It wasn't wise to deviate from the party line. His dog, his best-loved companion, rushed at those strangers.... I still wake up from sleep reliving it all. I try to make up to this dog Sharik for that one.'' At the mention of his name, Sharik opened one wary eye, then, reassured, slept again.

The rain battered at the windows. We felt a sudden chill in the snug lighthouse.

''Is life better now?'' we asked.

''Is it better now? Yes, the worst of the fear is gone. There are still those who forget the past - forget Hitler and Stalin. It was easier with dictators, they say; they organized everything for you. But think, God was dead then, our churches all closed. Now I can go every day to my Orthodox church. All over our beautiful St. Peter you see Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses. Tsar Nikolai would have had a fit! So would Stalin!''

The rain had stopped. The sun shone over the flowery meadows. We had the impression of having spent not days but weeks in Olga Sergeevna's lighthouse, talking of prospects for the new Russian Commonwealth of Independent States. ''You'll see still more changes next time you come,'' Olga said. ''I can't help coming back to dogs, for I much prefer them to politicians. For my own part,'' Olga added, ''all I want to be is a good Russian. I love my poor, great country.''

She patted Sharik's rough head. ''Poor Comrade Sharik, you're not a stray, you're a survivor - we all are. You've had a good meal. You're like Solzhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovich in the Gulag - can you remember how his day finished there?: 'They hadn't put him in the cells, he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner ... almost a happy day!' See, just look at Sharik; he's quite a philosopher in his own way. By some canine clock in his head, he knows that the boss will soon be back and better to be off. He's had a happy day!''

We were reluctant to part from Olga Sergeevna, and waved as we crossed that inner courtyard, looking back at her standing there with the dog beside her. At home we would often conjure up that image of the lighthouse, of Comrade Sharik and the indomitable Olga Sergeevna, a good Russian with good reason to hate tyranny, but who faced the future with hope and a resolute courage.

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